This may be our LAST CHANCE!
By Jim Reffkin
Before I talk about the future of youth tennis and its challenges, let's go back fifteen years to the dark days of the tennis industry. In 1994 Sports Illustrated came out with a feature article on American Tennis. On the magazine's front page was a huge question mark dotted with a tennis ball with the title, "Is Tennis Dying?"
I must warn you, the following excerpt of the author's article is toxic, but keep your spirits up, don't quit now, there is an answer to this tirade, and it is currently available for tennis leaders not only in our country, but globally as well - and it is now!
Okay, hold your breath, here we go. The heading of the inside feature article, which was written by Sally Jenkins, was "THE SORRY STATE OF TENNIS" and the sub heading was, "Fans are bored, TV ratings are down, equipment sales are soft, and most pros seem to be prima donnas who don't care about anything but money. What can be done to save this sinking sport?"
This nine page Sports Illustrated article, which I keep in my office, is a reminder to how far we have come since the nineties; it has also been motivation for me to continue my passion for the game. Anyone in the Tennis Business at that time remembers how tennis went in the dumper, how it wasn't cool anymore to be a tennis player; courts were either going to be bladed for storage space or sold for condo developments. The perception of our sport, except for a few thriving tennis communities, was dismal and depressing at best. But it was no secret that our sport's leadership had limited vision and was stuck in an unfavorable climate for introducing innovation and change.
Let me paraphrase Sports Illustrated a bit more, 'To the average sports fan tennis is played by pampered, insolent children, run by overtanned business men and governed by quarrelsome organizations, and every one of these parties is hopelessly out of touch with the real world. The public might stand for such excess if tennis weren't so boring. To many sports fans tennis is irrelevant." Holy Smokes Sally, take the knife out of our back!
Okay time out, have you had enough? Wow, Ms Jenkins, do you want to kick us just one more time while we are down? Maybe one more "cheap shot" as we have come to frequently see with athletes in the other major sports.
For most of her article, Ms Jenkins needed to stop beating up on us and give us solutions and answers to her negative comments.
She did have answers, but unfortunately her answers and solutions to increasing participation and establishing tennis as a relevant sport are very naive at best. I won't bore you with them, but I will mention just a few of what could be considered the best of her ten ways to make tennis better:
• Spread the Wealth - finally, a hint to what is the single major reason tennis can not become a popular major sport - in the general public, our current programming does not attract or sustain youth participation. Ms Jenkins cuts to the chase on this one without even realizing it. She talks about a recently retired postal worker in L.A. who is black and is teaching not only his two daughters, Venus and Serena, but the entire minority neighborhood as well - let's remember its 1994 so you know that story.
• Hire a "Commissioner" to rule the game - Well, we have heard that for decades and it could have some merit in the professional game. But lets forget High Performance Tennis and concentrate on what must be our highest priority:
Massive "Grassroots Participation" with a "Feet to the fire" Czar for youth recreation Tennis!
Let's forget about Ms Jenkins article and her suggestions for solving our problems, let's also forget about the USTA grassroots efforts in years past. Even though there was merit, these programs were never implemented with the much needed zeal and commitment to succeed. We obviously need to copy the efforts of youth programs in the major sports.
Our tennis establishment now has the answer - quickstart tennis.
What is QUICKSTART TENNIS?
Quickstart Tennis is an exciting new play format for learning tennis, designed to bring kids into the game by utilizing specialized equipment, shorter court dimensions and modified scoring, all tailored to age, size and skill level.
The real answer is a very simple solution to most of our problems in American Tennis - we need hundreds of thousands of very young children participating in "quickstart." I have also come to find out that this year the NBA and NCAA Basketball have jointly donated fifteen million dollars each for "youth basketball." That's a total of thirty million dollars to increase youth participation. What's the deal here, I thought they were doing fantastic.
Well, Basketball is doing fantastic and making billions; but this was a business decision not a charity donation. They are looking to the future: that's called vision; they want to sell more tickets for college and NBA games. Their marketing people understand that at a very early age children develop an identity with an activity - in this case basketball - and that choice becomes a loyalty that carries over to their adult lives. These are the same adults who played in youth sports as children and will most likely nurture their own children into basketball and become future ticket buyers for basketball games.
Well, as a former High School Athletic Director in the sixties, I was very familiar with the popularity of football, basketball and baseball. I was always impressed with the infrastructure of these sports going all the way down to the programming pathway at the elementary schools, grooming youngsters for high school participation; a real feeder system. It was obvious to me that team sports were fun, competitive and well organized, and were essential in building popularity and loyalty in any sport. It was also obvious to me that team sports for the very young are essential in building successful future High School Teams and individual high performance athletes.
In 1964 as a first year tennis coach, I wanted to initiate the same league play for tennis that the other sports had developed for their success. So I attended my first USLTA meeting looking for support - back then that was the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
Holy smokes, this was unheard of, a proposal for league tennis for small children? Most of the local association members made it clear to me that tennis is not a team sport, it is an individual sport and we have lots of single elimination tournaments that the kids can participate in. However, there were a few USTA members that had played major sports and understood what I was talking about and were sympathetic to my effort, but the "old guard" ruled and my proposal was turned down.
Eventually though, with the few supporters helping, we were able to establish the first NJTL (National Junior Tennis League) program in the Southwest and it continues to this day. I worked with Arthur Ashe, Jack Kramer and Charlie Pasarell and the sponsor at that time was Congoleum Flooring; this program continues to be the longest running grassroots program in the Southwest and one of the largest. NJTL has huge potential for growth and its success has always been due to its organized league play not single elimination tournaments.
In 1986 and 1987 as National President of the United States Professional Tennis Association, I served on a blue ribbon "USTA Special Committee on Player Development."
On this committee (fifteen of us) including some of the most knowledgeable people in the tennis industry: Chairman Arthur Ashe, Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King, Bill Talbert, Cliff Drysdale, Stan Smith, Tony Trabert, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert, were focused on developing a National Master plan for USTA Player Development.
With the cooperation of the International Tennis Federation, we were able to obtain Player Development information from all of the major tennis countries in the world. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to discuss at length programming that could be helpful in designing an American path for young beginning players to reach their maximum potential as a competitive player. We published our report, "TAKING CARE OF TOMORROW." And it was distributed to all USTA sections and circulated to all of the USTA member Clubs and Facilities.
In our report, the first goal was simply: ATTRACT MORE YOUNG PEOPLE TO TENNIS AND KEEP THEM PLAYING
Interesting enough, after reviewing the research we collected, we saw that almost all of the successful countries had already been developing and promoting entry level youth programs.
We all agreed that we must copy what other countries had been doing with their grassroots programming and implement "Short Court Tennis" with modified court dimensions, equipment and scoring; making it attractive to young children. Of course this is what all major sports had been doing for the longest time but was never taken seriously by our USTA leadership. In one sentence, our effort and research came down to a single purpose:
"Purpose - To make tennis fun for children who are too small for self-satisfying play on conventional courts."
Well, unfortunately the United States Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis in the United States, ignored our suggestion for Short Court Tennis. Obviously the USTA filed it with the other programs that never got the traction needed to fulfill our goal of attracting young children.
Today, twenty-three years later, we will have another chance to implement the goal of our 1987 USTA National Player Development Committee. However, today its new name is "quickstart" and finally, I truly believe it should be the answer we so dearly need. If introduced and implemented correctly, QST will definitely bring huge numbers of children and adults to our sport.
What is the difference today with what was originally proposed in 1986? Priority and Commitment, USTA has made it clear that QST has been designated a top national priority, making quickstart the USTA's answer in attracting and retaining huge numbers of children to our sport. The good news is Scott Schultz and his outstanding Community Tennis Council staff must tackle this ambitious USTA effort. This new Czar of community tennis will bring zeal and commitment, failure will not be accepted.
Scott and his staff know the talking is over, we must make this a unified effort taking it to the general public and adopting what was originally suggested in 1986 and 1987. Attention USTA Sections and Districts, get aboard or get out of the way!
I suggest to Scott that he not follow "old USTA practices." He must understand that for the quickstart format to be nationally established, his staff must copy corporate practices and methods. Take Jack Welch for example, the former successful CEO of General Electric, uses the phrase, "you must have relentless persistence," in order to succeed, "You must drive your idea or program through the layers of resistance and procrastination."
Well, how about John F. Kennedy in 1962, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win."
I happen to think we are being confronted with a last chance opportunity. We know what we have to do, we must have relentless persistence, we must drive our product, "quickstart tennis" thru the layers of USTA National, Section and District committees, we must be willing to accept the challenge to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills and be unwilling to postpone our vision as we have in the past.
In my experience of implementing innovative changes in our sport, I did what these two great leaders suggested. While introducing Match Tiebreak, Supersets, One Day Shootouts, College Format for Junior Doubles and a host of other innovative ideas, I was for years insulted and badgered either on the phone or in e-mails that, "I was ruining the sport of tennis." Old guard purists far and wide collected petitions at the very entrance to my tennis facility and presented them to the Tucson City Council.
Well, as a private concessionaire I stood my ground and by using relentless persistence I succeeded. I hope USTA makes this effort a do or die priority, because that's what it is going to take to get quickstart nationally accepted and successfully implemented across the country - "it's our last chance."
For whatever it is worth, here at our public tennis center in Tucson, we have reached record numbers in successfully implementing the QST format in both our youth and adult programs. Our success is based on great staff, innovative marketing and a lifetime of experience directing grassroots tennis programs. I would like to make a few suggestions:
• Around the country USTA National must concentrate and collaborate with at least one large public facility in each of the USTA Sections. Develop a strong relationship so these facilities will get behind the program 100%, and once they are established and successful, they will become the model for public or private facilities to copy.
• USTA Tennis Service Reps "must devote" most of their time and effort implementing and supporting new QST formats until each facility has quickstart freestanding and thriving. It is my opinion that Public facilities are more likely to need USTA support and would probably be more accommodating. It is pretty difficult to convince an established private club or a public facility for that matter, to introduce the kinds of changes USTA would be asking them to make. Please don't forget that the goal is to reach hundreds of thousands of children.
• Organized, competitive match play must be a component of QST if USTA is going to sustain participation and retain the interest of the children. A yearly schedule of QST events in the local USTA yearbook and newspapers is a must.
• Continue to train before and during the QST sessions. For your teaching and coaching staff, seek participants in the local "Tennis on Campus" Chapter.
• Based on competitive match play, you must establish QST levels of play by developing a "Participation Path."
• Agree on a uniform set of the rules for QST match play so city wide and regional events can easily be established.
• Lets also remember that QST is critical to our existing USTA Junior Team Tennis Program. If there was not a "T-Ball" program in youth baseball, Little League Baseball would not be anywhere as successful. If we have successful QST we will have huge numbers in our Junior Team Tennis Program.
And most important, you must have an oversight committee to monitor the quality of the program. Its success or failure must be based on the community service reps frequent "onsite" visits, not with phone calls.
Be selective and transparent with how the USTA grants are distributed, make sure the use of the grant money is used specifically for quickstart. The USTA must have the opportunity to reconcile the QST site's income and expenses. Lets get started, it's our last chance!