The timing of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open suggests tennis is a summer sport, but empty courts and cooling temperatures make fall an ideal time for Vermont families to pick up their rackets.
My own children, ages 5 and 6, are just starting to make contact with the ball. But they're no Venus and Serena Williams. Can such little kids actually learn to play tennis?
Well, yes — thanks in part to QuickStart Tennis. The program, launched in 2008 by the United States Tennis Association, aims to make the sport accessible to a much wider cross-section of the population.
Forget white tennis togs and stuffy clubs. Specifically designed to get more kids ages 10 and under into the game, QuickStart begins by making sure tennis equipment is sized down for younger players. Think shorter and lighter rackets, easier for small hands to grip; foam or low-compression balls for a less intimidating bounce; and a smaller court. Shorter matches allow for simpler scoring.
Also called 10 and Under Tennis, QuickStart has "revolutionized" the game for younger kids, says longtime Burlington instructor Jake Agna. He puts the program into practice at the King Street Youth Center's Kids on the Ball program, which he founded 12 years ago.
Agna's junior programs at the Edge in South Burlington accept players as young as 4 and put the focus on the kids, not the rulebook. "I try not to get them thinking too much," he says.
Instead, he aims to teach young kids the "basic square" of aligning the feet so that they run parallel to the sidelines, which sets them up for success in later years. "You'll see it when they're 12 or 13 that they started off really smoothly," says Agna.
Little tennis tykes can also benefit from a simple counting game called Numbers, in which they try to hit the ball over the net 10 or 20 times in a row.
"It's amazing how they can get better because they see what causes the ball to go over the net versus into the net," says Agna. "It's a self-discovery about the arc swing." When kids see what works, they can be rewarded; Agna gives out Life Savers candies as players improve.
Once kids are 6 or 7, says Agna, they should be ready to play a game.
My kids aren't there yet. But in the backyard, we've begun playing Numbers for M&Ms. I may need to switch to a healthier reward, though — on our most recent attempt, my daughter easily racked up six before nailing me in the crotch with one particularly hard-hit ball.
I'm happy to see her beginning to grasp the game while having more fun than I did as a kid during stricter lessons with adult-oriented equipment. If I have to collect a few bruises in the process, I'm OK with that.