Note: This post was authored by Lamar Smith, a graduate student at Arizona State University and a sports reporter with Cronkite News.*
Junior tennis in Arizona is continuing to grow and evolve. Kids are no longer just lined up swinging at balls one-by-one. There are now systems put in place to help them hone their tennis skills.
Years ago tennis did not have a way of learning the sport that was conducive to children in America. Unlike, basketball, soccer or football where kids played with equipment that was smaller and rules to help them develop. Chadwick “Chad” Campbell, founder of International Junior Performance (IJP) Tennis said “for the longest time” kids were just put on adult-sized tennis courts with adult sized rackets. "It's very much a technique driven sport,” Chad said. "So it's best if the kids can learn the technique from the beginning. But if they're holding a giant racket that's too heavy for them, and trying to hit a ball that bounces over their head on a court, they're never going to learn the right technique.”
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) needed to add changes in its system in order to make tennis easier for kids to learn. They adopted the red, orange, green ball progression in 2011 to facilitate a change in their tennis system. Investing $1.3 million in starting a 10 And Under Tennis program in 26 different communities in the United States.
The red, orange, green ball progression has been used by a bevy of tennis organizations around the world. Each ball in the progression differs in size and speed. The red ball is 75 percent slower than the yellow (regulation) ball, the orange is 50 percent slower and the green is 25 percent slower.
Campbell started IJP Tennis in the summer of 2012 with his wife, Elana, after living in England for three years where their kids played tennis in the Lawn Tennis Association’s Mini Tennis program. “We wanted to continue that same red, orange, green color progression through the stages of junior tennis,” Campbell said. “But at the time, the USTA, although they had launched the red, orange, green progression in the U.S., it was still in its infancy.” The couple wanted their daughters to keep progressing in tennis so they felt starting IJP was the best way for them to continue to grow. They were inspired by the LTA’s Mini Tennis program which had been using the red, orange, green ball progression for decades.
IJP Tennis started off as a contractor for tennis clubs giving lessons to young players when they lived in Chicago. After several years of contracting, they chose to launch IJP Tennis as their own, standalone program in 2016 after living in Phoenix for a year. Initially, it was difficult to get parents to buy-in when the company branched out.
“So, to be able to explain to parents and kids that this is the right way to do it, if you want to have longevity in this sport, is probably the biggest challenge,” said Matt Sunter, IJP Tennis's Director of Tennis.
The ball progression is a huge part of their foundation. Campbell said he wanted to take what he learned from tennis in the UK and what Sunter brought from Australia, and bring it to America.
The program now has approximately 80 students. Focusing on kids age four to 18 who want to play tennis competitively. “We've got the kids out there playing each other,” Campbell said. “They're playing in the USTA tournaments, and we have a whole group of kids that are high school players playing on their school teams. Getting into that performance area of tennis is important for us, and we develop our kids to be able to do that.”
IJP Tennis focuses on the fundamentals with their young players, from backhands and forehands to slices and volleying. They also offer private lessons, match preparation, group sessions and fitness programs to help build good young tennis players. The organization was one of the early adopters of the ball progression and is still trying to grow and get more kids involved in tennis.
Gabby Clingan, whose daughter Chayse is part of IJP Tennis, has seen the benefit of the program. “She started playing tennis at five and a half (years old) with a yellow ball on a regular court, and played with kids a lot older.” Gabby said. She realized that having her daughter learn tennis under those conditions was not conducive to her growth as a player. She also disliked having different coaches every week, and other structural problems with the other program. "Chayse felt like a number and not an individual player,” Gabby said. Chayse became one of the first players at IJP Tennis in 2016, and the family hasn't look back. In fact, Chayse's younger sister, Sloane, plays in the Red Ball group.
While still a relatively new program, IJP Tennis has been gaining attention in the tennis community. “IJP is one of the best facilities. They do an amazing job developing junior tennis players,” said Matt Gleason, Executive Director of USTA Central Arizona.
Promoting the Sport
The USTA was adamant about building a new program for young kids to further promote the growth and development of junior tennis. They decided to create an organization that focused on improving junior tennis. Net Generation was created on August 23, 2017.
Gleason said the USTA wanted “one product” to push in order to get kids and parents more informed about tennis, while continuing to grow the game. The USTA has been pushing the program hard since it was created. Net Generation had about 11,000 kids registered before the program officially started and those numbers have continued to increase.
Tennis is not as popular in Arizona as other states like California and Florida. Those states are No.1 and No. 2 respectively in amount of junior tennis players. According to the USTA there are only 3,779 junior tennis members and 116 10-and-under junior tournaments in the Southwest region which includes Arizona, ranking them 11th out of 17 sections in the United States.
Brian Cheney, Camelback Village Tennis Professional Emeritus at Camelback Village Racquet and Health Club, said he contributes some of the low numbers amongst junior tennis players to the gruesome heat in Arizona.
Tennis is lacking in participation for many reasons. In the past, the lack of participation could be linked to the frustration younger kids had playing with adult-sized equipment on adult-sized tennis courts. Now, the lack of participation can be more closely related to a lack of money. According to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), racquets under $50 have decreased by 57 percent since 2008. Total ball shipments have also decreased by 21.5 percent since 2008. Several of the USTA sections provide scholarships and grants for kids to get involved with tennis. The aid is geared towards low-income families who may not have the means to buy a bunch of tennis equipment.
“We can help with financial aid to help ensure those kids can afford to play tennis,” Gleason said. Gleason and other volunteers and staff from USTA Central Arizona go to local schools and give away free tennis equipment too.
USTA Central Arizona puts on at least one big fundraiser a year to raise money for their scholarship fund. This April they put together a co-ed team round-robin tourney and did an auction. The tournament raised a little over $13,000 towards their scholarship fund.
While tennis in Arizona has experienced growth over the recent years, it still has a lot of room to grow.
*This article was edited to fit the format of this blog.
Matt's Point (get it? Match Point!) is Matt's blog covering all the goings-on at IJP Tennis.