Though the pros are currently on display at the Australian Open, every Sunday the children in the Jane-Finch Community Tennis League eagerly summon their inner champion with pint-sized racquets, spongy balls and a steely commitment.

“If we weren’t doing this, we’d just be bored at home because there are no other activities around,” said Mithura Thasan, a seven-year-old who, with her brother Miduran, 9, play in the team tennis program at Tennis Canada’s indoor Centre of Excellence.

“We have great teachers here, I’ve made some new friends and you can help each other win.”

Helping each other win, breaking a sweat and making new friends are, perhaps, the obvious benefits of the 140-player league for 7- to 14-year-olds.

However, another reason Tennis Canada, local school, civic and parent representatives created this hands-on, community-run initiative in 2006 was to provide a safe recreational option in a troubled neighbourhood.

An unpleasant reality in the Jane-Finch quadrant is that gangs, guns, death and drugs too often make headlines when residents clash with each other and police.

Yet another truth is this same area is brimming with the promise and potential of youth, aided by parents determined to make a difference in their own backyards. But tennis?

How does a sport with roots in snooty white country clubs engage a largely non-white population? The Rexall Centre is only steps away from the massive San Romanoway apartment complex at Jane and Shoreham, but most residents had never set foot in the nation’s tennis temple.

“In the beginning, I thought this might not work out because a lot of kids haven’t been exposed to tennis before,” said league convenor Tamasha Grant, a City of Toronto parks and recreation employee.

“At first, when we tried to get kids involved, there was still that stigma attached to tennis: They (thought they) had to be rich ... so we really had to break down that barrier for a lot of these kids.”

It’s also affordable. The entire winter session costs about $20 and includes a racquet that players keep.

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