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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.

10 & Under foam tennis balls

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.oakvilleacademyoftennis.com/wallace/news/PMcEnroe.pdf).

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 nflwriterr@aol.com

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About Charles Bricker
Charles Bricker can be reached at nflwriterr@aol.com.

4 Responses to “A French perspective on USTA’s 10-and-Under Mandate”

  1. Bill Mountford May 22, 2012


    I love reading your perspectives and I hope you are enjoying the south of France. Many of the statements in this article about Ten and Under Tennis in the US are incorrect, and I wanted you to be aware.

    “Ten and Under” includes boys and girls who are, indeed, much younger than 10 years old. The foam balls are terrific for the smallest children, and for those who play on gymnasium floors in Phys Ed classes or after-school programs.

    The “best” 10U kids rarely – if ever – use the foam balls that you reference. 10U players, ideally, progress from foam balls when they are just starting to RED felt balls (on 36’ x 18’ courts), to ORANGE felt balls (on 60’ x 21’ courts), to GREEN-dot felt balls (on regulation 78’ x 27’ singles courts). The progression is based on experience and capability. These R-O-G (red, orange, green) balls are made with the same felt as “regular” tennis balls, but they have less compression (generally 25%, 50%, and 75% respectively of that for a regulation ball) which keeps them from bouncing as high. The Orange and Green balls are actually the SAME EXACT SIZE as “regulation” balls.

    The ITF’s rule change – effective on January 1st, 2012 as you pointed out – prohibits the use of “regulation” yellow balls for sanctioned 10U competitions. The US – represented by the USTA – and the other member nations voted to approve this historic rule change. In the US, each of the 17 Sections voted to approve this rule modification as well. As a clarification, 10U boys and girls DO play on full-size regulation courts in sanctioned 10U competition in 10 of the 17 US Sections.

    The best coaches that I have seen tend to mix up the use of these balls. For example, 6-year-olds who usually play with Red balls might also sample Orange balls. Some 11-year-olds who “must” use Yellow (regulation) balls in sanctioned (12U) competition also practice with Green balls when working on aspects of their game, etc., etc. The best coaches are clever enough to be flexible and champions adjust. Sometimes I wish that this initiative was more revolutionary or radical – as some suggest it is – but, instead, it is actually steeped in common sense.

    Again, I hope you’re doing well. Call me when you get back to the States.


    Bill Mountford

  2. Rich Neher May 22, 2012

    I want to chime in by pointing out a great new tennis forum created by Steve Bellamy. http://www.tennisinsiders.com has outstanding forums and discussions, some about the very subject of 10 and Under Tennis. Check out the interview with Kurt Kamperman about TAUT.

  3. I am not quite sure where Mr Bricker gets his information. We have tournaments and leagues in Northern Ca using RED, ORANGE, and GREEN balls with appropriate sized racquets on 36, 60, and 78 foot courts. We have over 140 players competing weekly in a 6 player team format where every player plays each player on opposite team. Matches last 3 hours and the players love it. It is not too uncommon to see 30 exchanges during one point. Our League play is open to 12 and under players using GREEN balls and full 78 foot court. My guideline is RED ball for 8 and under, ORANGE ball for 8-11, and GREEN ball 9-12. Of course there are always exceptions. If my players cannot sustain a 50 ball rally with a particular ball they do not move to the next level. Our players can volley serve, drop shot slice, topspin, lob, and move in the Acadamie Sanchez inspired x patterns. We focus on an all-around game and it is fascinating to watch what the players can do on a 60 foot court with ORANGE balls. Perhaps the focus should be on benchmarking skill sets of players at each level before they move to the next level.

  4. Very inaccurate. French national tournaments for 10 and under use a slower green ball, these are for the best 10 and under juniors.


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