If you’ve watched 15 minutes of the U.S. Open by now, you’ve probably seen one of the USTA’s ads about its 10 and under tennis program. Is this concept really that new? Perhaps it is in the days of graphite rackets that can’t be sawed off like my first wooden racket (a Jack Kramer), but small rackets and lowered nets have been around a long while.
The unspoken implication in the USTA campaign is that American professional tennis is weak because the rackets, balls and courts are too big for American kids. That’s not the problem. The problem is that for whatever reason, tennis is no longer considered very cool or an important part of American culture, much like it was in the seventies when I was starting out (pictured here at age 7 in 1974 with my mother, pregnant with my brother at the time).
Spain, France, Serbia, Argentina and Russia aren’t dominating the pro ranks because they have lots of miniature courts and pint-sized equipment for kids; they are dominant because in those countries, tennis is appealing, like it was here thirty to forty years ago.
Of course, just maybe this program will work, and American kids will enjoy the game and tennis will be cool again. Encouraging kids to play is a great cause and I hope it’s wildly successful — just quit blaming the tools. What’s needed is the desire to hit the ball, not custom-made equipment. Connors, McEnroe and Sampras grew up on rackets like war clubs — there is no reason a new generation of young American players today can’t do the same.