Tennis program puts emphasis on service 6 with Down's syndrome learn basics in TENACITY program


Michael Blackwell approaches the tennis ball with fierce determination, raises his racket and takes a mighty whack. The ball rises and smacks solidly against the tarpaulin that borders the tennis court.

"That's in the red. Let's see you put in the green area this time, Mike," the instructor says, tossing another ball to Blackwell.

This time Blackwell approaches the ball, squares up and hits a perfect shot in bounds. He raises his fists and struts back to midcourt.

The return yesterday was more than just a modest achievement for Blackwell, 15, who is afflicted with Down's syndrome, a congenital condition characterized by abnormal chromosomes and moderate to severe mental retardation. Each return for him is like serving an ace at Wimbledon.

"Each shot is important -- whether it's good or bad," said Lenny Schloss, former world touring professional, collegiate All-American and the tennis pro at the Baltimore Tennis and Fitness Center in Pikesville. "We're connecting the eyes with their stroke."

Since Monday, Blackwell and five others with Down's syndrome have been learning the basics of tennis. It is their first time on a tennis court. Their participation is part of a pilot program called TENACITY that is aimed at teaching tennis to youths with Down's syndrome.

Len Weingart, executive director of TENACITY, said Baltimore is the only city where the program has been established. He hopes to expand to other cities and maybe to include people with other handicaps.

"As Baltimore goes, we go. What we learn here is what we do nationally," Weingart said. "We're learning a lot and hope that the kids will, too."

All the sports equipment -- rackets, balls and tennis togs -- is donated by a national sports company and is the youths' to keep. In addition, $6,000 was donated by the American Tennis Industry Federation and FTM, maker of sports gear.

"There are too many people who stay away from the sport because they think it is too hard. These drills allow anyone -- including Down's syndromes -- to participate," Schloss said.

The students, chosen at random from throughout the Baltimore area, range in age from 14 to 22. They are taught through a process that deals specifically with motor skills for tennis, Schloss said.

"It is the first of its kind for any tennis player," he said. "It helps anyone learn the game easily and improves the level of the current game for those who already play."

Schloss, who has designed tennis drills called "Feel The Difference" that improve tennis motor skills, hopes that one year tennis will be included in the Special Olympics.

"This is to help kids use their coordination system and develop it better," Schloss said. "As they improve their success with each drill, they gain more and more confidence."

Tennis lessons also enable the students to exercise, something that not all handicapped young people do.

Schloss said it is easy to teach Blackwell and the others because they are willing students and eager to please.

Their strokes often are askew, and the balls frequently crash against the tarp, but they have no more difficulty than any other novice, Schloss said.

Ruth Wilder, 17, approaches a ball on an Accuhit tee and swings. The racket barely touches the ball.

"Use two hands this time, Ruth," her instructor says.

Wilder does -- and smacks the ball cleanly. She waves at her father in the stands.

Frank Wilder, her father, says his daughter "eats, sleeps and drinks" tennis since her first lesson Monday. "Her lessons seem to be paying off," he said.

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