By Charles Bricker
There it was, or rather there “they” were,” the dreaded foam balls – at least 50 of them squished into a shopping cart on court 9 at the Antibes Racquet Club, where they were awaiting the love taps of scores of children learning to play tennis here in the south of France.
That’s what you do with a foam ball. You don’t hit it. You kiss it.
It doesn’t produce that wonderful sound of string crushing real tennis ball. It doesn’t send the ball blazing or spinning in the other direction. It doesn’t allow some kid with tennis fantasies to imagine he’s Rafa Nadal. The ball just sort of goes, well. . .poof. Like you’re batting a balloon into the air.
And it’s a poof that has caused a year-long firestorm of anger and recrimination between big-time tennis dad Wayne Bryan, accompanied on one side by a small army of rank-and-file parents and coaches, and, on the other, by Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s head of player development.
The controversy is over the USTA’s 10-Under Mandate, which has been blessed by the international ITF and which dictates there will no more traditional tennis tournaments or USTA-involved instruction of children 10 and under on regular tennis courts, with regular tennis balls and regular rackets.
Beginning Jan. 1 of this year, it’s junior rackets on mini-courts and the oversized, brightly-colored foam balls for the 10-and-unders, though this applies only in the U.S.
Here in Antibes, and Nice, and Paris, and Bordeaux, and Nantes, and Marseilles and every other city in this country, the French take a different approach which, for me, is so obvious that it challenges you to understand why the USTA has taken such an adamant, absolute, uncompromising position on 10-under play.
The French method is really pretty basic. They teach some small children, who are probably not going on to careers in tennis, with the foam balls that make it easier for them to be introduced to the game and allows them to more easily hit the ball, but they put the more athletic kids, who might be able to play in college or on the ATP and WTA tours, on a regular court with regular balls.
Gee, what a concept. Alternatives!
It isn’t long after you get immersed in this argument before you begin wondering how good Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras would have been if they had been compelled between the ages of 6 and 10 to play with a foam ball. But of course it’s an unanswerable question and, in some respects, not relevant.
They were taught by parents or private coaches who, undoubtedly, would have had them on real courts with real balls and real rackets. Still, there would have been no 10-under tournaments for them. They would have had to play up into the 12-under events – a quantum push forward for an 8- or 9-year-old that creates another controversy altogether.
It has been several months since Wayne Bryan and I first kicked around the foam ball issue and why he was so spitting mad about it. He wrote what amounts to a dissertation on his objections to the 10-Under Mandate, got it on the web and, not surprisingly, scores and scores of tennis parents were writing back, with about 95 percent of them in Bryan’s corner and thanking him profusely for taking the lead in galvanizing opposition to the Mandate.
Their outrage became so pronounced that McEnroe felt compelled to issue a long statement himself, defending the 10-Under Mandate and trying very hard, and not fully succeeding, in keeping things completely cordial with the father of one of the U.S. Davis Cup team’s most important elements – Mike and Bob Bryan.
I’m not going into the details of Wayne’s objections, which would consume a great deal of space, but you can read his letter to the USTA here (Bryan’s Letter To The USTA · Tennis-Prose.com) and McEnroe’s answer here (http://www.
I will point out, however, that Bryan’s salient argument is that if the USTA is determined, as it says it is, to produce champions, you don’t take your best under-10 athletes and put them on a small court with foam balls. That, says Bryan, only inhibits their development.
I see both sides of the issue. What I don’t see is the USTA’s absolute position – that it’s foam balls or nothing for the under-10 children it coaches or has a hand in coaching.
I also see the USTA trying to satisfy two goals. One is to increase the number of children playing tennis and convincing them it could be a lifetime sport. The other is to produce champions.
I don’t argue that very young kids can have longer rallies and more fun with a small court and a foam ball. I’ve seen it. And if they’re having more fun there is a higher likelihood they’ll stay in the game.
Real tennis balls are smaller. They bounce higher, often too high for little children. The racquets are heavier and more difficult to control for some children, and this is often a reason kids who try tennis don’t stay with the game — not when it’s easier to kick a soccer ball or hit a baseball off a tee.
But it is also unassailable truth that competent coaches can quickly identify children, even as young as 6 or 7, who have the quickness, balance, reactions and overall athletic ability to excel at almost any sport.
If these kids are strong enough to wield a 10-ounce regular racket, that is what should be their hands. Ask Sampras. Ask Agassi. Ask the Bryan twins.
Or ask former Bryan Brothers coach Philip Farmer, who I spoke to this week at the Nice Lawn Tennis Club, where he is coaching Sam Querrey at an ATP 250 a week before the French Open.
“I like the foam ball,” said Farmer, who has spent time coaching youngsters. But he also agreed that it would be good to have an option for more advanced kids aged 6-10 who would have no trouble handling regular tennis equipment. He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if the USTA made some adjustments in its mandate after the first year, and he thought that would be a good thing.
How is all this parental anger vs. the USTA going to resolve itself? My guess is with some compromises in 2013. But there needs to be real compromise, not just giving potentially gifted kids aged 6-10 coaching on real courts with real balls.
They need tournaments, with sizable draws, and that’s something that isn’t available now under the Mandate. There are no U.S. Under-10 events on real courts.
That has to change. It doesn’t make sense to train kids on real courts with real balls and real rackets and not give them a chance to compete. Then, again, when you’re dealing with the USTA, there’s a great number of things that don’t make sense.
Charles Bricker can be reached at email@example.com