Make your tennis facility friendly for beginning players and you’ll have them coming back for more — and bringing their friends.
Sure, you say you’re trying to recruit tennis players. You’re holding beginner lessons. You’re offering clinics. Maybe you’re even adding another person to your teaching staff. But how beginner-friendly is your facility?
Case in point: A novice player decides to come to the court to practice her serve, her forehand, and her backhand. She doesn’t have a partner — just her racquet and a big old bag of tennis balls. All she wants to do is hit balls over the net, collect them on the other side, and start again.
Only it doesn’t go as planned. She finds the only court available is between those of expert players — the kind who play hard and take no prisoners. Right away, she suffers an acute attack of sweaty-palmed self-consciousness about her partner-less state and her big bag of balls. Next, her wild shots keep veering into the courts on either side of her, forcing the players to interrupt their game. A few balls go over the fence entirely, attracting the attention of some members who are just coming out of the clubhouse. Those individuals make loud comments about the beginner’s noticeable lack of skill.
Frustrated, embarrassed and miserable, the beginner leaves the court. Will she come back?
Making a tennis facility user-friendly means addressing the needs of all users, including beginners. After all, beginners are the link to the future of your club. So how can you make a facility more beginner-friendly?
There are a few key ingredients, according to tennis court builders, that can make beginners happy, make their instruction and practice time pleasant, and can keep them coming back. The most important thing to do, they say, is to eliminate the self-consciousness. To do that, minimize a player’s feeling that his or her lack of prowess is on display.
“I think privacy is a key component,” says Randy Futty of Lee Tennis in Charlottesville, Va. “Often, players new to the game want a more private setting to learn in.” A good practice court, say builders, is a single court. But that’s not all.
“I believe there should be a designated court that we often call the ‘pro court,’” says John Brevard of Color Court Systems of Nashville. “The pro court is often at the end of a battery of courts. I think the pro court should have a 10-foot fence with windscreens to give student the optimal privacy and comfort. In addition, the fence acts as a barrier to excessive ball loss and what we call, ‘the occasional home run.’”
Windscreens and high fence will go a long way toward eliminating self-consciousness. They also will give your more skilled players some relief from balls that come crashing into their games.
Many clubs and institutions have banks of courts with low fences in between, but those just don’t work for beginners. If your club has a large number of lessons or practices going on at once, think about using soft netting to partition off a group of courts at each end of the bank. Hanging curtains can also be strung between each practice court so that even beginners don’t run the risk of interfering with one another.
Ask your pros — and the members as well — to keep an eye out for anyone who might make your beginner members uncomfortable while they’re on the court. Foster an attitude that includes, ‘We were all beginners once’ and, ‘Welcome to the game.’ Deal with rude behavior immediately. If necessary, post signs stating that courtesy is a rule and not an exception. You may be surprised how quickly your members become protective of the “new kids on the block.”
Making your beginners happy means providing them with a partner when they’re not yet skilled enough to have a partner. In this case, the partner can be a ball machine.
“I am continually amazed at teaching situations that do not utilize ball machines, especially for beginners or younger players,” says David Marsden of Boston Tennis Courts in Hanover, Mass. One advantage of ball machines, he adds, is their consistent ball throw (the student can work on “grooving” a stroke rather than chasing balls of different depth or direction). And when a student is working with a ball machine and a teaching pro during lessons, there are even more advantages, including less wear and tear on the pro.
“After all,” says Marsden, “if a ball machine breaks down, you fix it. If a pro breaks down, he or she is out of business.”
Additionally, the teacher can stand next to the student rather than across the net, 40 to 60 feet away. By standing nearby, a pro can demonstrate correct strokes, footwork, grips, and more. He or she can see immediately what mistakes the student is making. Between lessons, the ball machine can be rented to students who can then hone their skills without feeling like they are taking up another player’s time.
If you’re really going to run with the idea of a practice court and ball machine — particularly if you’re going to build a specific practice court, there are ways to combine the two.
John Welborn of Lee Tennis has “seen several practice-only courts, not teaching courts, that are designed to slope back to the ball machine with gutters like bowling alleys to catch the balls so they are fed back to the machine automatically. It really is nice not to have balls in the way and you don’t have to stop and pick them up. These courts were undersize and had netting to herd the balls, but the big secret was the sloping of the court. It had a compound slope to make the balls roll both to the sides and toward the collection end, all ending up at the base of the ball machine.”
For those beginners who have progressed to the point where they enjoy hitting balls and chasing them as they return, a backboard or hitting wall can provide an excellent workout. But according to Bob Deller of Plexipave System in Andover, Mass., certain conditions should be observed.
“I am very partial to having a hitting/practice wall somewhere on the facility separated from court play. A practice wall right next to a playing court can be very distracting to match play. The best situation is a wall separated from the rest of the courts by 100 feet or so.”
Practice walls and backboards are made from a variety of materials. Some are relatively quiet when struck by a ball, but others are not. Some are relatively simple, little more than a flat surface with a line painted at net height; others are complex and capable of simulating a variety of shots. Before buying any system, insist upon a demonstration and evaluate whether it will work at your facility.
Pat Hanssen, who worked as a teaching pro for 10 years prior to joining the staff of Lee Tennis, can tick off a list of other amenities a beginner facility should have. Among his favorites are a place close to the court to store balls and teaching aids; power outlets at each end and in the middle on each side to accommodate ball machines, videotaping, and more; ample, shaded viewing areas so that players can rest or watch a pro demonstrate a stroke; and a speaker system to allow for larger group demonstrations.
Remember, too, that a player who is outside practicing may well forget the time, and may stay out longer than recommended. A shaded seating area as well as a drinking fountain or refrigerator where water, soda, or energy drinks can be stored can help encourage him or her to take a break and not over-exert. A clock should also be nearby.
The jury is still out on what kind of a surface a beginner court should have. Bob Deller of Plexipave urges owners to consider cushioned courts that will be easier on the pro’s joints during a long day at work. Some recommend a slow surface that will magnify the effect of spin and illustrate more clearly to a beginner the difference in shot technique. Hanssen is in favor of slow surfaces because they allow students more time to prepare for and get into position for shots, thereby increasing confidence. He also believes that the temperature of the surface should be considered. Some builders believe that a surface that requires the very least amount of maintenance should be used, since such a court will be able to accommodate more players during the day and over the course of the season. There are budgetary considerations as well.
Bottom line? The choice of surface is your choice. Talk to your pro and find out what he or she prefers. Talk to your builder and figure out what fits your budget and your maintenance needs and abilities. Ask your long-time players what they learned on and whether they would recommend it. Take everything into consideration. If possible, talk to other club owners.
So let’s rewrite the story. The beginner goes straight to the practice court with her big bag of balls and begins her workout. An hour later, she emerges, tired but happy. Where does she go? Straight to the pro shop for that new racquet she promised to buy for herself as soon as she felt like she was going to stick with the game.
Now, isn’t that a much nicer ending?
The American Sports Builders Association is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators, and users understand quality sports-facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books, and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities including tennis courts. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Contact 866-501-ASBA (2722) or visit sportsbuilders.org.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.