By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Doubles can be just as important as singles.
USTA League, the largest program for recreational tennis players in the U.S., incorporates teamwork as a core value, with hundreds of thousands of Americans uniting to compete as squads and pursuing championships.
And just as it’s near impossible to win in doubles without a partner to share in the challenge of a competitive match, USTA League and Penn Racquet Sports, Inc., – the official sponsor of USTA League and a subsidiary of HEAD NV – have supported one another in helping a nation of aspiring players find their game.
“We’re in it because we love the sport and we want to see it grow,” said Jeff Ratkovich, Senior Business Manager for Penn Tennis Balls.
The 51-year-old former varsity men’s team member at Northern Arizona University was hired by Penn in 1987, the very same year his company signed on with the USTA. In the ensuing 27 years, more than one million Penn balls have hit the courts at all USTA League championships – and that is only part of what Penn has delivered to USTA League in that timeframe.
In truth, the relationship goes beyond pressurized cans and fluorescent felt.
Ratkovich works out of Penn’s headquarters in Phoenix and attends many of the USTA League National Championship events, held annually in nearby Tucson to the south and Surprise to the north. While at the sites, he speaks out at captains’ meetings and personally thanks all players and officials who approach him in conversation for their dedication to the sport. In his time at Penn, Ratkovich has watched USTA League swell from 97,000 to more than 350,000 recreational players nationwide, and he listens and observes carefully to determine what the current generation of players wants.
The intel gathering goes beyond conversation: for every USTA League Nationals event, Ratkovich and his Penn team gather samples of match-used balls to run tests for quality assurance. It's one thing to test for wear and tear in a factory setting, yet another to see how balls hold up in live competition
“Frequent players are who we cater to, the people who live and breathe tennis,” said Ratkovich. “So those numbers continue to climb, and obviously so too does our revenue [and] also our desire to help make League events better in any way we can.
“It’s inspiring because every aspect of Nationals improves with the years – the competition level, and especially the teamwork and the sportsmanship. The way the players now exchange gifts before matches, for instance. You see much of what is right about tennis. It’s really pleasant to watch.”
USTA League will celebrate its 35th year of operation in 2015, and has featured a wide range of sponsors over the years. According to Jeff Waters, USTA Managing Director of Adult Tennis, Penn’s commitment to the program has been unmatched.
“We are very fortunate that HEAD Penn has been a partner with us in growing USTA League for nearly three decades now,” said Waters. “It helps that we share a common bond in getting more people play to the sport of tennis, but what really makes this partnership work is they are great people to work with.”