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Tennis Program Develops Young Players

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Program is trying to develop players from a young age

Nobody knows where we’ll find the next Pete Sampras, but perhaps he’s on the indoor courts at the Lobo Tennis Club, waving his miniature racket like a light saber as he waits to take a swing at a special, low-compression ball.

Or maybe there’s a future Venus Williams among the 10 elementary-aged kids who congregated at the Linda Estes Tennis Complex on a recent Saturday morning. All part of the Lobo Tennis Club’s QuickStart program, the youngsters played games, performed drills and practiced hitting, all with kid-friendly equipment.

In QuickStart – a format launched in 2008 by the United States Tennis Association to develop players 10 and younger – age-appropriate lessons and gear are the name of the game. Rackets are smaller, courts and nets are shorter and the balls play much slower.

Lobo Club’s QuickStart
Sessions run year-round with the next starting in March. A seven-week session costs $105. Call the Lobo Tennis Club at 925-5991 or email Amy Badger at badgers3@mac.com for more info.
To find similar programs around the state, go online to 10andundertennis.com

The obvious benefit, Lobo Tennis Club director Bob Scott said, is that kids learn how to play the game the right way from an early age. Some kids in the club’s QuickStart program are as young as 3.

“The new equipment makes it a lot easier and more realistic to learn the game appropriately – the movement, form,” said Scott, standing off to the side as the kids honed their coordination and footwork with a game of dodgeball.

Former director Loren Dils said the Lobo Tennis Club has long offered some sort of youth coaching but the program became more focused a few years ago when the USTA outlined the QuickStart model.

“I think this is USTA’s attempt to get more people involved in tennis,” Dils said. “There for many, many years tennis was on its way down – especially as soccer become more prominent.”

The format is not unlike models used in Europe, he added, noting that he coached English players at UNM who grew up in a similar system. Despite his early skepticism, Dils said he’s sold on QuickStart model and uses his own sons’ development as evidence it works. Now 5 and 7, QuickStart has them rapidly improving.

“They’re doing things with a racket that I couldn’t do until I was 10, 11, 12 years old,” Dils said.

By making the game more manageable, it also becomes more enjoyable, said Amy Badger. A former UNM player and the current Albuquerque Academy girls tennis coach, Badger has been coordinating the Lobo Tennis Club’s QuickStart program since last spring. Whereas her own tennis learning curve involved marathon hitting sessions against a cement wall, Badger said QuickStart makes the game fun for kids.

“Developing the child and letting them have fun – that’s the bottom line right now in QuickStart,” Badger said. “It has to be fun.”

Based on kids’ and parents’ reactions, it is indeed fun.

Zia Elementary School kindergartner Zane Saavedra has been asking his parents to take him to the city tennis courts for extra playing time ever since he started QuickStart last fall.

Zane – who says his favorite part of tennis is “hitting the balls” – can manage a pretty wicked forehand when he’s using a racket more suitable for his pint-sized, 5-year-old frame and swinging at a ball with less compression than those used by pros.

“He just has a blast,” said dad Marc Saavedra. “He looks forward to it every Saturday.”

Both Zane’s parents are self-described “recreational” tennis players and weren’t sure Zane would like the sport.

“Our only expectation was just seeing how he liked it,” said mom Cinnamon Blair. “And he loves it.”

Jenny Ramo has had a similar experience with her son, Carlos. The 6-year-old has taken a shine to tennis and Ramo said it’s likely because he has such a good time at his twice-weekly sessions at the Lobo Club.

“He loves it – he gets to run around and he’s getting better and better every time,” she said. “It’s good skills and practice, but also a fun workout for them.”

It may be fun, but there is a clear focus.

At the recent Saturday morning session, Badger divided the kids into four instructor-led groups based on size and experience. There is a range of balls to suit their needs – starting with a large foam ball and graduating to smaller, more rubbery balls. While the youngest kids started the day with simple drills – rolling the ball back and forth on the court to practice tracking – the oldest and most adept players were soon hitting back and forth with each other on a larger court. The scene impressed Ramo.

“They start as little ones, and you can see how great they end up,” she said.

Scott said progress in the program happens, well, quickly.

“They learn how to play probably three or four times quicker than with normal equipment,” he said. “I know because I’ve been a pro for 35 years, and I’ve seen just about everything.”

The ultimate goal, of course, is keeping kids in the sport for years to come – just recreationally or perhaps as competitive players who graduate to the middle school, high school or even college level.

Dils expects some QuickStarters to go even further than that.

“It will not only get kids to play,” he said of the program, “but also get kids to be really good and kind of replenish the stock of great American players.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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