By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
NEW YORK, NY – When the kids took the court in 2011, most of the Madison Square Garden faithful couldn’t believe what they saw. Six children under the age of 10 and scarcely higher than net height slammed winners and served like pros in the World’s Most Famous Arena. They showed off fine form while wielding smaller racquets and smashing low-compression balls, and looked to the world as if they – and their smiling coaches – were having a fantastic time.
Most importantly, they were playing tennis – never bored or waiting, never chasing balls. If you missed them last year, they’re back: The next great batch of American tennis players.
A Broadway revival – tennis style – featured a new set of six, covering the court with aplomb while demonstrating the ability to hit any shot and keep rallies continuous. After showing off some strokes to warm up, the kids then took to playing one-on-one and in mixed doubles on the blended lines court – a sight more and more commonplace in clubs around the country.
Perhaps most noticeable, there rarely was a moment where each of the six weren’t moving or involved with the play.
"Being able to have people see this in action makes it real," said Anne Davis, USTA National Manager of Recreational Coaches and Programs. "Its no longer something we’re just thinking about doing, or wishing people to do this – its actual competition for children under the age of 10."
For the crew of kids, parents, volunteers and coaches, it’s a prime shot on a national stage to display how tennis will look in America going forward. Thanks to a rule changed passed on January 1 by both the USTA and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), all sanctioned tennis tournaments for kids 10 and Under are to be played at with the specified balls and court dimensions of their age.
The idea that this makes tennis less competitive, according to Davis and fellow coach Dave Ritter, is foolhardy – if anything, the early returns on 10 and Under Tennis prove that the changes are ratcheting up interest in play and inspiring a whole new generation to put racquet in hand. Sure enough, over 1,400 youth tennis events are being planned in the United States for the month of March: 50-percent ahead of 2010’s Youth Registration period.
"It works – children can get out there and play, enjoy playing and do it quickly," said Davis.
"This year is exciting because its an adjustment year to get everyone playing on the 36-foot and 60-foot courts – in 2013, we should see robust competition on those courts where kids right now are still learning," added Ritter, who also serves as a National Manager of Recreational Coaches for the USTA. "Next year, we believe 10 and Under will be part and parcel of the growth and development of a young player."
Meet some of the kids who took part in the 2012 10 and Under Tennis demonstration:
Maryam Ahmad, age 10
"Mia," as she’s known to most of her friends, has played for six years already, learning tennis before entering grade school. Now 10, she was excited to see her personal favorite, Caroline Wozniacki, up close at Madison Square Garden after playing on the court herself.
Christina Hyunh, age 10
This precocious fifth grader, nicknamed "Little C," offers up a mean volley, which she cites as the best part of her tennis game. Also having held a racquet since the age of three, Christina excels in the classroom as well as the court, her favorite subjects being Math and Social Studies.
Cannon Kingsley, age 10
Cannon was among the original six who played at Madison Square Garden in 2011, one of the coolest experiences of his young life. He was a tennis natural even before reaching his first birthday, using a junior racquet to hit hovering balloons tied to a string. Cannon greatly enjoys watching and rooting for Novak Djokovic when not playing the game himself.
Dasha Kourkina, age 10
Dasha plays with a rhythm that has been cultivated both on and off the court – she also is an active dancer who greatly enjoys the opera. Having played for three years, Dasha had the chance to see her favorite player, Maria Sharapova, play during the 2012 BNP Paribas Showdown.
Evan Lee, age 8
The youngest of the 10 and Under all-star group, Evan has played only for two years but is well on his way to mastering an already-potent forehand. He also enjoys to play basketball and soccer, and his tennis idol is France’s Gael Monfils.
Billy Suarez, age 10
Having started as a three-year-old, Billy is a huge Rafael Nadal fan who also enjoys sketching and playing chess when not playing tennis. A fourth grader, he also loves to sing – in fact, he knows all the words to the song "Autograph," written by the legendary doubles duo of Bob & Mike Bryan.