I find it hard to resist any opportunity to talk about my favorite sport. And while we're still buried in a once-in-a-generation winter of snow and cold in the Northeast, tennis is about to make some big news. Not among the pros, where the action won't heat up again for several months, but at the recreational level—which is far more important for its future.
Never have the ranks of top U.S. players been so slim: Serena Williams, dominant though she still is at 32, is our lone bona fide Grand Slam contender (though Sloane Stephens could well join her soon). No American man has won a major title since Andy Roddick in 2003. Unlike many other countries, we aren't drawing the best athletes to the sport and aren't keeping them.
Recognizing the problem, the USTA is wisely focusing its efforts on the grass-roots level. The goal: Get more kids to give the game a chance, and help them be successful and have fun from the beginning so they stick with it. That's what World Tennis Day is all about. On Sunday morning at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (site of the U.S. Open), the USTA will attempt the world's largest tennis lesson, featuring more than 250 children (as young as age 4) from local youth organizations. If successful, there will be a special presentation ceremony Monday evening with the Guinness Book of World Records at Madison Square Garden prior to a singles match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The night's biggest entertainment, though, could well be the sibling matchup between U.S. champions past (Patrick and John McEnroe) and current (Bob and Mike Bryan).
This isn't a mere publicity stunt. The USTA is truly investing in the game. It has launched 10 and Under Tennis and built more than 10,000 kid-size courts that make the game easier to learn (especially when played with slower, lower-bouncing balls). It offered 1,400 free opportunities for kids to pick up a racquet last year and partnered with FLOTUS Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. The organization has committed to installing 5,000 additional kiddie courts and training 15,000 new youth coaches, trainers, and volunteers during the next three years. These efforts are already paying dividends. Tennis participation is at its highest level in three years and, notably, has increased by 13 percent among kids 6 to 11. The goal is to attract a new generation of fans and lifetime players. Maybe one of them will be the next Serena. Maybe not. But these moves have tennis back on the right track.
Want to get your child started in this great game (as I did my son, who will be beating me before long)? The USTA is hosting events for kids and families (many of them free) around the country throughout March. Find one one near you here. While you're at it, why not pick up the perfect junior racquet and outfit for your child.
Young girl having fun on tennis court via Shutterstock.