Laila Ali took tennis lessons when she was a kid, but her parents did not encourage her to pursue sports.
"They didn't play [tennis] with me,"Ali says. "I didn't stick with it. I wish they would have been like you have to stick with it longer or another sport because I didn't start playing sports seriously until I was 18. I didn't know I could be an athlete and I had interest in being an athlete unless I tried it as a kid."
Ali saw women's boxing for the first time at age 17 and by 18, she started training to be a professional. Her father, a rather successful boxer named Muhammad, tried to talk her out of it. Ali went all in with boxing and ended up having an undefeated professional career as the WBC super-middleweight champion.
After her last fight in 2007, Ali chose a new battle for fitness. She hosted the program ABC's "Everyday Health" and she currently hosts "All In with Laila Ali" on CBS. On Labor Day, Ali joined forces with New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and 2008 Olympic all-around gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin to promote multi-sport play for children.
"This is what I do on a daily basis now," Ali says. "It's about playing any sport you want. Be active, go hiking, go swimming. It doesn't have to be tennis."
September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the USTA was promoting the health and wellness of children. Ali, McDonagh and Liukin all attended a clinic with youths at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
McDonagh grew up in the hockey hotbed of Minnesota, but he also played four years of baseball and won a state title as a senior at Cretin-Derham High School in Saint Paul. He played one year of varsity football as a sophomore outside linebacker/free safety and earned all-state honors.
"There's so much out there for young children to experience as far as playing different sports," McDonagh says. "You can learn a lot of different skills that will help transfer from one sport to another, but more importantly, you get to meet a lot of new people and new friends your age."
McDonagh notes the end of hockey season would initially sadden him, but reuniting with his baseball friends would perk his spirit. Considering his own experiences, McDonagh believes part of children's sports choices rely on the parents. His mother and father gave him the opportunity to star in as many fields as he chose to.
"They worked extremely hard to drive me around, feed me and get me the sports equipment you need as a kid," McDonagh says. Lazy parents could equal lazy children.
Liukin's two parents were successful athletes. Her father, Valeri, won two gold and two silver medals at the 1988 Olympics and her mother, Anna Kotchneva, won a rhythmic gymnastics gold medal at the 1987 World Championships. The two former Soviets raised their daughter to get exercise doing what she enjoyed.
"The most important thing, no matter what sport you play, is to encourage a healthy lifestyle," she says.
Liukin won five medals at the 2008 Olympics. While she admits her childhood sports career was restricted to gymnastics, she has taken on a multitude of sports since retiring in 2012. The 25-year-old says that includes tennis, especially since Valeri recently installed a court into his backyard.
Her message to children is to trickle down that active lifestyle.
"This is about inspiring youth because they are the future and the next generation," she says. "To find something you're passionate about and that you live by is an important thing."
The USTA event was part of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program's "Project Play" on Labor Day.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.