In tennis, downsizing is apparently a good thing. Little kids are getting their courts squeezed, their tennis balls flattened and their sticks shortened in an effort to make the game more fun from the start.
Beginning this year, the U.S. Tennis Association and International Tennis Federation require all sanctioned 10-and-under tournaments to be played with "slower-moving and lower-bouncing balls, shorter and lighter racquets, and on smaller courts." The approach has been used internationally for years to introduce kids to the game.
On Oahu, there will be a series of free clinics this month to introduce the pint-sized game, starting next Friday at Ala Moana. It is only the beginning.
MARCH INTO TENNIS HAWAII
» What: Free tennis clinics for kids 10 and under
The USTA Hawaii Pacific Section has a list of upcoming "Play Days," for those a bit more experienced, on its website (hawaii.usta.com) under the Play Tennis link. They are designed to give kids more court time in a "fun, low pressure, non-elimination setting."
Junior team tennis has been utilizing the 10-under system for a few years and just started its spring schedule. The league has some 25 teams in each of its winter, spring and summer seasons.
The idea is that lower-compression balls will be easier to hit. Smaller courts will allow kids to get to them more often and take a better cut. New racquets, starting at 19 inches long and 6 ounces in weight and sized for small hands, are easier to control.
All the new elements together are intended to equal "more fun and less frustration." Most kids should be able to walk on the incredible shrinking court for the first time and be playing the new modified-scoring, seven-point tiebreaker game inside an hour.
"When you are playing you automatically start to develop skills, vs. having one line of kids and beating balls," explains Madeleine Dreith, Director of Community Tennis for the Hawaii Pacific Section. "It’s teaching in a different way. Let them play and teach them while they’re playing. … Kids want to play already."
THE YOUNGEST and smallest will play with a red felt or foam ball and a racquet that fits their body (ideally 38 percent of their height), not the 27-inch model the average adult uses. Their court will be 36 feet long and 18 feet wide, fitting into about a quarter of a regular doubles court (78 by 36). The net will be 2 feet, 9 inches high, as opposed to a standard net that is 3 feet at the center and 3-foot-6 on the net posts.
The smaller, slower and lower setting promotes slice, topspin and volleys. It also alleviates a kid’s greatest challenge — balls bouncing over their heads.
Beginners graduate to a court that is 60 by 21, with an orange felt reduced-bounce ball and a four-game, no-ad scoring system. That level is designated as 9-10, but skill — and the ability to cover the court — determines who graduates, not age. From there, kids move up to the 10-12 level, on a regular court, with a green-felt ball with a little less-reduced bounce and more modified scoring.
The final level is tennis as Americans have known it since there were white tennis balls. Dreith believes one of the crucial aspects of the new format is not to let parents see it as the "chase to the yellow (standard) ball." The goal is to have fun and stay active in the short-term and enjoy the game long-term.
"The longer you keep a kid in the red, orange or green level the longer they have to develop," Dreith says. "Sometimes I feel bad for a kid who comes in at 12. We end up throwing them into the yellow-ball stage and I think they miss out.’
The USTA’s 10-under push has been prolific in every aspect of the industry. It bought an insert in Good Housekeeping and created a series of TV commercials. The ads include First Lady Michelle Obama in sweats, pushing the "Let’s Move" program, and Roger Federer reminiscing fondly about hitting against the wall for hours in Switzerland.
The most memorable runs just 30 seconds, with Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi reading a tale to an increasingly wide-eyed classroom about playing tennis on a "court way too big," with a "racquet way too heavy" and "balls that bounced way too high."
"So she quit," Graf reads with finality.
"And took up soccer," Agassi adds. "The End."
The kids gasp. The title is "Now There is a Happy Ending for Kids Tennis."
The happy ending is relatively reasonable in cost and can be purchased locally or online. Small racquets are less than $30 and models run from "U.S. Open" to "Roger Federer," "Venus & Serena," "Dora the Explorer" and "Sponge Bob." Reduced-bounce balls cost about the same as standard.
Kits with nets and lines are available and can be set up in the driveway or anywhere, including schools. It takes a small crew 10 minutes to make a modified court inside a standard one with tape. Diamond Head has four permanent kids’ courts and runs 10-under classes every Wednesday. Anuenue School just put in two mini-courts on top of a multi-purpose court, and The Oahu Club has one. Every kindergartener at Punahou plays with Lee Couillard — the state’s only certified 10-under trainer — and the red tennis ball.
"The USTA has made a big push the last two years," says former Rainbow Wahine Rose (Thomas) Jones, now Babolat’s territory manager for Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest and Guam. "It really started to get to critical mass the last eight or nine months."
Maybe one day, Mardy Fish won’t be the only American — male or female — in the top 10. But that is not what 10-under tennis is all about.
The USTA cites several studies in its new push, including one that claims 90 percent of kids would rather play on a losing team than sit on a winning one. Another says 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by 13 for three reasons — it’s not fun, poor coaching and parental pressure.
Kids just want to have fun.