She dominated the boxing ring for eight years, but yesterday Laila Ali traded in her gloves for a tennis racquet. The former Super Middleweight World Champion delivered a knockout message about staying active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle at a US Open event Monday. Her stop in Queens, New York, helped kick off the United States Tennis Association’s free tennis events during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.
The USTA is organizing free tennis events around the country this month to motivate families and get them moving. Ali took advantage of Monday’s event to encourage kids to participate in sports.
“I understand the importance of making sports accessible and fun for kids. Children today are likely to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents. The USTA is trying to change that,” Ali said. “I’m here today to make sure kids know that being active is important and it’s cool.”
Ali is the daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. She had her own boxing career, too. But she chose tennis as her focus because of her roots in the sport.
“I started taking tennis lessons when I was in the fourth grade,” she remembered. “By playing tennis I learned that I am a very competitive person. Hitting the ball and learning the footwork, I just gravitated toward it.”
Facing off against Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki, however, wasn’t in Ali’s future. The undefeated boxer (24-0) stepped away from tennis but wishes she would have continued with it for chance to play at the US Open.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with [playing tennis]. That’s a regret of mine because I think I could have been out there playing today,” Ali said.
She hasn’t played tennis in nearly five years, but she made her return to the court Monday with the help of youngsters. During Monday’s event Ali and 20 New York area kids worked on their serves and backhands.
“It was exciting to play tennis with Laila,” 8-year-old Nina said after the event. “I really liked her message about being active. It’s so important because she’s teaching us how to be strong.”
For TJ, 8, the event was valuable. He wants to pursue a career in tennis when he’s older and perhaps dominate the sport like his favorite player, Novak Djokovic.
“The really cool part is I like boxing and I love tennis. So being around a boxer like Laila and playing tennis with her was fun,” TJ said. “The event was helpful. I’ll definitely remember it.”
Visit the USTA website for more information on free tennis events across the country.