Trying to Appeal to U.S. Under-10 Generation by Shrinking the Game’s Scale
At the Australian Open, the news looked grim again for American tennis. For the first time since 1973, no American man reached the fourth round there, and entering the tournament’s second week, Serena Williams is the only American left in the singles draws.
But in its attempts to develop the next generation of tennis pros and increase participation in the sport over all, the United States Tennis Association thinks it has found the answer. It had a “duh moment” in 2008, said the U.S.T.A. chairman and president Jon Vegosen, and realized that “we had to kid-size the game.”
The organization began QuickStart, scaling down courts, rackets and balls for youth tennis as Little League does for baseball. This month, the program, renamed 10 and Under Tennis, became the official foundation for all U.S.T.A. youth tournaments. Such programs have flourished overseas, and the International Tennis Federation formalized similar new tournament rules for children 10 and under that went into effect Jan. 1.
“Other sports have done a better job at creating that progression,” said the former top-ranked pro Tracy Austin, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “Kids want success very quickly, and tennis deters a lot of them from continuing with it. In T-ball you get success right away.”
Under the program, children 8 and under play on courts that are 36 feet by 18 feet, which can fit crosswise on a regular 78-by-36 court. They use lower nets, smaller rackets, and red foam or low-compression balls, which are 25 percent as fast as regulation yellow balls.
Nine- and 10-year-olds play on 60-by-27 courts with lines marked inside a regular court. They use orange balls with a bit more bounce that are half as fast as regulation balls. More advanced 9- and 10-year-olds can play on the full-size court and use low-compression green balls that are 75 percent as fast as traditional yellow balls. Scoring has been simplified to create faster matches, and competition has been de-emphasized for younger players.
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S.T.A.’s general manager for player development, said that among 8- to 10-year-olds, 75 percent had major technical flaws that came in part from “using the wrong balls and the wrong equipment on the wrong court.”
Austin said the low-compression ball was the key because it enabled children to learn to swing at waist level and develop proper technique.
“All three of my sons used extreme Western grips to try and get high-bouncing balls, and then we had to change them,” she said.
McEnroe said the balls would create smarter, multidimensional players instead of youngsters who try to smack one hard shot past opponents. In this age of high-bouncing topspin shots, McEnroe said, “the first thing players do in a point is retreat.”
“We want them to learn to how to play the whole game,” he added, “to stay in and take the ball on the rise and come in to net, too.”
The challenge, Austin said, has been getting the teaching pros and clubs on board. Parents of competitive players in online forums criticized the new scoring system and smaller courts and the de-emphasizing of competition for younger players.
Lawrence Kleger, executive director of tennis for the New York region’s dozen Sportime Clubs, said the transition was bumpy because parents viewed the changes as a step backward.
Nick Bollettieri was among the coaches who were skeptical. “I threw them out of my office,” he said. But the U.S.T.A. eventually won him over by allowing advanced 9- and 10-year-olds to graduate to the full-size court (albeit using green balls).
“If kids are fighting for their life to get the ball over and it’s bouncing over their head, they’ll go home and never come back,” Bollettieri said. “So I said, ‘Nick, you need to re-evaluate your opinion on this.’ ”
After he saw a tournament in North Carolina, he said, he noticed that “more balls land in the court, and the players had to learn to get into position and build points.”
Wayne Bryan, a coach and the father of the doubles stars Mike and Bob Bryan, said he endorsed the new system as a teaching technique. In the 1970s, he began sawing off racket bottoms and puncturing balls to lower bounces. But he is adamantly opposed to the elimination of yellow balls for tournaments for advanced 9- and 10-year-olds, advocating a dual path so parents and coaches can choose between yellow and green ball tournaments. He added that the U.S.T.A. should be starting tournaments for 6- and 8-year-olds, not de-emphasizing competition.
“It’s a top-down, authoritarian move,” he said.
In addition to new tournament rules and training programs, the U.S.T.A. has spent millions of dollars building courts: about 1,500 in 2010, 3,600 last year and nearly 5,000 planned for 2012. The U.S.T.A. also financed an ad campaign for the 10-and-under program last year. The first commercial, “Fields,” showed children dwarfed by full-size basketball courts and sports fields.
The second commercial teamed with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to demonstrate the ease of the new set-up. Two girls battle in a lengthy rally with Andre Agassi as a ball boy and Steffi Graf and the first lady as ball girls.
In a third commercial, Agassi and Graf read a picture book to young children about a girl named Sophie who tried tennis. The small child was soon overwhelmed.
“So she quit,” Graf said in the commercial.
“And took up soccer,” Agassi intoned solemnly. “The end.”
Those spots, initially aimed at tennis fans, go mainstream this year, including showings on Nickelodeon.
Austin said there was more to emulate from the team sports, starting with the outreach.
“They make it so easy to sign up,” she said. “They’ve made Little League a rite of passage.”
Vegosen called the 10-and-under program the most critical initiative the U.S.T.A. had undertaken in a long time.
“We are missing out on the best athletes because they go play basketball, baseball or soccer,” he said. “This is transformational. It will grow the base of the pyramid.”