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Tennis enthusiasts won't be happy to hear about the sport's recent turn in participation. Players are dropping like flies, fleeing to other sports, or not even giving tennis a chance. But over the last decade, local tennis clubs on the Connecticut shoreline are ahead of the curve, working with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to cater to a younger demographic and encourage more involvement.
The newer programs work well as far as developing the talent of younger players is concerned, giving the shoreline-area schools an advantage at the high school level, but the overall participation numbers still seem to be on the decline.
At the national level, participation rates have dropped more than eight percent over the last two years (785,740 to 726,583 USTA members), according to Alexandra Hinckley, the marketing and communications manager at USTA New England. The numbers aren't too much better in Connecticut-the drop is just 7.3 percent (11,225 to 10,445) in the same time span-but the shoreline area is helping keep those numbers afloat as 32 percent of USTA members in Connecticut lie within a 30-mile radius of Guilford, according to Hinckley.
A potential reason for the shoreline to boast a bulk of the tennis players in the state is its proximity to New Haven, which hosts the Connecticut Open every August. The Open, formerly the Pilot Pen, is part of the Women's Tennis Association professional tour. It brings star players such as Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and James Blake, whom local players admire, into the area to help promote the game.
"The Connecticut Open is all about encouraging the public to play tennis," said Anne Worcester, the Connecticut Open tournament director. "It has been our mission for 17 years to leverage the pro game to encourage participation in the community game."
Alex Reiger, of Madison, and a member of the Daniel Hand High School Class L State Championship boys' tennis team, used to go to the Connecticut Open every year with his family.
"It was awesome to see top players so close and I just wanted to go out and practice to get the amount of spin they used," Reiger said. "It was a factor in my enthusiasm because who wouldn't be excited to strive to be as good as the professional players playing just in our backyard?"
However, tennis still faces difficult challenges to maintain its playership. One of those in recent years is the development of other organized sports such as lacrosse. Lacrosse is growing in popularity at a rapid pace and prying kids away from the tennis court, according to Guilford Racquet and Swim Club Head Pro Chris Marra, who also coaches the Guilford girls' high school tennis team.
"I played at Guilford High School myself and I would say the numbers we had of kids coming out were three or four times the amount of what we have now," said Guilford boys' tennis Head Coach Andy Raucci. "If you think about it, you have parents that move into town and they're trying to get their kids involved in different sports and tennis is much more individualistic. I think the parents like the idea of their son or their daughter around larger groups of kids, initially when they're younger. You can understand that for the social aspect."
The individuality of tennis can be a big turnoff for parents and players alike, but the ways in which younger kids are taught to play the game is what the sport is lacking against virtually all of its counterparts, according to Marra. Only over the past couple of years have clubs like the one in Guilford, as well as the one in Madison, started to make strides in working with younger players.
"The USTA came up with a great idea, which is the 10-and-under tennis," said Bob Dunlop, vice-president of the Connecticut chapter of the USTA and owner of Madison Racquet and Swim Club. "The USTA redefined the size of the court, the height of the net, the racquets and the balls, so there's basically a court which is about a quarter of the size of a normal tennis court and that's for the little kids. That's been extremely helpful."
Prior to this adjustment, Marra noted that when younger kids were in the process of learning the game, they would be doing so on a regulation court, meaning that they wouldn't be too effective with each hit. It was an easy way to drive young players away from the game because they were being set up to fail.
"Tennis for years was behind other sports in the learning curve with kids where you start a kid off in baseball on a tee. Then the coach pitches, and then [the player] eventually gets to a point where a player pitches to him. Then the fields in every sport are always smaller. A soccer field is smaller, a basketball court is smaller, the hoop is lower, whatever they did to make adjustments to have kids learn to play the game and be successful, they did, and they grew with the sport that they were playing. Tennis was never like that until recently," Marra said. "What this does is that it keeps the kids successful at a younger age and it enables them to learn the form and technique properly so when they get to be older, they're already at a point where they can play pretty well. Our goal is to keep improving upon that system even more so when a parent says, 'My son or my daughter has never played tennis before,' we can still have them come in and learn how to play at a pretty rapid pace, whereas before, it was hit the ball, hope it goes in, and good luck playing with that ginormous, clunky racquet you have there because you're never going to do it."
Newer teaching styles employed by the local clubs, as well as an emphasis on teambuilding, has driven local success extremely high. This has taken place not only at the club level, but even for the area high school teams.
The clubs themselves all carry consistent reputations for their work at the junior level. The Guilford, Madison, and Old Saybrook racquet clubs generally develop quality teams at every age level, and its popularity is growing, as Dunlop notes that there are more than 5,000 players in the Southern Connecticut League, which is the largest in New England.
Ruthanne Rothman, who coaches junior teams at the Old Saybrook Racquet Club, routinely sends her players to the state, regional, and national USTA Junior Team tennis tournaments, especially in the 18-and-under as well as the 14-and-under divisions. Over the last few years, the Old Saybrook junior teams have reached their peak. In 2011, the 18-U squad was the state champion and the 14-U squad was a state finalist. In 2012, the 18-U team ranked fourth in the state while the 14-U group was both the state and New England champion, and went to the national tournament. In 2013, both the 18-U and 14-U teams were state finalists.
The success brings a plethora of players to the Old Saybrook Racquet Club, but a limited amount of space has caused Rothman to set her sights on the development of a new, local league. Because the junior team limits the number of players allowed, Rothman worked with East Lyme High School boys' tennis coach Mike Abate to create the Eastern Connecticut Junior Tennis League. There are only about 40 participants in the early stages, but Rothman loves how it allows for another avenue that players have to compete on the tennis court.
"It's very local between Clinton, all the way up to East Lyme and Waterford. It's not just shoreline, but local area," she said. "This gives them another venue to play. Between this and junior team tennis, they now have two options of ways to compete without having to go through the traditional USTA tournament route, which is very elitist."
Success has also been present at the high school level in recent years as players currently at the high school level have grown up with the new teaching programs at local clubs.
The Hand boys' tennis squad was both the Class L champion and runner-up over the past five years, winning in 2014. The Guilford boys' team won the Class M title this year, and was the runner-up in 2013. For the girls, Hand is generally in the mix in Class M and Westbrook is typically a top team in Class S. This year, Westbrook was the runner-up in the division after winning it all in 2012.
Even Hannah VanBenschoten, a recent graduate and doubles player for Valley Regional-which advanced to the Class S semifinals this spring-noted that competition outside of the shoreline at the state level was much weaker than she thought it would've been.
"There are a lot of very good teams along the shoreline. I don't think there is one school that falls short," VanBenschoten said. "Everybody is really competitive and when you get to the state tournament, you kind of realize that teams that are ranked higher than you are not as good as most of the teams in the shoreline. I think that goes to show just how competitive it is."
Numbers may be on the decline as far as participation is concerned for tennis, but instructors on the shoreline are doing what they can to make it fun for kids learning to play the game, and challenging top players enough to keep them focused on improving themselves.
Reiger is one who believes that the quality is there, and the numbers not only along the shoreline, but Connecticut and the entire country, will return to where they once were.
"When kids think of sports, tennis gets overlooked as kids think about football, basketball, hockey, soccer, or baseball when they're younger. America is producing some great juniors again that are coming though the professional ranks, so I think that the kids that do play tennis are very, very committed and are becoming high level," Reiger said. "Even though the numbers in total may not be the same, we're still producing great players all around the country."