By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
NEW YORK -- This time, the kids wouldn't be denied.
Six of the brightest products of the QuickStart play format shined on center court inside Madison Square Garden, wowing onlookers as they filed into their seats with rapid volleying and crisp ground strokes. With no marathon match to bump them - last September, it was a Mikhail Youzhny/Stanislas Wawarinka five-setter that took away their Arthur Ashe Stadium showcase at the 2010 US Open - a crowd of thousands finally had their chance to see the next revolution in tennis.
"Tennis is the sport of opportunity," said Jon Vegosen, USTA Chairman of the Board and President. "With our new 10 and Under initiative, tennis is also the newest ‘pick-up sport’ where kids can play in schools, in parks, at clubs, and even at home."
It was a fine opening act for an evening headlined by three of the finest American tennis players ever in Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe. The new grade-school guard who played were:
• Tauheed Browning, age 8
• Cannon Kingsley, age 9
• Lee Ma, age 9
• Ethan Leon, age 10
• Mackenzie Clark, age 10
• Marcella Cruz, age 10
Emceed by USTA Vice President Katrina Adams, the half-hour demonstration showed off three phases of 10 and under play on a 60-foot court, formed from blended lines - a first in Tennis Night's growing history.
To begin, the kids lined up three to a side and began volley-to-volley exchanges, followed by ground strokes, lobs and overheads. Next, the kids retreated to the baseline for "Champion of the Court," a warm-up game where a designated "champion" competes against a line of at least three players, playing for points. Finally, the grown-up instructors got in on the action by pairing with the kids for some mixed doubles.
Clad in blue shirts and sporting big smiles, each kid was met with a high-five and words of encouragement as they continually changed ends. All in all, the coaches and participants who comprised the demo were thrilled to get a crack at MSG.
"I thought it was absolutely fantastic," said Anne Davis, USTA National Manager of Recreational Coaches/Programs who organized the kids on the court. "The kids were wonderful - and better yet, they had a great time. The mixed doubles was so impressive, with the kids going toe-to-toe with two very good adult players."
One of the adults referred to by Davis was Tim Mayotte, former Wimbledon and Australian Open semifinalist. At various points in the pick-up match, Mayotte was beaten by sweet forehands and backhands off the racquets of kids who looked like pros using orange-hued low compression balls.
"These kids have the tools, even at this young age, that young athletes in tennis didn't normally have in years past thanks to the smaller courts and age-appropriate equipment," said Davis.
The demonstration is a sign of things to come - beginning in 2012, new rules governing competition for sanctioned 10 and Under tennis tournaments will officially take effect. From that point onward, the youngest players across the United States will play at the specifications shown during the demonstration: On 36 and 60-foot courts, with either foam or low compression balls and shorter racquets.
The kids like that idea.
"I had an awesome time." -- Mackenzie Clarck
"I've never been in an arena this big - it was exciting!" -- Marcella Cruz
"Its great to play on a court in Madison Square Garden." -- Cannon Kingsley
"The large crowd was great for tennis." -- Ethan Leon