The Soft Sell
“Transition balls” are gaining in popularity and exposure, and can help your business make gains, too.
Jane Webb of Sherman, Conn., learned to play tennis in her high school physical education class, but gave up the sport because she considered the hit-miss-run-after-the-ball beginner’s experience too tedious. Now 52, Webb credits a single piece of equipment with her return to tennis: a “transition ball,” an oversized foam ball with an inner core that slows down its flight while allowing it to bounce like a traditional tennis ball.
“Chasing balls all the time got frustrating,” Webb recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m just not very good at this. When you’re playing with the [transition ball], you get proficient very fast. It gets you excited about the game when you can play with some degree of coordination. Now I see why people think tennis is fun.”
While it took only 15 minutes for Webb and her husband to successfully rally with their tennis instructor and his wife over a portable net in a church parking lot, Indiana University senior Neil Kenner says he and his teammates also benefit from practicing with transition balls.
“We weren’t too happy when [assistant men’s tennis coach] Randy [Bloemendaal] had us hit with them for the first time. We wanted to play with regular balls,” says Kenner, admitting that warming up with the softer balls across three-quarters of the court helps him focus on proper positioning and swinging through the ball on every shot. “After a while, I definitely thought we were all hitting the ball cleaner. We just had to give the [transition ball] a chance.”
Chuck Kriese, head coach of men’s tennis at Clemson University for the last 30 years, says he’s used transition balls for about two years to help players regain some of the lost artistry in tennis — particularly in the men’s game — due to its lightning-fast tempo. While high-tech racquets allow advanced players to experience success despite “hacking, slicing, and pushing” a regulation ball back, he says the transition ball slows down the game in a manner that forces players to develop good shot selection and technically sound mechanics.
“Tennis players are the worst at trying new things, but you see results right away with transition balls,” says Kriese, who experimented with them at his beginners’ camps before quickly incorporating it into his work with advanced players. “I think it’s one of the best teaching tools out there.”
While transition balls and other low-compression balls from a variety of manufacturers are becoming more popular in the U.S., they have been used in Europe for years, according to Kirk Anderson, the USTA’s director of recreational coaches and programs, who also sits on the International Tennis Federation’s Tennis Participation Task Force and Transition Ball Subcommittee.
In England, for example, Anderson says players use transition balls that generate three increasing levels of speed before graduating to a regulation ball. In Belgium, juniors play sanctioned tournaments using seven kinds of transition balls in seven corresponding tennis court boundaries. With about 90 different transition balls used worldwide, he says the ITF is working to standardize ball specifications and corresponding court sizes, rules, and regulations.
Here in the U.S., Anderson says transition balls present endless opportunities for growing modified versions of tennis, just as half-court basketball, slow-pitch softball, no-check hockey, and flag and touch football maximize participation rates in those respective sports. Transition-ball advantages include more moving and hitting made possible by longer rallies, fewer injuries as a result of the lighter ball imparting less stress on joints, reduced player intimidation since the balls are made of foam and other soft materials, and appeal to all age groups.
Aside from the ball, according to Anderson, no special equipment is necessary. Regulation size or modified tennis courts may be used, in addition to gymnasiums, parking lots and even some carpeted areas.
To spread the word, according to Jason Jamison, the USTA’s school tennis product manager, transition balls are being promoted at conventions, recreational coach workshops, and school programs. In fact, the USTA now includes transition balls along with racquets and a portable net in its equipment kit distributed to schools.
“The [transition ball] offers a play-based approach that helps players develop the confidence to stay with the game,” says Jamison. “Beginners are actually more fun to coach, too, because they’re having fun and they’re motivated to learn more.” An added bonus, he notes, is that pros can make more money teaching with transition balls by dividing a court into six parts, teaching more players in the same amount of time.
“Everything about [transition balls] is good,” says Harry Gilbert, a USPTA-certified teaching pro at the Waccabuc Country Club in Waccabuc, N.Y., who has used the softer balls in his Little Tennis classes for several years. The balls look like standard tennis balls and produce a lively and predictable bounce, but their low-compression core produces a slow-moving effect that gives players more time to prepare for and react to each stroke.
“I like them because they’re visual and they don’t bounce over the kids’ heads,” Gilbert says. “They’re easy to control, but even if one goes flying, it’s safer than a regular ball.”
Craig Jones, tennis director at Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, Ga., says he keeps a separate basket of transition balls on hand at all times to use with the 4- and 5-year-olds in his programs. “They help grow the game because players experience success right from the beginning,” he says.
While Jones says the beginner adults at his club shun transition balls once they see youngsters playing with them, tennis director Will Hoag of the Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says that is a mistake. The two-tone balls are easier for all ages to track, he notes, allowing players to shed their self-consciousness in the process of focusing on the ball.
“Adults are always afraid of hitting balls over the fence, but I’m not sure Roger Federer could do it with these balls,” says Hoag, who attributes his club’s growing adult membership with the success their children experience with transition balls.
While there are many transition balls on the market, both the USPTA and the PTR have partnered with different manufacturers.
Tim Heckler, chief executive officer of the USPTA, says transition balls are steadily gaining popularity — with good reason. “I’ve always called it a miracle ball because they’re very forgiving — you can hit it off center, which most beginners do, and it comes off the racquet fairly straight,” says Heckler. The USPTA endorses Pro Penn Stars, which are available through the organization for $10.95 per dozen.
“There’s hardly a situation in the world that these balls wouldn’t help, whether a player is a beginner, coming back from injury, or looking for more control,” Heckler adds. “To a certain extent, [transition balls] have revolutionized the game.”
Similarly, PTR CEO Dan Santorum says the Dunlop SpeedBall is so beneficial to players of all ages and abilities that the PTR assisted in its development and designated it as the organization’s official teaching and training ball.
“I think the best testimonial is the number we sell,” says Santorum, noting the PTR sold more than $40,000 in Speedballs (at $25 per dozen) in 2004, a 63 percent increase from the previous year. Members can also purchase SpeedBall court tape and spot markers, and a three-part video series instructing them how to use SpeedBalls in coaching inexperienced, developmental, and tournament-level players.
“I believe [transition balls are] here to stay,” Santorum says.
See all articles by Cynthia Cantrell
About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.