For young children, tennis was always a difficult proposition. The size of the court — 78 feet long, 36 feet wide (27 feet wide for the singles court) — was just too large. The rackets were too big, the balls too heavy and too bouncy. Most tennis players didn’t take up the game until their teenage years, when they were strong enough to handle the racket and athletic enough to cover the court.
But thanks to a retrofit of court sizes and new racket and ball technology, tennis has become a kid-friendly sport.
And in Colorado, tennis for young children has become all the rage.
More than 500 public and private tennis courts in the area have been “rezoned” in the past three years. Instead of 78 feet in length, the newly striped 10-and-younger, kid-friendly dimensions are 60 feet long and 21 feet wide. For kids 8 and younger, there are 36-foot courts on which to play. Lower-compression, orange-colored balls that weigh about half what a normal 56- to 59-gram yellow ball does are easier for kids to control, making for longer rallies. Lighter, smaller rackets also help elevate the quality of play among kids.
All of that has added up to about a 60 percent increase in participation among kids 10 and younger in Colorado’s United States Tennis Association tournaments since 2010. In 2013, there were 11,199 junior-age players registered with Colorado USTA, only the second time in history the number surpassed 11,000.
Instead of just one or two volleys on big, intimidating adult courts, kids now stay better engaged with much longer rallies on smaller courts. One look at some of the kids playing on the 60-foot courts last week at the Crestmoor Community Association, and it was obvious: These kids were having fun.
“I like hitting the orange balls better, because I feel like I can have more control over them,” said Luke O’Drobinak, 8, who was practicing with his 6-year-old brother, Liam.
Their father, Jon, wishes changes such as these had been made when he began playing tennis.
“I grew up playing with a full-size ball on a white concrete court with a cyclone fence,” Jon O’Drobinak said. “The only question I would have is how they transition to the regular ball, but as far as how they’re playing now and progressing, I couldn’t imagine it being any better. With the bigger ball, every other shot was going out. Now, they can have rallies. I mean, think about that: a 6-year-old having rallies!”
Leanne Palmisano has been teaching tennis for 25 years at Crestmoor. In the past couple of years, since the new dimensions and lighter balls have been added, participation among kids has soared, she said, as has the kids’ enjoyment of playing.
“They can play — have points and actually rally,” Palmisano said. “With the adult-size ball, the ball bounces so high that it goes over their head and they can never keep a rally going. What would happen was, they would stand around a lot and become bored. Now, this all just brings everything down to their size.”
The lighter balls and smaller courts were implemented in Europe about 15 years ago. That might help explain why young European players have generally advanced further and faster than Americans since.
“This group of kids that are transitioning with the new stuff, I see better stroke production, I see where they’re not afraid to hit the ball and really swing through the ball. I’m seeing a lot more parents even hitting with their kids, and having rallies,” Palmisano said. “The kids that dismissed (the newer dimensions and equipment) are still struggling with stroke production, because they swing a lot above their shoulders, because that’s where the ball was.”
The tighter dimensions are also bringing older people to the courts.
“It’s not just for kids. I’ve had some older ladies who never picked up a racket before coming in,” Palmisano said. “They don’t have to move so much on the newer court. I think the older-age divisions are going to start really picking it up too.”
But it’s the kids who are flocking to the courts.
“It’s just so much easier for them to learn now,” said Lisa Schaeffer, assistant executive director of Colorado USTA. “When I grew up, you spent more time chasing balls than actually hitting them.”
A look at the new game of tennis, for kids 10 and younger.
New court size
60 feet long, instead of 78
21 feet wide, instead of 27
( For kids 8 and younger, 36-foot long court)
Red ball: For kids 8-and-younger, 23 percent larger than normal yellow tennis ball, 65 percent lighter. Bounces 75 percent lower than normal ball.
Orange ball: For kids age 9 and 10. Same size as normal yellow tennis ball, 50 percent lighter, bounces 30 percent lower.
Adrian Dater, Photo: Karl Gehring, The Denver Post