Category Archive: Articles

  1. This may be our LAST CHANCE!

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    By Jim Reffkin
    August 2009

    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.


    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!

  2. Great plans but can USTA deliver?

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    By Jim Reffkin
    February 2008

    There have been some very encouraging articles written recently on the importance of “Tennis in the Schools.” In one of the more recent USTA magazines, USTA National President Jane Brown Grimes described a very ambitious plan for her two year term in office. The “plan” has four key priorities: first is tennis in PE classes with a new curriculum designed by and for PE teachers; second is the introduction of after-school programming for elementary students; third is fostering of middle-school intramural and interscholastic teams. All this then leads to priority number four which is no-cut high school tennis teams.

    Wow! This is truly an ambitious plan our USTA President is suggesting. On paper this is good stuff, however, implementing the plan is a whole different challenge. On the positive side, USTA has excellent staff in place to present, promote and support, but can we close the deal with actual participation?

    Our situation reminds me of when the United States introduced the metric system. Every national official was certain it would be accepted and would save a huge amount of money and effort at every level of our economy. Unfortunately, national only suggested but made no real plan to implement this change to the self governing states and municipalities.

    Unfortunately, we have a similar challenge. The US government’s metric plan made sense at the national level, just as the USTA plans makes sense. The real issue is how can change be accepted and implemented where the ball hits the court. In truth, the infrastructure (National…Section…Community) of our tennis governing body is much like our government, a minefield of self controlled associations and committees – many dedicated to self-interest; or worse yet, apathy in delivering the latest product from USTA.

    Once again, USTA national has designed outstanding programs that will enrich the opportunities for growing participation: “Tennis in the Parks”; Schools Program and “quickstart.” These programs are all capable of tremendous success in growing our game. Especially “quickstart,” the very latest (coming out this spring) which in my opinion is the most exciting program since Adult Leagues.

    Our delivery problem is not with our section?s capable staff, the Southwest has Jason Jamison and his service reps, a real dynamic force in presenting the programs. The issue is the long standing philosophy that USTA staff should suggest and present, but should never implement.

    In selected sections, I suggest each major metropolitan area have at least one “model facility” implementing national’s suggested programs that will become the example for attracting other interested facilities. I suggest we quit talking about it, roll up our sleeves, set dates and begin soliciting sites – “just do it.”

  3. The evolution of tennis

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    By Jeff Brack
    February 2008

    All things change. It’s inevitable. Yes, even tennis. To survive, adaptation is not an option. Even with the game’s beautiful and storied tradition, we are still fighting to exist. That is why we must all embrace the USTA’s new “Future Ready” initiative, consider the big picture and encourage anyone and everyone to come out and play.

    Obviously, I love the game as much as the next tennis nut, however, I also believe and support the USTA’s mission statement – To promote and develop the growth of tennis. And I know first-hand from my experiences as a player, a professional and a promoter, that making adjustments to keep up with our ever-changing and accelerating culture is crucial.

    In the big picture, what we’ve arrived with is a supply that no longer fits the demand. People need activities that fit within their cramped, high-octane schedules. In this case, if the shoe doesn’t fit, they’ll go shopping for trousers.

    Shorter, time-definable formats ARE the wave of the future. Will these replace our traditional weekend events completely? I don’t think so. But those are for a different demographic anyway. One-day format events and flex leagues are creating play options for the greater public that require very little time commitment. And guess what? Tennis is growing again. We are the only main stream sport to have growth over the last six years.

    One-day, non-elimination events, operating under various names from Super Sets to Shootouts, are also providing incremental competitive steps for upcoming juniors and adults. Here is a programming option that offers 3 to 4 guaranteed matches, against a variety of competitors in a non-threatening environment. These short formats are finally making tennis a realistic alternative to soccer, t-ball and basketball.

    Here’s how far we’ve come: As a member of the USTA’s National Tennis Innovation Committee, I have had the great fortune to be part of a group that has identified the critical role that one-day formats are playing in the growth of our sport. We have made the nationwide initiation of these events our #1 priority. At press time, we currently have 12 of 17 USTA sections sanctioning one-day Shootouts for juniors, adults or both. Two more are officially considering pilots in the coming months. In 2008, the Southwest Section has 56 sanctioned one-day format events alone.

    It’s a great start, however we don’t want tennis to simply survive- we want it to thrive! With these new play options and the USTA’s implementation of the revolutionary Quickstart instructional and competitive system, we’re not only going to draw more people to tennis – we’re going to keep them playing.

    American culture has evolved; there’s no debating that. Now, tennis is evolving to make up for lost time. Is that a boom I hear in the distance?

  4. 20 years ago: A history lesson for the USTA

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    By Jim Reffkin
    November 2007

    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!

  5. Let’s get it straight

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    By Jeff Brack
    July 2007

    USTA Official, Dan Annese, oversees a junior match

    USTA Officials are your friends. They are not there to upset you. They are not there to distract you. They are not there to change the course of your match. They ARE there to ensure that the competition is fair and the sportsmanship is respectable.

    Don’t believe me? USTA Officials and Referees are the unsung heroes of competitive tennis. You’ve heard all of the complaints – “That official’s blind” or “He singled me out” or “She wasn’t even paying attention.” But, how many times have you heard someone say, “Boy, I’m glad that official was there. We really couldn’t decide what the score was.” Occasionally, I have seen a player or parent shake an official’s hand and say, “Thank you for taking the time to be here.” And, they certainly deserve more of that.

    Many of us do not take the time to consider the official’s point of view. Regardless of what you might think, these people are not forced to be present at a tournament. If they didn?t want to be there, they wouldn?t be. USTA Officials, in many cases, are retired adults that love the game of tennis so much, that they want to be involved in any way they can. They find great satisfaction in being able to contribute to an event, being a valuable member of the tournament staff and watching others compete. It certainly is not for the money. When all is said and done, they don’t make much more than gas money. Tennis officiating is basically a volunteer duty. So, if they are there, it is because they want to help.

    To the parents of junior players: I know sometimes it may seem like an official has it in for your kid. Anytime a call goes against your player, it’s going to feel like that. I know many officials and have repeatedly gone through the certification classes myself. The USTA is very specific about being over-officious? they prohibit it. These people do not desire to hand out any more penalties than are absolutely necessary. They want you to have fun in a fair and decent match. But the rules are the rules. If you get called on a foot fault, trust me, it was. “Roving” officials do not have the time nor the inclination to camp out at one court. There are exceptions, of course. At times, some of us may require a little more “attention” than others. But on the whole, these “keepers of the peace” are tasked with overseeing multiple courts at a time – a big job for anyone.

    Really, I think what needs to be considered is that tournament officials are not the “Rule Nazis” that post-match discussions often make them out to be. Remember, most are frequent players themselves and know what it’s like to be in YOUR position. They are trying to be as objective as possible, so try to consider what it’s like to be in THEIR position. The efforts of these volunteers keep the rules straight and our events respectable. Their mere presence holds everyone?s behavior to a higher standard.

    Imagine an event without them? Now imagine the next time you finish a match, making the effort to shake an official?s hand and thank them. It’ll demonstrate character and even better, you’ll make their day.

    “Friend at Court” is the title of the United States Tennis Association’s published rules of tennis. The title refers not only to the book itself, but the individual that volunteers the time to be a resource of that information when we need it most. Friend at Court indeed.

  6. SURF your way to better ground strokes

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    By Jeff Brack
    July 2007

    Quite often the greatest obstacle on the path to improvement is thinking. Specifically, when you try to focus your attention on too many elements of your stroke at the same time. It can be confusing and frustrating.

    You’ve been told to turn sideways. You’ve been told to get your racquet back. You’ve been told to follow through. Add in weight transfer, balance, posture, bend knees, yadda-yadda-yadda – and you’ve now made a mental mess of what seemed like an easy concept.

    The answer is SIMPLIFY. In this case, SURF. Two valuable concepts that we share with surfers are lowering our center of gravity and using our arms for balance. We share them for the same reason- stability. Watch any good player and you’ll wonder why you never thought of it yourself.

    If you get into the classic surfing stance, you automatically turn perpendicular to your target, racquet is back, non-racquet arm is extended forward, feet are separated, center of gravity is low and eyes are directed straight ahead. You are now perfectly positioned for a forehand. You did all of this, and you only had to think… SURF.


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

    July 2007

    EASY AS CHILD’S PLAY – Rowa Brack showcases the “Spinner” foam ball

    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.

    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.

  8. On a rare occasion…

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    By Jeff Brack
    April 2007

    Jim Reffkin – Tennis Innovator from Tucson, AZ

    Unfortunately, the contributions of pioneers are usually recognized long after they have left us. Due credit is rarely received in their own time.

    That very rare occasion occurred this past March at the 2007 National USTA Annual Meeting. Kurt Kamperman, the Chief Executive of Community Tennis Development for the United States Tennis Association, stood before the crowded general assembly of tennis volunteers and staff from around the country and told the story of how a great innovator of our game or “future chef” suggested that change and adaptation were necessary for tennis to survive, and we threw him out of the kitchen.

    In 1988, when Jim Reffkin, then the National President of the USPTA, addressed the grand assembly of teaching professionals for his outgoing speech, he passionately decried the declining participation in tennis and suggested that changes were a necessary piece of the retention puzzle. Unknown to many, the next part is now tennis history. Reffkin simply stated that replacing the third set with a tiebreak was imperative. Streamlining our scoring system would provide many benefits that would not only make tennis more attractive for growing the game, but provide more options for retaining time-poor adults, young juniors and aging seniors. Tournament and league competitions would be time-definable, run smoothly, and the athletes would be able to avoid early round marathons and save their best tennis for last. When he finished, only the crickets chirped.

    How did he come to this conclusion? After years of watching his events careen off schedule, tenacious competitors finish remarkable third set matches only to be crushed next round by a fresher, less taxed player, parents’ faces as they realized that their evening plans were shot because their child’s 2:00 match would be at 5:00 and young juniors staggering off the court not knowing which way was up, he could see them slipping away. Their expressions said it all, “Why am I doing this?”

    Match Tiebreak (in lieu of third set) was indeed the brain child of Jim Reffkin and will undoubtedly be one of his greatest contributions to the sport of tennis. The impact of his scoring revolution has not yet run its full course, but to date it has been adopted by the ATP & WTA for all professional doubles, the USTA, ITF (International Tennis Federation), NCAA, High School, Tennis Australia, and the US Open & Australian Open Mixed Doubles. Television now carries more doubles matches (being time-definable), more top ranked singles professionals are playing doubles, young junior competitors are now competing in matches of an appropriate length, tennis tournaments run on schedule and one-day formats have thrived.

    When Kamperman publicly acknowledged the tremendous service that Reffkin has provided, by not only suggesting groundbreaking changes, but for his willingness to face the adversity of traditionalists and boldly pilot new formats at his own facility, he brought a sense of accomplishment that many never experience. Through years of work with many associations worldwide, the Collegiate doubles format 8-GAME PRO SET, Super Scoring or MATCH TIEBREAK in Lieu of Third Set, and one-day SHOOTOUTS and SUPERSETS are all possible due to the relentless persistence of a “future chef” from Tucson, Arizona.

    The theme for the entire USTA Annual Meeting was “Future Ready,” and having it take place in Tucson could not have been more appropriate. The energy and enthusiasm was at a fevered pitch for making our game RELEVENT in an evolving culture. Innovation was everywhere, from foam ball tennis on reduced-sized courts for beginners to workshops on thinking “outside the box.” A keynote speaker even proposed the question, “If tennis had never existed, and was invented today, would it be the same?”

    It has been a long road of successes and failures for a man with a vision for making tennis available to everyone – for winning back those athletes we lose to other sports – for keeping those that give us a try. All were quiet in 1988 when he shared that vision, but on Sunday, March 25, 2007, those cricket chirps turned to applause.

  9. That pesky serve…

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    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.

  10. Public Tennis Facilities, is USTA really helping them?

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    By Jim Reffkin
    January 2007

    Jane Brown Grimes, our new USTA President, has set forth her goals for the next two years and one of them is to continue Past President, Franklin Johnson’s initiative to, “invigorate tennis in the Public Parks.” Thank you Franklin and thank you Jane!

    You would think that most Directors of Municipal Facilities would be encouraged that the USTA is supporting and promoting Public Parks Tennis, I certainly am impressed and do appreciate our governing body’s efforts. However, based on my thirty-two years of public parks experience at the Reffkin Tennis Center, and having visited public facilities in almost every major city in the United States, the consensus from many of my peers will be – let’s “wait and see.”

    Realistically, we still have a lot more work ahead of us, and believe it or not, Tennis is still fighting the “Country Club” image and years of steerage in the goodship USTA. In other words a couple consecutive years is not going to change the perception many Parks people still have on our Association’s willingness to continue supporting Public Parks Tennis. In the past – not always – new Presidents pick a new direction to set themselves apart, a new identity that stamps their time as President – a lasting mark of their achievement. We can only hope that our new President fulfills our Past President?s original goal of growing tennis participation in the Parks, it certainly is a noble and unselfish cause if she does.

    My experience is not only three decades as a Public Tennis Center Director – Reffkin Tennis Center – but also the unique opportunity as National President of the USPTA and National Tester, to visit facilities in almost every major city in the United States. It is clear to me, that even though seventy percent of tennis is currently being played on public courts, it is far from reaching its potential in growing our game. There is still a huge challenge to educate Facility Directors and Parks Departments on how to develop a “model tennis environment” suitable to the needs of the community they service.

    So far there has been an outstanding job of having matching funds available to improve tennis facilities and marketing efforts. So far the goal for advocacy to increase funding in Parks and Recreation budgets is getting traction. So far the collaboration with Tennis Industry has successfully introduced Cardio Tennis. So far the NRPA and USTA collaboration is beginning to bridge the gap with other major recreation sports played – as Merv Heller always says, “we’re gaining on them.” So far Tennis Service Reps (TSRs) are beginning to get traction and they should become major players in our efforts.

    And of course the highlight this last year is having Billie Jean King aboard and naming the National Tennis Center in her honor; this was fantastic and should go a long way in breaking the “Country Club” perception.

    For whatever its worth, here are a few “Tennis in the Parks” suggestions:

    Suggestion #1 Offer or suggest innovative sources of activity to increase revenues – its called “Programming.” Many facilities do no more than private and group lessons and take court fees; this will not sustain participation and the facility is destined to be a parking lot or soccer field. The already existing Junior and Adult “Participation Path,” endorsed by the National Tennis Innovation Committee, has years of proven success and is being copied everywhere, including other countries. This simple incremental progression of participation needs to be available at all USTA Section offices for immediate implementation, including training and the materials to initiate.

    Suggestion #2 Recruit former experienced Facility Directors – retired volunteers – to consult on how to create a business plan, how to negotiate an equitable contract with Parks Departments and how to introduce adequate programming to sustain the facilities financial bottom line. After visiting a variety of tennis facilities, it was obvious expectations are so far off that both the city and concessionaire suffer in the wake of its failure. The issue of city employee versus private concessionaire has always been a contentious issue for parties involved. City contracts are so one-sided that most qualified candidates are scared off almost immediately. This means negotiation is critical, because most of the time city government is receptive to proposals that would be fair to both parties.

    Suggestion #3 The biggest problem we have is convincing facilities to enrich their programming. Facility Directors or Teaching Professionals are visited by USTA staff, but normally extremely busy directors do not want to “change” the status quo. One thing is clear, Public Tennis Centers are understaffed and would consider in a heartbeat sharing a TSR as an employee. What a win-win opportunity to have an immediate USTA tennis impact at public facilities. In other words solicit new Tennis Service Reps for key Tennis Facilities. These same individuals would establish the “model tennis environment” for their own facility and be a model for a major metropolitan area.

    Suggestion #4 Correct the existing facility design of High School and neighborhood public courts by offering a model for schools and parks. Lack of shade, no water, continuous cyclone fencing and no seating is universal. Consider USPTA’s suggestion of allowing teaching professionals the opportunity to promote and control these unsupervised sites.

    Suggestion #5 Offer “no charge service” consulting on basic functional design – not working plans – for public facilities. Get communities at least started in the right direction; many new facilities are “over engineered” and will quickly become difficult to maintain in relation to the revenues they will be collecting. Most architects do not understand the needs of a typical public facility – they will not even refer to USTC & TBA Guidelines for Tennis Courts. I have seen enough “botched” facilities to know that architects never hire a tennis consultant. Ask Kurt Kamperman on his experience with this extremely important issue. Do it right the first time!

    Suggestion #6 One thing is clear, and is a no-brainer, rather than being on a committee that will hopefully influence facility directors to adopt USTA programming, why not have facility directors on the committee that will do the influencing? Better yet, how about offering a National “workshop” for Public Facility Directors at the USTA Annual meeting, or at all sectional annual meetings. Arizona Workshop!

    Special Note: John Austin, Tennis Director for the new facility in Surprise, Arizona and the Reffkin Tennis Center in Tucson are initiating a Southwest Facility Directors Workshop during the USTA Annual Meeting in March. If you are a Public Facility Director please contact John or myself.