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Laila Ali uses tennis at U.S. Open to teach kids about health

Laila Ali attends a youth tennis exhibition at

Laila Ali attends a youth tennis exhibition at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament on Monday, September 1, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

On a steamy Labor Day at the U.S. Open, former boxer Laila Ali spoke with almost two dozen children to promote physical fitness and tennis before swinging the racket with kids.

The United States Tennis Association is offering thousands of free youth tennis events across the country this month to coincide with the National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Ali, 36, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, said Monday she played tennis in grade school, but dropped it -- to her regret now.

"I regret not sticking with it. I could've been out there," she said from one of the side courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing. She said later in the morning: "I would've been a champion. I would've been undefeated. I'm just kidding. I don't know if I'd be undefeated."

The kids with whom she was playing tennis have no intention of dropping the sport.

"I want to be No. 1 in the world," said Anthony Fratarelli, 10, of Whitestone, Queens. His favorite part of tennis? "I like my serve. And I go to the net a lot."

"I want to play in the U.S. Open, in Wimbledon," said Timothy Barefield, 10, of Flushing. He started playing when he was 5, said his dad, William Barefield, 55, of Flushing. There was a free after-school program and he signed up.

He and other parents said the children wake their parents up at 5 a.m. for weekend practices. "Snow, in the winter, it doesn't matter," said Nuriye Fratarelli, 40. "You see the passion they have for it. It keeps them active and healthy."

The kids rallied oversized, spongy tennis balls over the net, keeping count of how long they could keep it going.

"We have a new record of 41!" Anne Davis, National Play Day director, shouted over the roar of passing plane traffic -- a staple of Flushing outdoor game play.

She said the larger balls and smaller courts can help make the game more accessible and fun for kids.

Besides Ali, the youth tennis exhibition event was promoted by Marvin Leo Pagayonan, 20.

At the start of high school in Las Vegas, he was 50 pounds overweight and led a sedentary life playing video games.

He took up tennis at 17 after his father died, and credited it with helping turn around his life. He played tennis in college. "My life has drastically changed," he said. "Tennis helped me structure my life for the better."

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