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All the small things


 

Originally published on: 05/04/11 16:19

IMAGINE stepping out onto a court the size of an Olympic basketball court with a net bumped up neck-high, playing tennis with a heavy ball that bounces above your head most of the time. It may sound as fun as facing an Andy Roddick serve blindfolded, but that is the experience for most children aged ten and under when they play tennis on a full-size court with a standard yellow tennis ball.  But new rules, mandated by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) ahead of the 2010 US Open, mean that from January 2012 no tournament for players aged ten and under will use the standard ball. Slow low-bouncing balls will be used instead, with court sizes also adjusted to suit the age groups.The Tennis 10s initiative, part of the ITF’s Play+Stay campaign, features three competition categories to cater for a range of ages and abilities of young players. The scheme centres around the three traffic-light balls: red for 5-8-year-olds, orange for 8-10-year-olds and green for 9-10-year-olds, each ball progressively quicker and higher-bouncing than the last.

You may already see the balls being pinged around during junior coaching sessions at your local club, but the ITF believes their use has not gone far enough worldwide, with most kids using the balls in training but not competition. “At the ten-and-under age group, pretty much everything was yellow-ball competition,” said ITF Participation Officer James Newman. “The problem was you had all these kids getting quite a good base, but as soon as a coach thought ‘this kid’s a little bit talented’ – which is a verysubjective thing – they switched to the ‘proper’ ball, in both training and competition.”

Many junior tennis coaches were left with a dilemma: train your students with the traffic-light balls and hope they can ride out alien experience of competing with standard balls, or introduce the yellow ball in training to make them competitive at the expense of technique. Neither choice sounds much fun for the child, which is why the ITF has intervened. “That was a massive problem,” Newman adds. “Not just in Britain, but in other countries as well.

TENNIS IS EASY WITH THE RIGHT BALL, RACKET AND COURT

”Mini tennis, short tennis, and a host of other child-friendly versions of the sport have existed for years, dating back to the first use of sponge balls and shortened rackets in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. The mistake is to believe that the sight of children lobbing yellow balls back and forth on a full-size court until one cannot reach a shot represents the playing capabilities of children under ten. Nothing could be further from the truth – their bodies simply aren’t designed to play tennis in its native adult dimensions. Rather than making an adult sport easier for children, the ITF is scaling tennis down so children can learn the adult game.”

TENNIS COMPETITIONS CAN BE ADAPTED TO PLAYERS’ NEEDS

The balls and the courts are not related to ability, but to physiology – the size and strength of the average child,” Newman explains. “We looked at the average heights of five to ten-year-olds and created specifications for balls that matched their dimensions, so that after the bounce the ball typically gets up to a height between their waist and shoulder – the optimum height for forehands and backhands.

TENNIS IS A HEALTHY PASTIME

“Then we looked at court size. If you compare the height of the average adult to that of the average seven or eight-year-old, you’ll see that the ratio is the same as the ratio between the dimensions of a full-size court and an orange court, which is 18m by 6.5m. Where those seven or eight-year-olds typically need 5.5 steps on average to reach a wide ball on a full-size court, on an orange court they need an average of 3.9 – the same as an adult on a full-size court.”By putting the ruling in place, effectively preventing kids from playing with standard balls, courts and competition formats too soon in their development.

TENNIS IS A SPORT FOR ALL, SO GET A RATING AND PLAY PEOPLE AT YOUR LEVEL…

Youngsters will develop both sound technique and a love for the game early on, having seen the scenario work successfully in other sports.“You can imagine in soccer: if kids were practicing every week on the small pitch with the small goals and then every Saturday they played their matches on a full-size pitch, that would be crazy,” said Miley. “In tennis, kids were using the smaller courts in practice, but then eight-and-under, nine-and-under competitions were best-of-three sets with a regular ball on a regular court. They can’t cover the court, they can’t get into the net, all most of them can do is lob the ball back and forth.”

Of course, there will always be children who take to the game quickly, but Miley is certain that they too will benefit from Tennis 10s. “We believe that players can develop better technique, less extreme grips,” he explains. “And because of the balls and the courts, they can implement tactics that they couldn’t do with the regular ball.” With the Tennis 10s initiative receiving overwhelming approval at the 2010 Annual General Meeting of the ITF nations, Miley believes they have also solved the coaching debate. “It won’t be a choice, because they have to prepare the kids for the competitions. ”The focus of those coaching sessions may change as well, with the ITF keen to see players serve, rally and score from the first lesson – the mantra of the Play+Stay initiative.“ Technique’s still important, but that comes once kids have got hooked on the game – then we can get them playing a little bit better,” said Miley, adding that plans for a new ball aimed at adult beginners are in the pipeline. The signs are already positive: since the Lawn Tennis Association aligned its mini tennis programme with tennis 10s in 2007, participation has jumped from 10,000 regular players to 23,000 this year, while the United States recorded a 1.25 million increase in players in the first two years of putting the scheme in place.

Finally, Miley believes, Tennis 10s may help tennis lose its tough-to-crack reputation. “The vision we have is that, in the same way that a father can kick a ball around with his kid even if he’s not very good at soccer, they can go and play tennis because the balls are slow enough that they can rally back and forth.”

What the pros say: (Been there, done that…)

Roger Federer: “it’s definitely easier to use lighter rackets and play with a slower ball. You can swing through the ball more and it just doesn’t fly off your racket uncontrollably.

Rafael Nadal: “it is very important, slower balls. Kids with normal balls, the bounce is too high, so it is very difficult to improve like this. The slower balls are much better and easier when you start.

Jelena Jankovic: “I think the campaign is a great idea – I think it will get more kids involved to play tennis”

All the small things featured in the January 2011 edition of tennishead magazine. To subscribe, or buy a past issue, click here

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Tennishead magazine brings you the very best tennis articles, interviews with the great players, tennis gear and racket reviews, tennis coaching tips plus much more
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