the only way to enrich our infrastructure and increase tennis participation
By Jim Reffkin

July 2007

Great news! Thanks to USTA's recent marketing efforts, we are now having a huge number of new players trying our game. Assuming our goal is to increase participation, we should not miss this opportunity to "capture" the thousands of beginner adults and juniors now taking lessons. In order to do this, we must emulate what all recreation sports have successfully done: We should adapt to the needs of the new consumer with innovative formats of play and introduce modified equipment. With few exceptions tennis has not.

EASY AS CHILD'S PLAY - Rowa Brack showcases the Spinner foam ball

EASY AS CHILD'S PLAY - Rowa Brack showcases the "Spinner" foam ball

Due to the variety of ages and skill levels, tennis has always been an extremely difficult sport to learn, a challenge to instructors, particularly beginners where there is a tremendous retention problem. All major sports have dealt with this problem early on, unfortunately our sport has not had the vision, or the will, to find (or want to find) a solution to this problem.

There is hope. Slowly we are coming to find out that we can adapt, and that we now have industry leaders that do have a vision, do have the resolve to introduce change. It took years for the establishment to embrace: match tiebreak, supersets, college format doubles, short sets and time definable non-elimination match play. And now we finally have both the equipment and programming to dramatically improve the learning curve of beginners - foam balls and starballs - both allowing IMMEDIATE PLAY tennis.

Look around, we are beginning to copy other recreation sports that have huge entry level numbers. We see our new tennis programming becoming what softball and kittenball has been to baseball, allowing tennis to finally compete with the major recreation sports.

In my estimation, IMMEDIATE PLAY tennis is the only way to enrich our infrastructure and grow our base of players; it's programming that embraces beginners - both adult and juniors. Unfortunately, the existing 2.5 Adult and Junior Team Tennis leagues do not service the beginner and advanced beginner. I suggest we duplicate for beginners, with the same resources and resolve, the most successful USTA Program ever - Adult Leagues.

At the Reffkin Tennis Center, in our beginner IMMEDIATE PLAY instructional programs, we use nothing but foam and star balls, our goal is to make sure absolute beginners continue after their lessons. If we used regular tennis balls, these same players would in no way be ready for existing USTA or traditional club programming and would go on to other recreation activities. We have one chance, they want exercise and "actual play," they do not want no-rally ball chasing.

As we all know, during the tennis boom of years ago, we dismissed the importance of creating programming to sustain play after initial instruction. Today, we must create a solid "infrastructure" of beginning adult and junior players, and the only possible way we can create this substantial base of new players is with the new foam and starballs.

At the Reffkin Tennis Center, we annually introduce tennis to hundreds of players with introductory group lessons. It is obvious to us, if we want them to continue in tennis, we must introduce immediate play in the very first lesson. Don?t expect them to wait until they are NTRP 2.5. We must immediately introduce them to structured opportunities: beginner cardio tennis; pick-up tennis; non-elimination short set tournaments and hybrid team tennis leagues - all of which can use foam and starballs before even thinking about using regular tennis balls.

I have spent many, many years introducing a variety of innovative formats, and after years of rejection by nagging critics, these new formats now have solid traction in almost all of our USTA Sections. I believe IMMEDIATE PLAY programming will become even more important, it will become the much needed bedrock of our sport, and as important as USTA League Tennis has become today.