For the campers of the Child Center of New York (CCNY), coming to the US Open and getting a chance to experience SmashZone was more than enough to classify August 25 as the red-letter day on their summer calendar.
Then Rafael Nadal wanted to see what all the fun was about, and a great day turned into an unforgettable event.
The defending Open champion and No. 2 seed stepped out from Interview Room 1 and the 2011 US Open Draw Ceremony and ambled over to the Chase Center, where SmashZone is housed, in full tennis gear, ready to take part in a 10 and Under Tennis clinic. Rafa's appearance is part of the "Returning the Love" initiative, with the US Open and the players of the ATP and WTA tours are proactively reaching out to New York City communities and surrounding areas— including youth, families and non-profit organizations—to create a positive and lasting impact.
It took a few seconds before each of the 30 kids from the Queens area realized who had just walked in the door - but when they did, they raced to the court in the middle of the floor.
"Thank you very much," Nadal said to each child as they lined up to hit, smiling as he swatted a few trick shots over the net with the foam balls designed for the QuickStart play format.
"Good job by all you guys - you should be very proud."
Not too long ago, the 25-year-old Grand Slam champion was in their shoes, taking his first swings as a small boy in Spain. In the United States, more and more youngsters learn the game through 10 and Under Tennis, which makes the game more accessible to children - with pop-up nets, smaller court dimensions and foam balls, a child can hitting successfully and have fun the very first day they pick up a racquet. SmashZone displays a wide array of 10 and Under Tennis-related games and activities which displace antiquated lessons and drills as introduction to tennis for today's kids.
"(The event) was a tremendous opportunity for our kids to learn a little bit about the sport of tennis and in real-life see a player like Nadal who is so great at what he does," said Laura Schenone, CCNY Communications Director. "We hope that this will give them the drive to achieve their own aspirations through tennis."
Schenone's CCNY outfit has operated in Queens for nearly 60 years as a non-profit agency to help at-risk children succeed in life. Their mission through programming - which includes Head Start, youth counseling, after-school mentorship and child abuse prevention in addition to recreational activities - is to create safe, active alternatives for children and their families to keep the family unit intact.
"We serve 18,000 kids each year with over 80 programs," said Schenone. "These kids are part of our summer camp program, and to have the chance to be here, where it all happens in tennis is thrilling. We're all so lucky."
It is true. How many kids in the world can say they played tennis with the great Rafael Nadal?
For more information about the Child Center of New York and CCNY programming, please visit their website.