Recreational Play: ROG Balls and Shorter Courts Aren’t Just for Kids!
By Ellen Miller
This past spring I was a presenter at the Maryland State High School Coach’s workshop. The topic? “Manage a Variety of Players with Proven Skill-Building Activities.” Though the title might not give it away, the idea was to show high school coaches how to manage diverse levels of play using red, orange, and green balls while maximizing court space.
In one exercise, we turned a 78-foot court into six 36-foot courts and let the attendees build volley skills with a red ball. Not your typical high school practice for sure. In fact most of the high school coaches I worked with had never used such equipment; some had never even seen the red and orange balls. Yet they loved how these slower balls would allow their players, especially the less experienced, develop more skill and control. And they really loved how many shorter courts could be made out of one regular court.
When you think about it, your typical tennis club is not unlike a high school team — lots of levels of play and limited court space. In both instances, the common denominator is the intermediate player. They form the bulk of players in this country.
But according to TIA research, there is another large group out there — the 15 million people who are “interested” in playing tennis but haven’t yet gotten out on court.
Who are these people? How do you entice them to play? My thinking is many probably are beginners who are a bit intimidated by taking up a new sport as an adult. So to entice them to play, you have to make it fun and make them successful very quickly. Well, you should look no further than Youth Tennis. Why not borrow the tools that have made tennis “kid-friendly” for the youngsters and make it “adult-friendly” for the adults?
Build Their Skills
How to do it? Like in the high-school presentation, start with skill-building exercises and a smaller court. Try my “alley rally” drill, which involves two players standing on either side of the doubles alley “tapping” the red ball back and forth. With a Continental grip, these players attempt a maximum number of consecutive hits before trying to keep the ball in the air (essentially volleying). Sounds simple, but this is a great way to teach control and touch. I use it for my 7-year-olds and 50-year-olds because it is easy and players can learn to rally and volley quickly.
Now, these initial skill-building exercises can be taken to the next level — rallying over a net. A 36-foot court will do. If court space is not an issue, play service box to service box. There are so many fun live ball drills to use that the possibilities are endless. They can rally, hit volleys, play one-up, one-back (one volleying, one hitting groundstrokes), do the up-and-back volley drill. They can serve from the service line and work returns. Various spins can be introduced, slice and topspin. Mind you, these drills are all with the red ball. It is low bouncing and slow so beginners can learn to control their shots.
As their hitting ability improves, they can move back and hit from the 60-foot-court. Now pull out the orange ball and let your players do live ball play down the line, cross-court and throw in a game of Dingle (the beloved singles-doubles game). Sure you can still do some dead-ball feeding to improve technique, but let your players do more rallying with each other. Lots of partner-oriented hitting exercises are more fun. As your players progress, move them back to the full court and introduce the green balls.
ROG Keeps Adults Playing
Don’t think for a minute red-orange-green are only for little kids and beginners. Go global, think intermediates (the other big group we talked about). True story: Recently one of my 2.5-level players said she took lessons once before but “quit because the ball was so fast, and it wasn’t any fun.” She loved our “rallying” class with the red and orange balls and said she hopes now to play in a league.
Here’s another story: A 3.0 player confided that she felt really comfortable with the orange and green balls but when she played with the yellow balls in league, it was ugly and she didn’t have much success.
These two scenarios got me thinking. I wouldn’t want to put my beginner on a full-size court with a yellow ball, not when she can’t handle it yet, and my intermediate isn’t having any fun in her league either. But they want to compete. What to do? Create my own in-house league of orange (60-foot) and green (full-court) play. Devise teams of four to six people and have them play World TeamTennis format. Look to play other clubs if they have similar leagues. As the players improve and feel comfortable to move up to the next ball, let them. Maybe new “colored ball” leagues will pop up soon.
Actually it’s happening already. Possessing a healthy dose of senior citizens, USTA Florida needed a way to prolong play for this valuable group of lifelong hitters. Much the same way the regulation 78-foot court is too large for the typical 7- or 8-year-old, that same court becomes increasingly unmanageable for senior players losing movement skills, especially speed. What did they do? They put the seniors on some of the newly lined 60-foot courts across the state. Now these senior “orange” ball clinics, leagues and tournaments are prolonging the lifespan of a valuable part of the tennis population.
Kids with disabilities? Wounded service men and women? The progressions offered by 10 and Under Tennis will give players with physical disabilities the ability to learn, because it’s easier, but also they’ll offer an incentive to play, because it’s fun.
The possibilities are endless. All you need are some blended lines, low-compression balls and a willingness to step outside the box. From red, to orange, to green — it will boost your bottom line faster than you think. You will gain new players and — the best yet — you will retain them.
Kids play tennis because they want to rally and have fun with their friends. Don’t think for a minute that adults are any different!
Don’t Forget Cardio Tennis and ROG
Cardio Tennis has also jumped on the ROG bandwagon, adopting the orange ball for intermediate-level classes and the green dot ball for more experienced Cardio classes. When I became a Licensed Cardio Tennis Professional last year, our group included several former collegiate players. Nobody balked at the orange ball. In fact, we had a terrific time slugging it out. The point play, especially at the net, involved some very skillful play and it was more than challenging!
Oddly, Cardio Tennis is receiving some pushback on ROG balls, and that needs to stop. Pros need to be willing to adjust! Look at your audience — the key is to adapt the ball to the level of play. Let the players engage in solid rallies and be successful; if they can’t do it with the ball you have, you need to find a slower ball.
Ellen Miller is certified by the PTR, USPTA and USTA High Performance and has a master’s degree in elementary education. A former player for Rice University, she is a Youth Tennis workshop faculty member and frequent presenter at provider events. She also is Tennis Industry magazine’s 2014 Grassroots Champion of the Year.
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