If you can remember the first time you played tennis as a child, you're likely to recall some frustrated moments. You were small, the racquet was big, the court was long, the net was tall, and the balls moved hard and fast. By the time you threw in the sweat towel that first time, you probably had hit a hundred moon balls and renewed your interest in a sport like soccer, which leveled the playing field for smaller players by reducing the size of the pitch in youth leagues.
After years of losing ground to soccer — and watching kids get discouraged when they first picked up a racquet — the tennis world finally decided to try something new. The plan: Scale down the game to scale up the audience. Starting this year, the United States Tennis Association requires all tournaments for players ages 10 and younger to use the new QuickStart format, which includes smaller courts, lower nets, smaller racquets, low-compression balls and a modified scoring system designed to move matches along faster.
Blain Smith, director of the Tennis Center at the Centennial Sportsplex, realized quickly that small was going to be the next big thing in 10-and-under tennis. Four years ago, Smith applied to the USTA to fund construction of QuickStart courts at Centennial Sportsplex. In 2010, the flood drew USTA's attention toward Sportsplex, and the organization partnered with the Tennis Channel to perform an extreme makeover on the water-damaged facility across the street from Centennial Park.
USTA volunteers and a video production team got to work. Several days and $100,000 later, the crew had transformed two regular-sized courts into eight permanent QuickStart courts — 18 by 36 feet — for 8-and-under players. For three months in the fall of 2010, Tennis Channel aired a 30-minute program about the QuickStart court transformation at Centennial. For the remaining 13 courts, Centennial received a grant from USTA to add lines to create 60-foot courts for 10-and-under players. In most other local tennis venues, standard courts have to be temporarily taped off for 10-and-under tournament play.
For an idea of what it feels like to play on an 8-and-under QuickStart court, imagine Gulliver playing tennis with the Lilliputians. The short nets and tighter dimensions make you feel tall. The slower, softer balls make you feel nimble. You can practically get from net to base line in a single bound. Forget Gulliver — you'll feel like a Williams sister.
So far, the introduction of the QuickStart courts is succeeding at promoting tennis among younger players. Since the installation of the tiny courts, enrollment in 8-and-under tournaments has tripled at Sportsplex. More kids are playing, bringing more revenue to the facility.
More importantly, Smith says, kids are enjoying the game and advancing more quickly as a result of the new system. "The low-compression balls aren't pushing kids around or bouncing over their heads, so kids are developing strokes, topspin and a slice, which creates muscle memory that they can carry over from the 36-foot courts to the 60-foot courts and the regular-size courts," he explains.
But not everyone in the tennis community supports thinking small, Smith adds. So far, only one other local tennis facility has made the investment in permanent small-format courts.
"Lots of critics think it limits kids' abilities to move on," Smith explains. "I totally disagree. It's a lot of fun. It's easier to coach and teach kids, and we're going continue to go full blast with it."
Centennial Tennis Center, 224 25th Ave. N., 615-862-8490, offers year-round programs for 10-and-under tennis, including camps and after-school clinics. For a full schedule, visit nashville.gov/sportsplex. The eight QuickStart courts are free for players 8 and under.