Bright and early on a Saturday morning, adults took tennis lessons on two indoor courts at Woodside Health and Tennis Club, Westwood, KS. The third court, however, was divided into four quarters, and on each quarter, a group of children practiced catching and throwing grapefruit-sized balls, swatting them over the pee-wee net with their junior-sized racquets. The divided court and the more child-friendly tennis equipment were part of the club's recently adopted QuickStart Tennis play program, which was developed by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

Whether or not the preschoolers evolve into champion-level tennis players remains to be seen, but one thing is certain — the club has increased both retention and revenue since starting the USTA program.

“Our kids continue to come back, and we continue to add new ones,” says Kristi Swank, Woodside's junior development coordinator who trained in Scotland, where a similar play format is common. “We have definitely seen an increase in [children playing tennis at] our club, and if it catches on in other clubs, we think they'll definitely see results.”

Prior to the introduction of QuickStart, the tennis industry had already increased the size of the balls and decreased the size of the racquets and nets for pint-sized players. However, many children were still playing on adult-sized tennis courts. With the QuickStart play format, the USTA has scaled down the game to fit the abilities and size of younger players. The format is based on six specifications: the age of the child, the type of ball, racquet size, court size, net height, and appropriate scoring and competition.

The USTA launched the format in late February in response to declining penetration in the 10-and-under market. Kurt Kamperman, USTA's chief executive for community tennis, says the USTA is targeting tennis-only clubs, tennis/fitness clubs and community recreation centers. By the end of the year, the organization expects 1,000 clubs to integrate the format into their junior development programs.

“Clubs can charge less per student and earn more through court hours through QuickStart,” Kamperman says. “If clubs integrate this play format into their junior development program, they'll have a lot of kids with a long-term commitment to tennis.”

Court Time

Through QuickStart, clubs can quadruple the number of children who can play on a court at one time. Rather than devote an entire court to an 8-and-under tennis class, clubs can divide one court into four courts that are 36 feet by 18 feet. The width of a regulation court becomes the length of the four mini courts. Clubs can create two mini courts on each side of the regulation net through creative use of tape, pee-wee nets, caution tape or pennant banners, says Butch Staples, the head tennis professional at Midtown Tennis Club in Chicago.

“If you're working with young children and using regulation nets and courts, you're wasting a tremendous amount of space,” says Staples, whose club increased its youth participation by 35 percent by testing the format during the last two years. “A club can have greater revenue potential and reduced costs if more people are playing and enjoying the courts.”

By modifying the size of its court for young players, Windyke Country Club in Collierville, TN, has been able to handle more kids for its indoor tennis season, says M.J. Garnett, tennis director. In March, the club integrated the play format into all levels of its junior programming, from the beginners to the top-level players. The club can handle 18 children on two courts and then reserve the third indoor court for more advanced players.

Ron Steege, director of tennis for Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club in Greenwood Village, CO, says his club's Micro Tennis junior development program has become a key element of his club's growth. His club has used mini nets and transition balls for years, but the real advantage of the QuickStart format, he says, is the concept of having a smaller court for younger players.

Scaling down the size of the court has provided benefits not only for club owners but also for children. By playing on a smaller court, children can gain confidence, agility and coordination without getting easily discouraged. Elizabeth Jeter's 6-year-old daughter, Georgia, took lessons at a club where she played on a regulation court with an adult-sized net and regular tennis balls. After only a few lessons, Georgia wanted to quit. Her mom then signed her up for a QuickStart trial class at Woodside.

“I think this approach is a great way to start the kids out, and I think it will be less frustrating and more fun, which could promote long-term interest in the sport,” Jeter says.

Having a Ball

As part of the QuickStart format, clubs are not only scaling down the size of their courts for their pint-sized participants, but they're also expanding the USTA Junior Team Tennis League to include 10-and-under players and incorporating shorter matches and fewer possible points into that league.

In addition, the QuickStart program moves away from using traditional balls with the younger players. In Europe, children use three types of balls in their training until they graduate to a regular tennis ball, but the QuickStart format specifies two types of balls for the different age groups. The type of balls used plays an important role in the QuickStart format, Staples says.

“We use balls that are slower and don't bounce as high to permit children to be able to handle the ball more effectively,” he says.

However, because the balls are easier for children to hit over the net, some parents may be skeptical about whether their kids are playing “real” tennis, Garnett says. He expected parents to see the shift to foam and low-compression balls as a step backwards. So far, that hasn't been the case at his facility.

Because some parents aspire for their children to play competitively, however, he plans to organize tournaments with other clubs that also use the new types of balls. (See “Four Tips for Adding QuickStart into Your Facility” on this page.)

Play to Learn

Rather than teaching children to “learn to play” tennis, QuickStart focuses on a “play-to-learn” approach. From the minute they step on the court, the children learn how to rally and move around the court.

The pros at Windyke were unsure about the developmental teaching approach until they attended a training workshop.

“They looked at it as a novelty and a great warm-up tool or a fun game to bring out,” Garnett says. “They didn't see the value in it until they witnessed it firsthand.”

Convincing U.S. tennis pros to put some of the technical aspects of the game aside and let kids play will likely be a hurdle in the adoption of the QuickStart format, Steege says.

“I think the main message that club professionals need to learn is that you don't want to get kids intimidated with technical information,” says Steege, whose full-service athletic and tennis club serves 8,000 members. “The purpose of this program is to get kids playing.”

Staples agrees, saying that it will take some convincing and education to get the QuickStart format off the ground. Since a lot of parents, teachers and kids have not been exposed to it yet, they are bound to have a lot of questions, he says.

Net Profits

Although it may take time for QuickStart to be accepted by some parents, instructors and children, the format will eventually help drive revenue at tennis clubs nationwide, tennis pros say. Club owners don't have to pay the USTA to adopt the format, and they can charge between $5 and $20 a class per child. They do, however, have to invest in $1 foam balls, $2 low-compression balls, $20 to $50 mini nets and $10 to $30 junior-sized racquets.

“For $100, you will be able to get racquets, balls and nets and be good to go,” Steege says. “It takes a minimum investment, and it's going to be fairly profitable.”

Tennis clubs can sell junior-sized racquets in their pro shop, build them into the cost of the lesson or loan them to their young students. The margins on the tennis racquets vary from club to club, but at Windyke, Garnett sells the $10.50 racquets for $16 and the $30 racquets for $46.

By investing in the QuickStart play format, club owners should have an immediate payoff when it comes to retention, Steege says. If the children have fun, they will tend to want to learn the game and will stay with it longer, he says.

Steege says that in his area, about 10 to 12 facilities are integrating the QuickStart format into their programs, and he expects that number to increase during the next few years. He thinks the USTA will target all facets of the tennis community, and a trickle-down effect will take place from the national association to clubs nationwide.

“I think anytime you have a program that gets more people playing, club owners will see benefits,” he says. “A handful of clubs are jumping on it right away, and I expect almost everyone to want to become involved.”

Four Tips for Adding QuickStart into Your Facility

  1. Attend a training session

    The USTA's Community and Recreational Tennis division offers a free three-hour training program for volunteers, instructors and parents. The USTA's Coaching Education division offers a four-hour high-performance coaching class for tennis teachers, pros and coaches with a $5 cost for the training manual.

  2. Hire the right people

    Ensure your tennis professionals enjoy working with young kids and have a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

  3. Target specific age groups

    The QuickStart program offers three levels of practice plans for 5- and 6-year-olds, 7- and 8-year-olds, and 9- and 10-year-olds. The 8-and-under set plays on a 36-foot-by-18-foot court and uses foam balls and 19-inch, 21-inch or 23-inch racquets. The 10-and-under age group plays on a 60-foot-by-21-foot court, using low-compression balls and 23-inch and 25-inch racquets.

  4. Connect with other clubs

    Join a tennis league or start your own. Work with other clubs to organize tournaments based on QuickStart's guidelines for scoring, court size, nets and balls.

For more information on retailers and specifications, visit www.consumers.quickstarttennis.com.

Five Goals of the USTA's QuickStart Tennis Program

  1. Increase the number of 5- to 10-year-old tennis players.
  2. Improve the retention of young players.
  3. Develop future champions.
  4. Improve the technical, tactical and physical development of players.
  5. Improve the wellness of the children playing tennis.

Source: United States Tennis Association