Reading the corporate publications of the ITF and the USTA, one might think that 10 & Under Tennis is being universally welcomed. Contrast this with the views reported in a recent Wall Street Journal article by Tom Perrotta, a senior editor at Tennis magazine. He outlines the complaints of tournament fast trackers (young players, parents and coaches), where, according to the article, about 14,000 children under the age of 10 play in sanctioned tournaments annually. This is a small percentage of people (maybe one percent?). I remember playing softball as a boy, and realizing that if I could not hit the outfield fence on the fly, I was relegated with the majority of boys to the “less than” group. If you were not a fast-tracker, then reading and swimming became attractive alternatives. And how about that one percent? Does that bring back bad memories of the days when our sport was criticized for being only for elites?
I think that viewing 10 & Under tennis solely from the tournament perspective is limiting and not keeping with the spirit of the program. I don’t fantasize about developing a student who will play in a future U.S. Open. But my students are laughing and having fun, while improving their fundamental tennis skills. Some of them will grow up to be great club presidents and enthusiastic USTA volunteers. Is that bad?
Speaking of fun, the same Wall Street Journal article reports that the Serbian Tennis Federation is against fun. The magic of the 10 & Under program is that we do suggest changes in strokes and footwork, and we do many repetitive exercises, but it is not punishment. That’s why we call it fun.
Why is an industry that embraces frequent changes in racket technology, new footwear, and even clothing that helps manage our sweat, so resistant to changes in how the game is taught?
Let’s make “10U Tennis” the default term for the new USTA program for teaching tennis to children and limit QuickStart to discussions about equipment and rules. The word “quick” suggests that this is a program of introduction and familiarization. Early programs for QuickStart even had six to eight week lesson plans as handouts.
But the phrase itself prompts parents to wonder how quickly their child can progress and advance to what they perceive as “real tennis.” The 10U program is comprehensive, with its progressions clearly marked by different compression balls (it’s not just the color, folks) and court sizes. If you have 60-ft. courts in place, it is easy to tell parents and children they are being promoted. I believe the success of 10U Tennis depends on how well the industry adapts to the 60-ft. court. It is the most important progression in the program.
Keep in mind that the USTA is mirroring the nationwide trend of less structured play. I think the USTA believes this program will help produce future champions, because when more children stay and play the game, the talent pool grows larger.
While supervising a tennis hockey match between two of my four-and-a-half-year-old students, I saw their emotions run the gamut from disappointment to elation. They were enjoying the ride and that sounds like fun. Isn’t that why we play tennis?
Richard Thater is a long-time teacher and player on New York City courts. He is PTR-certified in both Junior and Adult Development, and has played in senior tournaments in the Greater New York area. Richard currently teaches at the West Side Tennis Club. He may be reached by phone at (917) 749-3255 or e-mail RichThater@aol.com.