Nothing more important
By Jim Reffkin

July 2002

There is nothing more important for the future of tennis than children playing our great game. In the National Plan for Growth the USTA would like millions of kids playing tennis. But over the last ten years, there has been little change in growing participation. Don't we all agree, any age and any description, talented or not, we want warm little bodies hitting forehands and backhands? This is the USTA goal.

We all know we have a problem, children at an early age today are becoming overweight couch potatoes, they are into computer games and relentless viewing of no brainer television. Unfortunately, if we expect a future of millions of adult recreation players and enough competitive juniors to mature and represent the United States in the professional ranks, we must work extra hard in attracting more kids to our game.

The days of lecturing to children about how tennis is a "lifetime sport" and how they need to have endless lessons to "correctly" hit shots before they compete is a thing of the past. I believe the USTA now understands this and is now desperately trying to reinvent our game at all levels of play, making it fun, time definable, exciting and easier to play.

There was a time when the USTA frowned upon introducing our game to the very young, it claimed it was unhealthy. This was when all other sports were emphasizing customized programs (t-ball etc.) for the "ankle biters." What a mistake we made, we never had a chance, it was too late, the youth market was swept clean. And now years later we are suffering the consequences with weak numbers in our "young adult" market.

And to make it even more difficult for us, not only do non-athletic activities capture the time of children, but other sports have as well. We have always competed with baseball, football and basketball (the big three) but we are now competing with soccer, softball, volleyball and skateboarding. All of these new sports have ambitious youth programs designed to interest children at a very early age and then offer them a continuing menu of participation based on their age and skill level.

Its been said that the USTA, the governing body of tennis, moves slowly, much like a battleship trying to turn in a small pond. This is changing, we now have a goal oriented governing body that is ready to tackle the most difficult task it has ever been confronted with - growing the game by increasing participation.

The battleship is turning, the USTA is currently beginning to introduce innovative scoring, new formats, appropriate equipment, fun lesson plans and immediate organized competition. If you study the competing market place, all other successful youth sports have "customized" their games to suit the consumers they want to attract. No other sport would be foolish enough to try and grow their respective sports by using professional rules and formats to introduce and sustain growth in their youth programs. Tennis unfortunately has thought otherwise, and has had a history of sustaining age group competition based on professional tennis rules.

Now that I think about it, what other sport would put their precious young in endless "gladiator" type marathon competition, waiting hours for the survival of the fittest? Is this the frame of mind to prepare them for a game that they are supposed to enjoy and play for a lifetime? Do you really think this kind of mentality will sustain and grow our game? Are we so dedicated to nurturing a few elite juniors that we sacrifice the very lifeblood of our future? Each year one or two of our elite competitive juniors might make a career as a professional, but reality tells us the thousands of children now playing will hopefully be enjoying college or adult recreation tennis.

There is always room for improvement. In our own southwest section, we continually look for innovative ways to attract kids to our game. Kids want fun, a sense of achievement, team spirit, and a reasonable and definable time in which to compete/play. In the past we have encouraged individual tournament play and did not offer enough enjoyable events to sustain interest and increase participation. We did not shorten the length of match play based on age and skill level; and often times we did not offer a safe environment to sustain organized play.

For example, in the sunbelt southwest, school courts, even if they are playable, normally have no shade or drinking fountains available. If it's hot and there is no water or shade, how can we expect the interested parents and their children to embrace the game?

We need your help to secure the future of our game, there is more at stake than fulfilling dreams for the fortunate few, we need "strength in numbers." Let's get behind opportunities to increase play, let's allow tennis directors to implement innovative programs and encourage them with recognition, grant funding and a little respect. Remember, there is nothing more important to tennis!

Special Note: During the US Open in New York, I will be moderating a unique Forum exploring changes to increase participation. If you are in New York, I personally invite you to attend.