As programs for beginners increase, consider putting in courts specifically for teaching tennis.
Think of it as the Happy Meal of racquet sports. Beginner tennis facilities that feature shorter courts, lower nets and softer, spongier balls, are serving up forehand, backhand and serve in child-size proportions. It’s all part of the great effort to grow the sport and, well, make it more appetizing.
The rationale? If other sports, such as baseball, can start children off with kid-friendly versions (T-ball, for example), why not tennis? The goal is making the skills easy and fun to master, rather than so challenging that prospective players go stomping off the court in search of their Nintendo.
Already, some builders of tennis facilities have installed facilities for children. Rob Werner of Sportsline Inc. in Villanova, Pa., did this at a private club.
“They’ve converted two soft courts with underground irrigation into five mini-courts, three at one size and two at another size, for beginner kids and tot programs,” says Werner. “This included short game lines, and the same tape and machine-type nailings as the full-sized courts, and then we custom-sized new nets with portable net posts.”
Knowing that children might not be able to control their shots as well as adult players meant taking extra precautions, adds Werner. “We installed divider nets between the full-size courts, and also between the half courts of the two full-size courts, utilizing the existing net-post sleeves for the divider post and nettings. We installed new post sleeves at the backsides of the fencing for the dividers between the courts, so that the full-size courts could be returned at some point in future.”
There are already some beginner tennis programs that use kid-size equipment and playing spaces. As an example, the USTA is launching the QuickStart Tennis program. It is aimed at the 10-and-under set. The program groups children according to age (10-and-under and 8-and-under) to keep larger, stronger children from dominating lessons and getting more attention from instructors.
In regulation tennis, the space within the playing lines is 36 feet wide and 78 feet long (with an overall court area that is 60 by 120 feet). Compare that to the courts in QuickStart: For kids 8 and younger, the size of the court is 18 by 36 feet. Ages 10 and under use a court that is 21 by 60 feet (27 by 60 for doubles).
Adult nets are 42 inches at the post and 36 inches at the center strap. For kids 8 and under, the net is 18 feet long and 2 feet, 9 inches high. Older kids use a regulation net if they are playing on a court with an existing net, and a net that is 3 feet in height otherwise.
In addition to courts adapted by age, modified racquets, balls and playing formats make the game fun and easy to learn for children in all age groups.
Starting to see a pattern here? Smaller kids = smaller courts. Bigger kids = bigger courts. Smaller courts may well appeal to younger players, but builders say there are plenty of additional ideas for facilities for beginners — adults and kids.
What Beginners Want
“I have found quieter settings are a benefit for playing and especially for teaching,” says Richard Zaino of Zaino Tennis Courts in Orange, Calif. “I remember there were some tennis courts built between some very busy streets; these streets were the beginning and ending of a freeway in Los Angeles and the tennis courts were in the center. There was so much noise from the traffic you could not converse in a normal voice. No way could a pro teach from the opposite end of the court or no way could players hear anything from the baseline. Quiet settings are a must for teaching.”
Another recommendation? Multiple outlets for ball machines. “Outlets for ball machines are always a good idea, whether players are beginners or not,” says Colin Donovan of Renner Sports Surfaces Inc. of Denver.
Another use for outlets, according to Zaino, is as a power source for video cameras and laptops to allow instructors to show players images of themselves playing so that they can correct mistakes.
Practice walls and backboards also are helpful; however, there are different brands on the market, and because they are made of different materials, some can be noisier than others. Demo any equipment before buying.
Many builders also recommend windscreens around the fences of outdoor courts, allowing for a feeling of seclusion and privacy. Audiences are distracting, and no beginner wants to feel like his or her lack of skill is on display.
Amenities and accessories recommended for beginner courts include benches or shade shelters for parents’ seating, and storage areas for equipment. Water on the court is a plus, as is easy access to a bathroom (especially for kids).
Create a Learning Environment
Depending upon the level of instruction, other amenities can be useful. The book Tennis Courts: A Construction and Maintenance Manual notes that “a demonstration court with tiered seating and a ball retrieval system is useful in teaching facilities where visiting pros may give clinics for large numbers of players. Another useful addition might be an instruction tower. Instruction towers provide an opportunity for coaches and instructors to supervise play on a number of courts, making an instruction facility more efficient. Practice alleys are efficient, too, since they take up less space than courts and leave the courts themselves free for matches.”
There are other amenities that can help create a better learning environment. Zaino has seen courts and backboards in which certain areas were marked, so that players could practice shot placement. Most builders believe that higher fencing is better for players getting used to the bounce of a standard tennis ball.
Some courts go all out to give beginners an ideal learning experience. John Welborn of Lee Tennis Products in Charlottesville, Va., 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 with a ball retrieval system, you don’t have to stop and pick up balls. 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.”
What else? Supervision. Pros and instructors should be advised to keep an eye on beginning players to make sure they don’t overexert. A clock near the court is a good idea.
No matter whether smaller courts are used, or whether amenities are used on regulation courts to make them more inviting, the goal is the same, say builders: Bringing more players into the game. Make learning tennis easy and fun. In short, it’s reaching out especially to those who have never played tennis before, and saying, “Welcome to the game. We’ve been waiting for you.”
For information about the American Sports Builders Association call 866-501-ASBA (2722) or visit sportsbuilders.org.