The serves may not be as powerful as those by Boris Becker, and the forehands may not be nearly as skilled as Jimmy Connors', but the level of enthusiasm and determination of the young players is equal to that of the two Wimbledon champions.
This week, while pros such as Connors and Andres Gomez play in the D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium, young players such as Ken Bice and Melvin Jones of Clinton work to develop their game on a cement court and dream of glory yet to come.
Bice and Jones, both 12, are among the more than 1,200 youngsters in suburban Maryland who participate in the U.S. Tennis Association's National Junior Tennis League. The NJTL has more than 2,000 participants in the metropolitan area.
Bice, who said he likes the league because "it helps you get tournament-tough," has learned his lessons well. He is ranked number one on Clinton's 14-and-under boys intermediate team, and last year won a 12-and-under regional tournament in Reading, Pa.
But winning matches is not what the league is all about. In NJTL, the play's the thing.
"The idea is to get the kids out on the court, and through competition, develop a taste for the game," said Dwight Mosley, executive director of the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, which runs the league in the local area.
Founded in 1968 by tennis professionals Arthur Ashe and Charles Pasarell, the NJTL attempts to "provide an organized and systematic program that is effective at the community level," said Mosley.
"Without the NJTL," said Bice's coach Kay Partridge, "there would be no organized tennis for these kids."
Through the NJTL, tennis, once strictly a country club sport, has been on public playgrounds for 17 years. In that time, said Mosley, the league has trained thousands of players, including touring pro Rodney Harmon and local star Dan Goldie of McLean, who went from Bullis Prep in Potomac to Stanford University on a tennis scholarship and is currently the highest ranking amateur in the country. Many other former NJTL players have won tennis scholarships to college, Mosley said.
The local NJTL is funded by the Patrons Foundation through proceeds from the D.C. National Bank tournament, said Mosley. This year, the foundation spent about $80,000 to fund teams at nearly 60 locations throughout the area, he said.
The league is open to anyone who wants to play, though each local jursidiction sets fees for its area. In Prince George's County, for instance, the fee is $50 per team, and the teams themselves decide how to distribute that cost. The Patrons Foundation provides T-shirts, tennis balls, rackets and administrative support, said Mosley. The rest is up to the community.
Players of all levels say that winning matches is not the only reason the league is fun. "I like it because you get to meet a lot of people, and get to know them," said 15-year-old Erin McMahan of Clinton. "It's serious and everything, but it's fun."
McMahan said she had never played tennis until she joined the league last year. She tried out for the team on a whim, she said, and was "shocked" at how well she did. "I couldn't believe I could play that well," she said. By the end of the season, she was ranked number one in the girls' 14-and-under novice division.
Even players who do not have that kind of success seem to enjoy the game. Allat Wortham, 14, who plays girls 14-and-under for the struggling Green Meadow team in Hyattsville, started playing tennis just a few weeks ago and has yet to win a match, but she still has fun.
"I like playing," she said. "I think I'm improving." Wortham said she wouldn't play tennis at all if it weren't for the league.
Eric Shoup, 19, a former NJTL player who attends Wingate College in North Carolina on a tennis scholarship and is ranked number one on the varsity tennis team there, credits the NJTL with sparking his interest in the game at age 10.
"I didn't really have any special interest in it," Shoup recalled. "I had played basball, but I got tired of it. It was boring out in the outfield, so I thought, 'Why not?' "
He said he quickly fell in love with the game and now can't imagine not playing.
Occasionally the league shows its ragged edges. This year, for instance, there aren't enough qualified players to have a girls intermediate league in Prince George's County, so it was made a mixed league.
Clinton, which has one of the largest and best organized programs in the county, was able to field an all-girl team, and the challenge of the sexes often produces a rude awakening for the boys.
On Monday, for instance, the Clinton girls' team played three singles matches against boys from Cheverly. The result? Two wins for the girls. Roanna Icenhower, 14, one of the victorious girls, said she gets a special kick out of beating a boy.
"When you play boys, they expect to win," she said. "They think, 'Oh, it's going to be an easy match.' Then, if you win, they get all upset. They think it's the end of the world."
Teammate Belinda Lee, 18, who lost to a boy on Monday, admits that it sometimes is more difficult to play boys, but thinks it's worth it. "Boys are more aggressive and hit the ball harder," she said. "So we learn more from it." Besides, she said, "If we played all girls, we'd cream them.