About 10 years ago, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) took a hard look at the state of children’s tennis, and realized changes needed be made.
The sport hadn’t made concessions for it’s youngest players. Most other sports had long downsized their courts or fields in some way to make playing easier for kids. Soccer shrunk its goals, youth basketball lowered its rims. “We realized we were asking kids who were four feet tall to play with the same equipment Roger Federer is playing with as if they’re six feet tall,” says Sue Hunt, chief marketing officer of the USTA. “We decided we absolutely had to change the sport, which is really frankly quite traditional.”
So the USTA started mandating that courts be smaller, and that balls be slower, and have less bounce, for younger players. The International Tennis Federation got on board. Courts are now three different sizes, depending on age and ability. There are also three different transition balls to be used before a player reaches age 10. The starter red ball is for kids eight and under. The orange and green balls are used for kids 10-and-under, based on ability (orange has less bounce). Finally, when kids are old enough and ready, they can use the standard yellow ball.
“Kids want to feel competent when they try something new,” says Hunt. “It’s true for parents too. If a parent takes their child out on the big court with a yellow ball, they’re chasing balls all afternoon. Nobody is having fun and the kid doesn’t feel capable.”
The USTA also recommended changes for tennis lessons. Instead of standing kids on the court to hit 20 forehands followed by 20 backhands, the organization suggests throwing out red balls and letting kids just experiment for a while.
Almost a year after global implementation, the initiative appears to be working. From 2011 to 2012, the USTA reported a 13% increase in USTA-associated youth 10-and-under tennis participation, a 38% increase in youth ball sales, and a 120% increase in the number of facilities offering 10-and-under programs.
Currently, the USTA is promoting the initiative as “10 and Under Tennis,” but the organization plans to phase out the title. A 35-year-old who is just picking up the sport may want to start with a slower ball, and a doubles team of senior citizens may not be able to move their bodies around a full-sized court the way they used to. “A barrier to entry is that people think it’s an old sport they grew up with,” says Hunt. “Now, it’s radically changed and throughout the next 10 to 20 years we are letting people know that tennis is fun and you can play from day one.”