Tennis comes in smaller size for children

Tom Rogers took his girls to the Les Myers Community Park tennis wall, hoping Dinah, 6, and Juno, 4, would fall in love with the game just as he had around their ages.

Minutes into their first lesson, after a few bits of advice on grips and swings, their eyes glazed over and the nearby playground beckoned.

"It didn't take long," he said. "They were frustrated."

Rogers thought his dreams of playing regularly with the girls, like he did with his own parents, were dashed.

But a new way of teaching tennis to kids, called QuickStart, is taking that frustration away and turning kids like Rogers' on to the game.

Youth tennis is undergoing a major overhaul these days, from rules, to equipment, even to the way the game is taught. The results mean more kids are picking up racquets and a lifelong pastime.

Three lessons into the program, Dinah was slicing the ball with a handsome forehand, and Juno was marveling at her own powerhouse strength.

"I love whacking the ball," she said, after sending it over the net.

It's a change Kurt Kamperman, chief executive for Community Tennis with the United States Tennis Association, said was a long time coming.

"We realized we needed to scale the playing field to the size of the kids," said Kamperman. "We should have thought of this 20 years ago."

Unlike traditional sports like baseball, football and soccer, which modified the rules, equipment and field dimensions to suit kids' sizes, tennis remained a game that kids and adults played by the same rules, with the same balls and racquets, and the same court size.

With QuickStart, kids 10 and under use low-compression balls that bounce less, and smaller, easier to hold racquets. Court dimensions are shorter, nets are lower, and scoring is simpler.

It's made all the difference, said Laura Oxendine, a tennis instructor with AMP Tennis. "The balls are slower. They learn the technique at a slower level. They succeed quicker."

That's part of the goal, said Kamperman.

"Kids love to do anything where they are successful," said Kamperman. "With video games and computers today, they don't want to take six months to a year to learn the game."

Tennis has been picking up more players in the last decade. A 2010 study by the Physical Activity Council, which tracks sports fitness and recreation participation, shows a 43 percent increase in the number of people playing since 2000. A growing number of those are kids. In 2009, 9.5 million kids were taking to the court, nearly 3 million more than six years before.

But as the game has picked up players, the outlet to demonstrate those skills has not kept up. While soccer, football, and baseball have teams and leagues, tennis has had very little to showcase until now.

QuickStart leagues and tournaments are popping up more frequently.

Elizabeth Sparks watches her 9-year-old boys Harrison and Robert run the court, adhering to the new light green lines added late summer for youth players.

"As twins, they are so competitive," she said. "This is a good way to channel that."

Sparks learned to play the traditional way, and is glad her kids have a better option. "At their age, a tennis court probably looks just like a football field. It's making it fun for them, so they'll be interested."