That pesky serve…

Posted Jan 10, 2007

By Jeff Brack
January 2007

Let’s not fool ourselves, tennis is hard. The problem with this reality is that most of us tennis enthusiasts have a hard time seeing from the perspective of the new player.

When someone decides to try tennis, they discover quickly that it is tough to see results. When you can’t see immediate results, it is very easy to become frustrated and then question your involvement in the activity.

Soccer, golf, etc. you can see the ball go at least. Tennis has the unique requirement that the ball must come back before you can really begin to weigh your improvement. That means you’re depending on a person across the net. We’ve overcome this with teaching pros and ball machines, but obviously it’s not easy. It takes a lot of work and discipline to attain the skills necessary for maintaining a rally. But most of us know this first hand.

What many of us overlook, however, is that the single greatest obstacle to enjoying tennis is THE SERVE. We introduce the serve to a new player and then what? We tell them to keep practicing and maybe in a few months or a year, they will be capable of enjoying competition. This makes A LOT of sense doesn’t it?

Is the serve important? Yes. Do you have to serve to start enjoying tennis? NO! Why do we make this a requirement from the beginning? What a deterrence! Can you imagine how discouraging it is to be told that if you can?t get your serve in, you can’t play? We’re practically beating people away with a bat!

Every time we show a child the tennis serve and then say, “Okay kid, we’ll see you in three years for your first match,” we’re gambling with huge odds against us. Most of those kids are headed for the soccer fields. And who can blame them? What do they have to practice to play in a soccer match? Nothing. Anyone can enjoy soccer right away. Run and kick the ball.

And I’ve watched the faces on beginner adults when they see an experienced 12-year-old hit an advanced serve. Their expression says it all.

Am I arguing to remove the serve from tennis? Absolutely not! I’m just arguing that it should be part of a progression and can be added along the way. PLAYING is the fun part. We need to have new players PLAYING right away. This is one of the big answers to the retention problem. Many people try tennis, but they don’t continue.

So, what’s the solution? I encourage all facility directors and tournament directors to start offering “no serve” non-elimination events for their beginner adults and juniors. Why not? They’ll be able to start PLAYING sooner, which means they’ll be able to start ENJOYING the game sooner, and they may just stick with it.

With the junior events in particular, run the “no serve” draw during the same time period as a more advanced junior event. The beginner kids will be able to enjoy the competition, become accustomed to the tournament environment and be inspired by playing on an adjacent court to the better players. It will become clear where they want to be next. In the meantime, these new players, junior and adult, can be developing a serve with their teaching pro and when they’re ready, they can move up a level to the “with serve” events.

Many places have started to offer these types of tournaments and they’ve been a huge hit! Most use a transitional ball, like the Penn Stars ball or a foam ball. By using these innovative balls in a “no serve” event, not only is the serve not an obstacle, but the players enjoy longer rallies and an enormous boost to their confidence.

Tennis IS hard. This is our current reality, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Basketball lowers the rim, soccer shrinks the field, baseball puts the ball on a tee and tennis can remove the serve. It’s not an original idea, but it has certainly been overlooked.

Most of us realize that tennis has more to offer than other sports. So, let’s make enjoying tennis as easy as humanly possible and then maybe RETENTION will be a problem of the past.