New program jump-starts tennis for kids

Kyrell Williams, a second-grader at Belle Hall Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, plays for the Belle Hall Bashers in the Tri-County Elementary and Middle School League. The league uses the USTA’s Ten and Under Tennis format for children ages 10 and younger.

The 40th anniversary of the Family Circle Cup tennis tournament finds no American players ranked in the top 10 on the WTA Tour. There is exactly one American among the top 30 women’s players in the world — No. 11 Serena Williams, who will be on Daniel Island for the Family Circle Cup this week.

The outlook is scarcely better on the men’s side, with two players in the top 10 and only four among the top 50 on the ATP Tour.

One of the U.S. Tennis Association’s answers to this grim state of affairs can be found on special courts at the Family Circle Tennis Center, and on courts all around the Lowcountry this spring: The Ten and Under Tennis program (TAUT) for kids.

“Tennis has finally gotten with it,” said Peggy Bohne, tennis manager for the City of Charleston. “This is one of the best things the USTA has come up with in years.”

The idea behind Ten and Under Tennis is similar to micro-soccer or youth-league basketball — to scale the game down to a size fit for young children.

A video promoting TAUT features a youngster trying to shoot a regulation-size basketball at a 10-foot goal, and a tiny goalkeeper attempting to cover a World Cup-sized net.

“Every other sport has adapted their game for younger children,” said Rob Eppelsheimer, director of facilities and tennis development at the Family Circle Tennis Center. “Soccer has smaller fields and nets. In baseball, kids go from T-ball to machine-pitch to coach-pitch on smaller fields. In basketball, the balls are smaller and the goals are lower.

“Tennis is really the only sport where we’ve had 8-year-old juniors playing on the same court with the same balls as Serena Williams, and tennis is probably one of the last sports to change.”

The concept of scaled-down tennis for kids, featuring smaller courts and racquets, lower nets and low-pressure balls, has been around for a few years under names such as QuickStart Tennis and others. But as of Jan. 1 this year, the USTA made Ten and Under Tennis the official format for all of its tournaments for children ages 10 and under.

The move has not been without some controversy, but Eppelsheimer is on board and the City of Charleston’s Bohne says it has been a boon to the Tri-County Elementary and Middle School League, which she runs. Bohne says the TAUT rules have increased participation in the league, which now features 124 teams and more than 1,200 kids.

“We’ve really had increases on the first and second grade level,” she said. “Kids can really see the benefit of it. At first, we had to get some parents and pros to buy into it. You would hear, ‘I didn’t have that when I was learning.’ But now I think they’ve pretty much all bought into it.”

With smaller courts and balls that don’t bounce as high or as fast, beginning players are able to rally longer and learn more about strategy while having more fun, Eppelsheimer said.

“The whole purpose is to teach kids the proper techniques early on,” he said. “A regular ball tends to bounce over their heads, and you end up with poor technique because they are hitting (shots) they won’t see until they grow up. The low-compression ball keeps it in their strike zone and allows them to work on techniques.”

At an elementary school match between the Belle Hall Bashers and Palmetto Christian last week in Mount Pleasant, a match between two second-grade beginners featured several long, side-to-side rallies.

“That’s what is great about it,” said Eppelsheimer. “You can have kids as young as five or six having rallies instead of picking up balls all day, or being fed balls by a pro. You get to serve and hit the ball back and forth, and it’s the low-compression ball that allows that to happen.”

The USTA has seen participation in its Junior Team Tennis program grow from 10,000 two years ago to more than 32,000 today, according to Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of player development for the USTA.

But there has been a backlash of sorts, from parents and pros who have young players who they feel have progressed beyond TAUT rules and are being held back by the new format. McEnroe called those concerns “absurd.”

“For the kids who truly are that good, they can — and should — do what the best kids in tennis and all sports have been doing for years: Play up at the next level,” McEnroe wrote recently. “It’s important to realize that this rule change applies only to tournament play for kids 10 and younger.”

Legends such as John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe’s brother, and Andre Agassi say TAUT can work.

“I think that’s going to be a big thing when little kids get to play on these smaller courts,” John McEnroe said last year. “I think it’s going to make the game much more accessible for kids to want to do it.”

Agassi famously grew up hitting 2,500 balls a day from a ball machine operated by his dad.

“Ten And Under Tennis doesn’t preclude you from doing that,” Agassi has said. “(It) allows children to practice the game and develop fundamentals, but it also gives parents an opportunity to play with their child.

“Before this program, you had to play tennis in order to teach your child tennis. Now, all of a sudden, you can go hit balls and spent that quality time. I think it’s all upside.”