Few of us really remember what it was like to be a kid, and fewer still, especially those of us who have nightmares of double-faulting on match point, remember what it was like to be a kid on a tennis court. From the start, tennis leaves little time for lollipops and balloons.
With this in mind, the folks at Sea Pines Plantation, the resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C., have discovered a way to introduce tennis to children without making them think they are off on a visit to the dentist. The program, which is called Tiny Tots Tennis, dishes out lots of fun to a group that can appreciate it—kids between five and eight years old.
The instruction is built on the premise that most 5-year-olds would rather not climb out of a tree house to learn to hit the ball like Jimmy Connors. What kids would like to do while Mom and Dad are getting their sweatbands soaked is take a lightweight cut-down racket, yank the hair of the boy or girl in front of them and try to hit Rocky Raccoon in the nose.
Forget the net. To make tennis child's play, wooden cutouts of different cartoon character animals are placed around the court. Then the tykes are shown the proper grip and posture, fed soft balls and told to hit them back at Arnold the Alligator or Denny the Dolphin. The results are amazing. Usually, a child getting his first tennis lesson takes a couple of halfhearted swipes at the ball, then drags his racket off the court and goes somewhere to sulk. Quite the opposite is true in Tiny Tots Tennis. Kids know how to have fun. It is the adults who somehow foul up things by insisting on showing them how to do it and demanding that the rules be observed. In Tiny Tots the kids have it their way, on a kind of Sesame Street bun.
Sea Pines is the largest tennis resort in the world—53 courts, Stan Smith as tennis consultant, several big glamour tournaments a year, video tape playbacks, ball machines, the works. Tiny Tots is a mini-oasis in the midst of all this high-pressure seriousness. The kids are lined up and standing at mock attention like smiling soldiers who have been forewarned that their commanding officer's cigar is about to explode. Occasionally they take some time out to chase a butterfly or break into a jitterbug around one of the animals.
The program started as an experiment that quickly turned into a diversion. Adults love seeing children make the same athletic mistakes they do. Mom and Dad would probably watch Little League baseball even if the second baseman wasn't theirs if only the newspapers published the standings and Howard Cosell announced the games. "We find that the guests enjoy watching the kids play tennis almost as much as they do the pros—sometimes maybe more," says John David Rose, head of the tennis program.
"The idea of Tiny Tots is to avoid the analytical process," says Jeannie Scott, who conducts the classes. "The cutout cartoon characters hold their attention and help them to relax. What we're doing is much the same as building sand castles on the beach. It's imagery. It's Disneyland on a tennis court."
Asked if she wants to become a female Bjorn Borg, 7-year-old Marisa Meier shrugged and says, "Who's Bjorn Borg?" Asked the same question, Jessica Gardo says, "I beat up five boys at one time."
Of course, some older churls question the wisdom of introducing a small child to tennis no matter what the program. These people who caution about the danger of a youngster subsequently being "burned out" are usually the same ones who stopped having fun about the time they discovered the backhand grip. There seems no more danger of a 5-year-old being incinerated in Tiny Tots Tennis than there is of a 2-year-old developing a compulsion to become Mark Spitz because he is learning to swim. In TTT there is no scoring, no right way and no wrong way, and no rules. The children are shown how to execute the basic strokes, but if they do not mimic them perfectly, no one chides them to "keep the racket head vertical and follow through." Whoever hits the cartoon characters most often is the winner, and the prize is that he does not have to help the others pick up the practice balls—although he usually does anyway. Kids like to pick up balls. They think it is fun to see how many they can get in a ball hopper, stacking them the way apples are piled in a supermarket cart.
This is a way to introduce a child to tennis without the exasperation factor, much in the manner a kid can learn to putt by playing miniature golf at an amusement park. The sessions are inexpensive—$15 buys a series of four half-hour lessons—but the real payment comes in the smile and satisfaction that follows a good swing. When asked what her favorite shot was, 7-year-old Stacey Arberg answered, "Rocky Raccoon. I tried to hit him the most because he's got a garbage can lid on his head." Years and years from now, when she is faced with match point, Stacey might again visualize Rocky Raccoon poised and waiting across the net from her, and hit him right in the nose for a winner's trophy.