Where are we going?
By Jeff Brack

September 2006

I'd like to think we're headed for the USTA's goal of 30 million players by 2010. And I'd like to think that it's because of the new focus on making tennis more accessible. Tennis is beginning to evolve to meet the demands of our warp speed, espresso-wired culture. Americans get twice as much accomplished in a day than they did 20 years ago. They have to- if they want to keep up. And rarely does that include blacking out two or three days in a row for a tennis tournament.

Part of the new "accessibility" is the new opportunities players have to participate. Our contribution at the Reffkin Tennis Center has been the Adult and Junior Participation Paths, which include the most popular new one-day and half-day tournament formats in the country.

In the past, the unspoken truth of our sport was that if you can't commit your entire weekend to a tournament or 10 weekends for a league, we don't want you. We don't want you? Are you kidding? I just described 90% of Americans, including myself!

The Participation Paths were developed as a way of organizing tennis programs and events into a simple, incremental progression that was easy to understand. Anyone can walk right up to the counter display and understand what they are looking at immediately. But, almost more importantly, it has provided a range of options for our recreational adult players and upcoming juniors.

The "Paths" have begun to enjoy popular success as we have now introduced the concept to nearly all of the USTA sections. USTA National, USPTA and NRPA (National Recreation & Parks Association) have adopted and begun a nationwide rollout, which began with the first National Training Workshop in Tucson this past May, and will continue with a workshop at the National Tennis Center (Flushing Meadows, NY) in October.

Why do they want this programming? With the Southwest Section's support, we have developed one-day tournaments which have had an enormous impact on participation at our facility. Why not try duplicating that success elsewhere? That's what they're hoping for, and in fact, it has already begun to happen. Our two most popular formats, the Arizona Junior Shootout (3 matches, 2 sets per match) and Super Set Series (3-4 matches, 1 set per match) are taking place all over the U.S. These specific events have filled the gap between beginner tennis and the full weekend traditional tournament.

How much has it impacted our participation? In the last couple of years, we've enjoyed a 140% increase in matches played. Really.

The Super Set Series, the Arizona Junior Shootout and the Adult Super Set are so popular, that we routinely have a sizable waiting list. For the junior events, we routinely have at least half the competitive field coming from out-of-town (Phoenix, Yuma, El Paso, Las Cruses, Flagstaff, Albuquerque). These events are very attractive and, unfortunately, are not yet a regular offering in other Southwest cities. These players are willing to drive to Tucson for events that only range from 3 - to 5 - hours. Wow! That's a lot of travel for a short event. And yet, they all say that it's worth it.

Less time, less money, MORE tennis. How could this be MORE tennis, you ask? Players, local or visting, can easily commit one Friday evening or Saturday morning to playing three or four high-quality matches. These USTA Sanctioned events are non-elimination, so regardless of your results, you will continue to play. Phoenix players zip down I-10, compete hard for 4 hours and then zip back. They got quality court time in and the rest of their weekend is free. THAT is what ends up constituting more tennis. They will end up playing more events more often - and they're having fun!

From a coaching standpoint, there are two big advantages to playing the one-set events. First, there is no such thing as a slow start. If you start slowly, the match will be over quickly. It's a great training tool to teach players that they need to fight hard from the very beginning. Secondly, in a normal tournament, an instructor would have to be willing to spend all weekend at the courts to observe their students and coach them between matches. In a short-format event like these, an instructor can watch one set, coach their player, watch a second set, coach again, and then the third. They now have had quality coaching/observing time and are in and out in 3-4 hours.

For adults, it's even MORE simple. They don't have time- period. I speak to parents or other lapsed players all of the time. I mention a tournament and they wave their hand at me and say, "Oh forget it. Don't have time." Then I tell them that I've got a Super Set event that takes 3 hours, one set per match, 3 matches. The next words out of their mouths are, "I'm in."

Mounting demand has forced us each year to increase the number of one-day events that we offer. We still have our traditional events. These don't necessarily replace them. But now we offer a new product that fits the demand of our culture. And it's happening everywhere. Now tennis can offer a way for anyone at any level to participate, and participate again- and again.

So, where are we going? I'll say right now that we're headed for a new tennis boom, and we'd like to think that we are, in some small way, a part of it. How about you?