The Union Recorder

Local Sports

October 29, 2012

Blind tennis players keep their ears on the ball

FREMONT, Calif. — Learning how to play tennis is hard enough. Now try it when you can't see.

That's what students are doing at the California School for the Blind. They're learning a form of tennis adapted for the visually impaired — and expanding the boundaries of what the blind can do.

The state-supported campus in Fremont is one of three American schools for the blind that recently began teaching adapted tennis, which was invented in Japan in the 1980s. A nonprofit group called Tennis Serves is working to promote the sport throughout the U.S.

"I didn't know someone with no vision could play tennis until I came to this school," said a 16-year-old student from Modesto named Jonathan. The school declined to provide his last name, citing a state law that protects the privacy of students with disabilities.

Blind tennis features a smaller court, lower net and junior tennis rackets with bigger heads and shorter handles. String is taped to the floor so players can feel the boundaries with their feet.

Players use a foam ball filled with metal beads that rattle on impact, allowing them to locate the ball when it hits the ground or racket. Once served, they have to return the ball before it bounces three times.

"The most difficult thing to teach is timing their stroke," said Sejal Vallabh, the 17-year-old founder of Tennis Serves. "Being able to listen to the ball, locate it using their sense of hearing and swing at the precise moment the ball goes by is really difficult to teach."

While experienced players can keep the ball in bounds and stage extended rallies, just hitting the ball over the net can be a challenge for beginners. During a recent visit to the California School for the Blind, students mostly swatted balls into the ground, the net and toward the ceiling and walls. Few balls were returned, but teachers say some are developing that capability.

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