MISSION — Sliding his feet and gliding the tip of his tennis racket across the court floor, Randy Vargas, 9, was positioning himself. He was feeling for the small cord taped to the Boys & Girls Club of Mission gym floor — the only way Vargas, who has been blind all his life, could know where he was on the court.
The Mission native was one of the 19 players Saturday morning at the fourth annual Blind Tennis Tournament in Mission. Competitors came from across the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Reynosa to play.
The sport, which is also known as soundball tennis, follows most of the same rules as regular tennis. There are singles and doubles competitions, but completely blind competitors are allowed three bounces. Partially sighted are allowed two.
The tennis ball is also switched for a slightly bigger one that is made out of foam with a bell inside.
The sport is divided into four sight categories: B1, B2, B3 and B4. B1 players are blind while B4 have up to 25% of regular vision acuity.
Across the net, holding the ball, Vargas yelled “ready” to his teammate, patiently waiting for a response. After his rival positioned himself and responded “play,” the match began. Often, this dialogue was switched to: “Listo? Si.”
Vargas admitted he gets nervous when he plays. Before starting the match, he was seen sliding to the edges of the court, then meticulously counting his steps towards the middle. At the sidelines cheering for his teammates is where he seems much more comfortable.
“My favorite part about playing is that I met my teammate, Fernando,” Vargas said. “He’s cool.”
Fernando Cruz, 12, also falls under the B1 category.
The pair sat together at the bench while their only other teammate, Dante Alejandro, 15, played.
Alejandro, who is a B3 player, has been playing blind tennis for eight years. This summer, he will be representing the U.S. at the International Blind Tennis Tournament in Italy.
So far, the Edinburg native is the only U.S. competitor and will be the first to represent the nation at the world competition.
Alejandro’s secret is to “focus, catch your mistakes.”
He later added that “it took a while to get the hang of it, it was hard but I got over it.”
Alejandro’s mindset is encouraged by his coach, Mario Cazares, who founded Blind Tennis Cazares school in Reynosa. Cazares commutes to Mission three times a week and has been coaching Alejandro since he began playing.
Cazares has trained athletes in the world competition who have placed first, second and third.
“This is my passion, it is what I like to do,” he said. “You look at these kids and think they can see, but no. It is six years of training.
“I tell the kids that the words ‘I can’t’ do not exist.”
Cazares has coached blind tennis for seven years now and coached professional tennis for 38 years. His father coached professional tennis in Reynosa, too.
“I changed to blind tennis because I want to help out the kids,” he said. “It is hard to teach a blind athlete. A lot of coaches want it easy — this is not easy.”
J.J. Guerrero, the director of the Boys & Girls Club of Mission, said besides offering local athletes the opportunity to play blind tennis, the annual event is important for spreading awareness of the sport.
“We just want to bring awareness of blind tennis. Not a lot of people really know what it is,” he said. “People know that the city of Mission and the Boys & Girls Club here has the sport and supports it, and eventually, we would like other cities in the Valley to participate also.”