When the Southern California Tennis Assn. started its summer junior league 14 years ago, only eight public parks offered the low-cost lessons to inner-city youths.
"Arthur Ashe and people back East put it together," said Jack Kramer, director of the SCTA. "Anybody connected with a park could do it."
This year there are 119 sites from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. The leagues offer kids, mainly from low-income families, an opportunity to participate in a sport they otherwise might not play because of cost.
Private lessons can cost about $50 an hour and a brand-name racket can cost hundreds of dollars.
"One of our main objectives is to keep kids off the street and give them something to do away from gangs," said Arlene Barco, assistant director of the league.
The program, which runs through Aug. 14, offers 18 hours of instruction, a T-shirt, a certificate of participation and a one-year membership to the United States Tennis Assn. Eleven sites have year-round clinics.
Leagues are located throughout the Southland, including Alta Park in Altadena, Charter Oaks Park in Covina and Stenmetz Park in Hacienda Heights.
"We're hoping that we will attract kids that know nothing about tennis," said Kramer, a member of the 1939 U.S. Davis Cup team. "We want to get them out on the court and hooked on the sport."
The SCTA supplies balls, rackets and pays for instructors. Barco said it costs the organization $225,000 a year to run the program. The Amateur Athletic Foundation, which has been involved for eight years, donates $125,000 and the SCTA relies on fund-raisers and private donations to finance the difference.
"We also get major donations from equipment companies," Barco said. "We do racket collections at various tennis clubs and we put on tournaments to raise money."
About 5,000 youths ages 8 to 17 participate each year. Although it costs only $10, many cannot pay.
"Most of the ones who come here can't afford it," said Pete Brown, who coordinates leagues at Harvard Recreation Center and L.A. Trade Technical College. "We don't turn anyone away."
Many of the instructors are volunteers. One of them is Pat Murphy, a Hermosa Beach tennis instructor who runs the SCTA's junior clinic at Peck Park in San Pedro.
He earns $50 an hour teaching private lessons in Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach.
"This is a lot more comfortable of an atmosphere than a country club," Murphy said. "These kids can't afford big bucks, but they have tremendous ability.
"This is just a little time for me, but it's a big deal for the kids."
About 25 youths participate in Murphy's clinic, which is held on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April Cheng, 17, and her brother, Roger, 15, have attended the San Pedro league for six years.
"I probably would never have taken lessons if not for this," said April, who will be a senior at Narbonne High this fall. "At first they even gave me a racket. I think it's a good opportunity to get exercise."
At Carmelitos Community Center in Long Beach, about 30 youngsters participate in the league on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. Barry Barnes, who runs that site, said most of his kids have participated in other sports for years.
"We have a lot of good athletes, but tennis is so expensive," he said. "It really is an excellent program and the kids love it."
At Culver City High, about 50 youths participate in the league, which is staged four times a week. Most of them, said director Jack Nakanishi, are 11 to 15.
"A lot of them ask, 'How much does it cost,' and when I tell them they say, 'Geez, where do I sign up?' " he said. "Some don't even have a racket."