They don’t know it, but America’s littlest tennis players are in the midst of a dramatic downsizing: it’s called 10 and Under Tennis, and it shrinks the game down to a kid’s size, with smaller rackets, low-bouncing big foam balls, lower nets and a smaller court. It is changing in the way kids are learning the sport.
The United States Tennis Association, which hosts the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, has spent $15 to $20 million promoting it, with campaigns like a television spot featuring tennis greats Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.
The goal is to get more children to play, and not just practice, tennis.
A 2010 survey by the Physical Activity Council found 8% of kids ages 6 through 10 played tennis, compared to 22% for soccer and 19% for baseball.
Kurt Kamperman, the USTA's chief executive of community tennis, said that while two to three million children take tennis lessons or attend tennis clinics each year, only 50,000 actually join teams or leagues and compete. That number swells to 200,000 for youth ages 10 to 18.. On the upper end of the age spectrum, Kamperman said 350,000 adults take part in the USTA's league program.
Compare this to Little League baseball, which had two million kids participating last year, and its annual World Series competition s televised nationally and you can see why Kamperman is concerned."Very few sports have more adults playing than kids, but tennis is one of those," Kamperman said. "We want to turn that upside down. We want to keep all the adults, but we really want to see a kids' revolution."
Getting kids interested may be the USTA’s easiest job. Tennis clubs, and their teaching pros, are proving to be a tougher sell.
Take Nick Bollittieri. His academy in Florida honed the talents of champions like Agassi, Jim Courier, and Maria Sharapova, without foam balls, lower nets or smaller courts. He initially scoffed at the USTA’s suggestion that he adopt the 10 and Under format.
"I said, 'why would I do that?' And I pointed over to all the players who had been here. 'Why would I want to do anything as foolish as that?' And I said no."
Bollittieri has since changed his mind.
The USTA doesn’t have the authority to force any teaching pro or club to embrace 10 and Under Tennis training format, but the USTA made a rare rule change that will require all its 10 and Under tournaments to be played with foam balls on smaller courts starting next year.
Academies like Bollittieri's build their reputations on their students' successes at these competitions. But Bollittieri said the rule change wasn't the reason why he has become a 10 and Under supporter.
"You know me and rules, screw the rules. I’m a rule breaker!" Bollittieri said. "I began to see, actually see, the difference and I became a believer then."
But most tennis pros and program directors see little reason to overhaul what they’re doing. They take what they like from 10 and Under Tennis and disregard the rest.
Ten and Under Tennis' format suggests dividing a regular-sized court into smaller sections, with mini-nets set up perpendicular to the main net, so that more kids can get on the court and hit balls back and forth to each other. Mark McIntyre, with the Riverside Clay Court Association on the Upper West Side, said his organization isn't ready to do this.
"We are still guaranteeing a certain number of kids per court, based on the charge," McIntyre said. "Six kids for an hour, two teachers on one court. We're not yet ready for ten kids per hour."
Carla Hughes, director of the Central Park Tennis Center, said her organization incorporates 10 and Under Tennis "in a small way."
"We have the small nets, we have the compression balls, but we generally use them for ages 4 through 6." She says the center stops using the specialized equipment, and switches to the regular, yellow ball, at age 7, because "a lot of kids can start hitting from the baseline at 6, or halfway from the baseline, and they are able to handle the regulation ball."
The USTA's Kurt Kamperman said he encourages tennis program directors and pros to "go all the way in."
"Look, there's a lot of people who want to keep the status quo and dip their toe in the water. It's the wrong approach. Just because you can play on a bigger court doesn't mean you should. Kids are going to have more fun, and are going to look like miniature pros [if they play] with these shorter, lower-bouncing balls on the small courts."
Those mini-pro moves were in evidence last month at Howard Bennett Park in Harlem, where the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program held its summer clincis. Harlem Junior Tennis was an early and enthusiastic adopter of 10 and Under Tennis, and the park has been outfitted with four new mini-courts.
Seven-year-old Donovan Spigner was rallying with an opponent on one of them, hitting topspin forehands, slice backhands, even overheads.
"With the foam balls, you have more control," he said, sounding mature beyond his years. "It's hard to hit it out."
It's hard to hit foam balls hard, too, something that Donovan had to do to get the regulation yellow ball over the net when he first started taking lessons from his grandfather at the age of 4.
"I like to hit the ball hard," he said with a shy smile. "That's why I hate those [foam] balls. I hate controlling."
But Donovan's mom, Harlem Junior Tennis coach Simone Spigner, said the new approach is making her son a better player.
"I see the benefits, I see the difference in the way he's able to set up for the ball, swing through the ball, the way it's not so heavy for him. It just makes a lot of sense. Every sport, you start with a kid-sized ball and a kid-sized bat. Why not tennis?"