20 years ago: A history lesson for the USTA
By Jim Reffkin
Twenty years ago the United States was in the midst of a steady decline in tennis popularity. Believe me it was not a fun time for anyone in the Tennis Industry, Clubs were closing and it seemed like every newspaper and magazine was piling on - tennis is dead.
Twenty years ago in 1987 the United States Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis, decided to do something about it. They decided to invite the most influential people in the industry to a national "Forum." Its purpose was to find solutions to stop the exodus of players and at the same time increase participation. This three day event was funded and sponsored by the USTA and was held in Sarasota, Florida.
Twenty years ago this meeting was a true summit intended to have a direct impact on the future of tennis in the United States. At that time, as the National President of the United States Pro Tennis Association, I was invited, along with eighty other movers and shakers, to discuss and debate the future of our game.
Twenty years ago this groundbreaking meeting was referred to as the "Spirit of Sarasota." There were high hopes that this would be a historical step in increasing the popularity our game. I still have the lengthy printed document that stated clearly the forum's conclusions and suggestions. Let me list the top four suggestions we came up with in 1987:
Suggestions in order of importance:
1) Entry Level Junior Programming - for children six to ten years old, copy other successful youth sports with programming that will attract and sustain participation. 2007 USTA Answer - for children ten and under, the USTA is now finally initiating "Quick Start" to attract and retain beginning tennis players.
2) Tennis Must Be Fun - tournament tennis is only the tip of the iceberg. We must create more fun adult and junior programs that will appeal to the time poor public. 2007 USTA Answer - short venues like cardio tennis, super sets, shootouts and league play are now finally being introduced.
3) Hire a National Tennis Recreation Commissioner - this in essence would be to create a new "cabinet post" funded and answerable to the USTA Executive Director. 2007 USTA Answer - In 2007 we now already have the man: Kurt Kamperman, a man for all seasons and exceptionally capable in implementing the innovative answers for increasing participation.
4) New Ways To Play Tennis - Changes in the rules, court dimensions, equipment or whatever is necessary to make tennis easier to learn and then retain participation. 2007 USTA Answer - a variety of new equipment available for all ages and abilities: In 2007 Transition Balls are the beginning of the definitive solution to attracting new players and retaining their participation.
Twenty years later in 2007, the governing body of tennis is finally moving forward with the 1987 "Spirit of Sarasota" suggestions. The question is: Will history repeat itself, or must we wait another twenty years before the suggestions in 1987 and 2007 are finally implemented? Only time will tell!