Tennis Made Easier

While Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic often make it seem that way, tennis is not a simple game to master. I’ve been playing for years, and there are days when I still feel like a novice on the court (mixed in with some rare in-the-zone moments that make me dream of greater, all-too-unrealistic accomplishments). But it’s even more difficult for young kids. Tennis requires keen hand-eye coordination that tends not to kick in until much later (there’s a reason why Little League starts out with kindergartners hitting off a tee) and an ability to anticipate where a fast-moving yellow ball is going in time to strike it. Perhaps the biggest reason it’s challenging for preschoolers and early grade-schoolers, though, is that they tend to start playing it with Mom or Dad on a full-size court. That’s like asking a 5-year-old to shoot a basketball at a 10-foot-high hoop or to play baseball on a Major League field.

Fortunately, that’s changing. A few years ago, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) introduced 10 and Under Tennis, designed to help young kids be successful and get hooked on the game rather than become frustrated by it. As well as having them start with shorter junior racquets (as little as 19 inches vs. the full-size 27 to 28 inches), the program starts kids on smaller courts—36 by 18 feet, as opposed to the full-size 78 by 27 feet. It also has them begin hitting with low-compression balls that move slower and don’t bounce as high, so they’re easier to strike.

Tennis Courts
It makes a lot of sense. In fact, earlier this year the International Tennis Federation mandated that all 10-and-under tournaments must be played with slower balls and on downsized courts with smaller, lighter racquets. The move is controversial. Some parents of aspiring young players feel that since former American champions like Andre Agassi grew up playing on full-size courts and with full-size equipment, their kids should do the same. But Pat McEnroe, the USTA’s director of player development and a former top 30 player (and yes, the younger brother of John), believes otherwise. “Most of the best 8- to 11-year-olds I see have technical flaws in their games, and that’s due in large part because of the bounce of the ball. They’re not tall enough or strong enough to play with a regular ball on a full-size court yet,” he says. The new approach will help developing players acquire proper swing techniques and let them slowly advance to faster, higher-bouncing balls and bigger courts as they grow and improve. In the long run, he believes it will help produce more great U.S. players—a welcome possibility, given that America hasn’t produced a Grand Slam male champion in 9 years and that there are few top U.S. women players on the horizon once the great Serena Williams leaves the stage.

Chances are your priority is not to have your child wind up playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows one day. Rather, it’s that she has fun playing the game from the very first ball. These new developments should help make that possible. And if you’re looking for a great way to get her started, try this: USTA Free Tennis Play Days take place September 1 through October 6. It provides kids of all skill levels with the chance to experience tennis 101 in a social setting—and on a just-right court (the USTA has installed more than 3,000 youth-sized courts around the country). Visit youthtennis.com to find a participating tennis facility in your area. And bring your own (full-size) racquet: Adults are welcome to participate too.

Images via USTA

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