I don’t follow junior tennis a whole lot but in glancing through the headlines this morning, I came across this bit of news that had me thinking about my own days as kid playing tennis.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The U.S. Tennis Association is moving the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships back to clay courts this year.
The junior tournament will be played Dec. 5-11 at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation, Fla. It’s been held on hard courts in Key Biscayne since 1998; before that, it was played on clay in Miami Beach.
USTA Player Development general manager Patrick McEnroe said Wednesday he likes the switch to green clay because “if you play more on clay as a youngster, you’ll become just a better all-around player.” (AP)
The move to clay courts for one of the biggest junior tourney makes sense and I agree with McEnroe that more time spent playing on clay, especially for youngsters, will help them develop more complete games. But it won’t be enough to just move a big, well known event to create more opportunities for kids in the States to learn how to play clay. It will take more access to clay courts across the country period.
I grew up learning to play tennis near Asheville, North Carolina, and although I started on some hard courts in a park near where I lived, I was able to hit a few times on some Har-Tru courts at the Aston Park in Asheville, which was about a forty minute drive for me. I remember not enjoying playing on clay at all but only because it took me a least two full matches before I felt somewhat comfortable running around on it. Once I started playing high school tennis, I rarely played on clay courts at all and it was only when I moved to New York City years later that I was able to play on green clay on the courts at Prospect Park.
Now that I live in Southern California, the opportunities to play on clay, unless I join a private club, are very few and either too far away to get to or require higher than normal court fees that make playing on them akin to a once a year diversion. Many public parks and courts in the U.S. are all hard courts as they are perceived to be easier to maintain than clay courts, although plenty of hard courts end up getting cracked, warped, etc., and remain that way for years until they are repaved or repaired, sometimes with money raised by local communities and players fed up with waiting for their local governments to do so.
Could putting at least one clay court in every public park in America change the way people learn and perceive the sport? Maybe. Giving more people, and not just kids, access to clay could breakdown some long held stereotypes about the surface. I’m not saying I have the answer to how to pay for it or how to maintain the courts especially during these challenging times. But if the U.S. wants more champions, juniors and/or pros, it’s going to take more than just a change in scenery and surface for one tournament, no matter how important or prestigious it is.