Soft-spoken and demure, professional tennis player Chanda Rubin is not one to crave the spotlight.
But she found herself at the forefront of the festivities that took place yesterday on the Druid Hill Park Lakeside Tennis Courts.
Rubin, No. 18 in the world, was on hand for the fourth annual Head Kids Fun Day, organized by the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Head Urban All-Star Tennis Academy.
From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., more than 200 kids ages 8 to 16 showed up on the 10 courts in West Baltimore to enjoy a day of tennis with one of the best players in the world.
The program was just one of the weeklong activities going on in conjunction with the USTA Women's Satellite Tournament of Baltimore, which runs until Sunday at Druid Hill Park.
Rubin, 24, roamed from court to court, answering questions, posing for pictures and schooling the young players on the finer points of forehands, backhands and serves.
"I don't think it's that often that you get a pro to come out and hit some balls," Rubin said. "I didn't have it happen to me when I was younger, so I think it's always nice to encourage them."
Many of the questions the Lafayette, La., native fielded from the kids concerned Venus and Serena Williams, the sisters who have begun to revolutionize women's tennis and who have fostered a rapidly growing interest in the sport among African-American youth.
As they sat in the shade taking a break from the hot courts, Kimberly Jackson and Lakeisha Philson, both 11, said that they didn't know who Rubin was before yesterday. But they knew Venus, this year's Wimbledon champion, and Serena, last year's U.S. Open champion.
"I think they're good role models for kids, because you usually don't see two black sisters playing tennis," Jackson said.
"I have two role models for tennis," said Philson, her braided hair encased in black, white and silver beads. "Venus and Serena."
Perhaps most appealing about the two sisters to kids like Jackson and Philson is that they did not come from affluent families like many American tennis players.
Instead, they grew up playing on the public courts of Compton, Calif., under the tutelage of their father, Richard, who despite the absence of a tennis background managed to develop his daughters into two of the best players in the world.
"They're big, they're strong, they're winning Slams, believing in themselves - talking the talk as well as walking the walk - and a lot of kids can relate, because they didn't come from a great area," Rubin said.
"They're a very close-knit family, but they didn't come up with the money or the privilege. They grew up in Compton. And that's something a lot of kids can relate to."
The weight of being heralded as the next great American tennis player has proven to be too much to bear at times.
Jennifer Capriati, who debuted on the tour at the age of 14 in 1990, found that out the hard way and only recently has been able to overcome off-court problems and resurrect her career.
Rubin knew that pressure, too.
When she joined the pro tour in 1991 at the age of 15, many were touting her as the next Althea Gibson, the only African-American woman to win Wimbledon before Venus when she captured her second title in 1958.
Rubin appeared destined to fulfill those predictions in 1996 when she advanced to the Australian Open singles semifinals and teamed with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to take the doubles title.
But her breakthrough year was curtailed by a right-hand fracture, which sidelined her from April until November. She hasn't made the semis of a Grand Slam as a singles player since.
Venus and Serena face those expectations now and, like Rubin, the burden of being seen as representatives of their race in a traditionally white-dominated sport.
But Rubin said the hard work has already been done.
"Maybe earlier on in the game with players like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, they had a lot more pressure because of the way things were, how blacks were treated, and trying to get more rights," Rubin said. "But for me coming up, I was just playing because I enjoyed the game, the competition. It's because of them being pioneers that we have the opportunity that we have now, and hopefully we can just encourage other kids to take advantage of it."