For Jeffrey Rush, tennis is the best medicine. And a little laughter doesn't hurt either. After he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, Rush said he almost gave up on life.
"I didn't get out of bed for three years," said Rush, 43, of Clearwater. "I was seriously depressed."
Though his form of multiple sclerosis continues its steadily progressive course, Rush has found something that makes him feel better than any medicine on the market today — tennis.
"It takes my mind off my problems and gives me a reason to eat right and to work out," he said.
Saturday, Rush will give wheelchair tennis demonstrations and share his enthusiasm for the sport as part of the annual United States Tennis Association's Tennis Block Party. It's a free bash at the Henry L. McMullen Tennis Complex in Clearwater featuring tennis clinics and giveaways.
Scheduled to run from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., the block party is open to the public; no registration is required.
May is National Tennis Month and the Clearwater party is one of many taking place across the nation.
Locally, the event is sponsored by the Suncoast Tennis Foundation, the city of Clearwater, local USPTA (United States Professional Tennis Association) District 7 teaching professionals, and Advantage Yours Tennis and Running, a Clearwater specialty store.
"Tennis is the fastest-growing traditional sport in the nation since 2000," said Judy Foster, executive director of the Suncoast Tennis Foundation.
She cited research by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which showed that participation in tennis grew 43 percent in the past decade, while sports like soccer and golf experienced declines.
That's likely due to the fact that tennis is a relatively low-cost sport, is easily accessible to most and has many health benefits, Foster said.
"We have people playing in tournaments in their 70s, 80s and 90s," Foster said.
It helps children learn good sportsmanship, teamwork and mental focus. And the cardiovascular benefits can't be denied.
"It's one of the best sports to fight childhood obesity and obesity in general," Foster said.
The block party will feature QuickStart tennis, a format developed by the USTA that helps children 10 and under start playing immediately by using smaller courts and rackets, lower nets and softer balls. The scoring is modified, too, for positive reinforcement.
New this year is Parents Play, where moms and dads are invited to pick up a racket and play along with their kids.
"We want parents to see how much fun the sport is and to see how quickly their kids can learn," Foster said.
There will be a Tot Court for the preschool set, where they can hit balls and win prizes.
Teens can partake in junior clinics with pros serving up plenty of tips.
Adults and experienced youth players will receive skill evaluations and ratings by professionals as they engage in informal matches.
Top equipment manufacturers will have vendor courts where participants can try out tennis rackets and receive discount coupons.
Rush will be demonstrating tennis for people with special needs at noon.
He attended last year's block party with his wife and two daughters, which led to his involvement in the city's adaptive sports program. The instructor helped him land a grant for a $3,000 tennis wheelchair with cambered (angled) wheels.
"It's super light and super fast," he said.
Since obtaining the chair, Rush has been competing in, and mostly winning, tennis tournaments.
He says he can serve up to 105 mph.
"I started playing tennis at 6 years old," he said. "Before my MS diagnosis, I was playing 20 to 30 hours a week."
Now he's back at it, feeling sort of like a kid again.
"It's brought me back in a tremendous way," he said.