When Mike Ragland grabs his tennis racket and heads for a court to play a few sets with a buddy, the fire still burns. He'll still try to whack those killer passing shots and blast those easy overheads.

Ragland has been playing for 17 years, beginning in the Fort Stanton playground program in D.C. and continuing in college and for two years on the professional tour. Now he is the director of tennis programs for the D.C. Department of Recreation, and the same philosophy guides him.

"If you don't play hard, it's not worth going out there," he said. "Sometimes you play for fun, but when I'm out there with a buddy, it's for the competition. You want to keep your edge. You work up a sweat and stay in shape and you keep your game sharp."

Tennis is one of the few sports that can be played (and sustained at a high level of proficiency) for a lifetime.

"You take football, basketball, baseball, the sports you do when you're young, and tennis is different because it's something every individual can participate in," said Ragland, 30.

"It's a good sport and also exercise for people of all ages. When you play, you use every muscle in your body and you stay in shape."

Ragland has initiated for adults the type of program that sent him on his way as a youngster. Offered at five sites in three six-week sessions, the program provides instruction for beginner adults on technique and allows them to play in low-key competitions.

The program is one of the tennis outreach programs offered by the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association. There are nearly 40 other sites in the region offering MATA programs for adult and senior beginners. Most of the area's county or city jurisdictions offer instructional tennis programs for adults as well.

Tennis is recognized as an optimum activity for providing fitness for adults precisely because it is a game.

Unlike sports such as running or cycling -- which represent solo effort and individual persistence -- tennis also is a social sport. It is an activity that provides an outlet for competition and socializing as well as engendering fitness.

"Tennis, for a long time, was something you had to go out and invest a lot of time in before making yourself presentable to others," said Tracy Evans, director of adult programs for MATA. "This program takes a person who doesn't even know how to grip a racket and says, 'You're okay. Don't worry. You'll pick it up as you go.' They concentrate on having fun, and at the end of the six- to eight-week period they're playing traditional tennis."

MATA started its Play Tennis and Senior Novice Instructional Program last year, and Evans said the response was so overwhelming that some sites had to use a waiting list. "I think these programs solve a lot of the initial problems with tennis," she said. "People are receiving instruction and attention but actually playing in a competitive situation."

Both programs are extensions of MATA's ideal of exposing as many folks as possible to tennis. One of its programs focuses expressly on scholastic curriculum and interscholastic competition.

"We want to put tennis on the curriculum of all schools," said Unni MacDonald, executive director of MATA. "We'd like all students to go into tennis. It's a sport for a lifetime."

ADULT BEGINNER PROGRAMS IN WASHINGTON

The third summer session of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation's summer adult tennis lessons begins July 9. The six-week sessions cost $30, with lessons at various sites:

Mondays at Anacostia (1800 Anacostia Dr. NE).

Tuesdays at Banneker (9th and Euclid NW).

Wednesdays at Turkey Thicket (10th and Michigan).

Saturdays at Fort Reno (41st and Chesapeake NW).

For information, call Mike Ragland, 767-7345.

OTHER MATA SITES

Pierce Mill Tennis Courts (John Maybury, 370-7088).

16th and Kennedy (Al Tucker, 291-9888).

Alexandria (John Maybury, 370-7088).

Montgomery County Rec. and Park Assoc. (Stan White, 217-6804).

For information about MATA programs, call 321-9045.