SAINT LEO — To attract young players to tennis, an instructor at Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club is implementing creative training techniques.
Rather than teaching how to develop a blazing serve, fast-paced rallies or topspin to increase ball speed, the emphasis is to slow the game down by using low compression balls, smaller courts, lower nets and smaller racquets. According to USPTA Professional and Tennis Director Bobby Gillespie, the result is a renewed interest in the sport.
“Everything we do makes tennis more enjoyable,” Gillespie, 42, said. “We use softer balls, which are more forgiving, combined with fun drills and games to get kids playing at an early age and learning the sport the right way.”
Gillespie also said the shift to smaller and slower playing conditions began more than 20 years ago in Europe.
“The focus there is on the fundamentals and not on speed, which makes the game easier to teach and easier to learn,” said Gillespie. “More young people stay with it and continue to develop as they get older. As a result, the majority of the elite players in the world now are from Europe.”
At the Lake Jovita facility, dozens of young players brave the sweltering, late afternoon conditions to participate in group lessons. On one court, Gillespie instructed players ages 10 and under on bouncing the ball off the racquet, followed by soft lobs over the net from five feet away. On the next court, former Federation Cup player Mirian Cruz worked with the 11- and 12-year-olds.
During a water break, Gillespie explained why tennis is not as popular in this country as others.
“Every other sport is scaled down for younger players,” the former Cheval Golf and Country Club instructor said. “Baseball fields, basketball courts, soccer fields are all played on smaller versions than what professionals play on. Not tennis. It has always been taught on full-size courts, which has discouraged many young players from continuing.”
Gillespie believes a good age to start learning tennis is while the child is in first or second grade. Currently, players ages eight and under compete in tournaments on 36-foot courts. At ages 9 and 10, they progress to 60-foot courts, about 3/4 of the regulation sized courts. They also transition to a slightly harder ball. At age 11, they move to a full court which is 78-feet long and use the traditional yellow balls.
“Tennis is a game you can play for life,” Gillespie said. “It thrives when you get older. My goal is to renew interest in tennis by networking with school teachers and coaches. Every neighborhood in Pasco County has tennis courts. It would be delightful to see those courts filled by young players.”