FREMONT, Calif. -- The foam ball sailed over the net, rattling as it bounced. Robin Patche quickly adjusted her feet and returned it with a smooth backhand, drawing praise from the sidelines.
"Robin, nice turnaround," called out Mary Alice Ross, an adapted physical education teacher at the California School for the Blind, then adding to a bystander, "She got really good really quickly."
Patche, 21, and about seven other students gather Tuesday afternoons in the gym at the Fremont school to take part in a nationwide program that may be the first of its kind -- teaching groups of blind and visually impaired students to play tennis.
The program was launched in Massachusetts in 2010 and expanded last fall to New York and California.
"I like being challenged by listening for (the ball) when it bounces, trying to hear where it's at," Patche said. "It's really hard. But me, having low vision, I have a lot of advantage over those who are totally blind."
Players use junior-size rackets with shorter handles, and a net that's not as wide or as high as a regular tennis net. The specially designed foam ball has a pingpong ball at its core with pieces of metal jingling inside, allowing players to hear when it's struck or bounces.
Tennis for the visually impaired was created in Japan in 1984 and has spread to most of Asia, including South Korea, China and Taiwan. Western countries, though, have been slow to adopt it.
Sejal Vallabh, a 17-year-old high school junior from Newton, Mass., discovered the sport two summers ago during a trip to Japan, where her mother grew up. She worked as a summer intern for a community service organization, Hands on Tokyo, which collaborates with the Japanese Blind Tennis Federation to teach the sport to those with visual impairments.
Sejal, who has been playing tennis since she was 7 or 8, decided to try to popularize this variation on the sport in America, launching Tennis SERVES.
"Tennis is exciting because it's a mainstream sport that most of these students have never had access to before," she said. "The organization is completely student-run -- all high school students who have a passion for tennis, have a passion to share the sport they love with other people."
She started in her home state, bringing the idea to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., in September 2010. She developed the curriculum, set up a website and taught the students with the help of four other tennis players at her high school.
She returned to Japan the following summer, this time interning with the federation, which is trying to get tennis for the visually impaired sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee.
When she returned, she opened two new chapters of Tennis SERVES at the California School for the Blind in Fremont and Lighthouse International in New York City.
In Fremont, two Irvington High School students, both tennis players, volunteered to teach the class as part of the school's Quest project for seniors.
"We've definitely learned patience, to see from their perspective," said Andrew Lin, 17. "It's so much more difficult to hit the ball without sight. ... It's taken a while, but it's really exciting when they come this far."
Sejal, for her part, would like to get nonprofit status for Tennis SERVES so it can accept donations. She's working with students at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont to design a prototype for a new ball that would emit a continuous noise, making it easier for players to track.