Before the game’s biggest names take to the court at Madison Square Garden Monday for the BNP Paribas Showdown, six of tennis’ smallest stars showcased their talents, continuing Tennis Night in America’s tradition of spotlighting the future of the sport. Indeed, Monday’s night’s fun launched a month-long celebration of the sport, as the USTA will be promoting Tennis Festivals throughout March, designed to introduce kids and their families to the fun and excitement of tennis.
Six New York-area kids took to the Garden stage for a live on-court demonstration of 10 and Under Tennis, before the double-bill main event of 2012 US Open champion Serena Williams versus Victoria Azarenka and 11-time Grand Slam singles titlist Rafael Nadal taking on 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro live on ESPN2. The half-hour youth tennis exhibition was hosted by Bob Harper, fitness expert and star of "The Biggest Loser," and Jeff Sutphen, host of Nickelodeon’s, "Figure it Out," with highlights of the demo airing during the national broadcast.
Tennis, and taking on the epidemic of childhood obesity, are both at the forefront of Harper's mind these days. Last week, Harper, along with Williams, attended First Lady Michelle Obama's third anniversary celebration of the "Let's Move!" campaign in Chicago to encourage schools to provide children opportunities for 60 minutes of physical activity per day before, during and after school.
Traveling east to New York for Monday’s event, the television personality and best-selling author was excited to spread a message of movement and play with the sport he loves to watch most.
"My whole message is about getting kids to be more active," said Harper. "Kids are spending up to seven hours a day in front of the television or the computer screen, completely leading sedentary lifestyles. For me, tennis is a great sport because all you need to do is get a racquet and a ball and get moving. Many times when I was a kid, I used the side of my house as a partner until the sun went down. It’s a sport that has so many advantages."
"I'm beyond honored that the USTA asked me to be involved with their youth tennis efforts," added Sutphen. "Tennis is one of those rare sports that you can play your entire life. The earlier you start, the longer you will get to play."
And now, more kids are playing than ever before. In fact, the annual participation survey conducted for the USTA and the Tennis Industry Association by Taylor Research and Consulting cited a 13 percent increase in the number of players between the ages of 6 and 11, the largest increase of any age group.
"For these kids and our whole team, it’s a thrill," said Anne Davis, USTA National Manager, Youth Play and Competition. "The impact that our organization has made in bringing even younger children into tennis, with events like Tennis Festivals across the country, is evident in how the game is growing nationwide. There are now 28 million active tennis players in the country, and the greatest growth was participation among our youngest players."
10 and Under Tennis follows the same logic as other youth sports like baseball or soccer, which use equipment sized right for kids. With smaller courts and racquets, lower-bouncing balls and simplified scoring, gone are the days of the boring drills and chasing balls all over regulation-sized playing surfaces. From the first day, kids are playing and learning the rules through competitive experience.
"If we can continue to be a part of Tennis Night each year, we’ll be ready for the call," added Davis. "The stats back it up. We’re always talking about a better path for youth players – but being able to show off the fun these kids are having every time they hit the court is the most effective proof for families interested in tennis."
Meet the roster of rising stars who debuted on Tennis Night: