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Midwest

Virtual Matches - The Play of the Future

Molly Doehrmann | April 01, 2021

March 2020 will have its place in history as the month when statewide shutdowns rocked the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. More than a year later, Americans experience a new normal. This story highlights how one tennis facility attracted juniors to continue playing tennis virtually.

 

Akron, Ohio’s Towpath Tennis Center, located between Hampton Hills and Sand Run parks, purchased a MultiBall system at the end of 2019.

 

“It’s essentially a huge iPad,” says Assistant Manager, Natalie Soto who’s also in charge of membership services at Towpath. She describes it as a 12 ft. by 15 ft. interactive hitting wall created for kids and adults.

 

“You can use it to train players.”

 

USTA/Midwest Section caught wind about Towpath’s wall in March 2021 — that it’d been used to play a virtual match.

 

“Zoom and Facebook Live are so big right now,” Natalie says, describing how two teams hundreds of miles apart competed against each other.

The Towpath juniors played with children from Boston, Massachusetts who are part of New England Tennis Academy Natick. The academy has a MultiBall system, too, and the director of the academy, Alexander Johansson, created a tennis app for the wall, called Raqts.

 

Raqts uses the wall’s projector to create moving targets. The easiest one is horizontal and moves up and down, getting progressively skinnier with each ball that hits. The second target is vertical and the last one is a challenging hexagon that floats from spot to spot.

 

“There’s LED sensors along the wall. When the ball hits, those LED sensors talk to the system,” Natalie explains.

All players — adults, kids, recreational and pro can use the wall to improve their game.

 

The German company that created the wall is called Fun With Balls GmbH. It designed the wall to train squash players and was later expanded to include other racquet sports.

 

“It’s a great teaching tool,” says Katie Orlando, the director of tennis at Towpath. “It’s great for teamwork. It’s great for team building. It’s great for our club.” Six or so facilities in the U.S. have a MultiBall wall. Spain and Sweden have some, and they’re installed all over Germany.

 

Towpath Tennis Center had theirs up and working by March 2020 right before the coronavirus shutdowns.

“We were on top of a mountain,” says Natalie. “Then we lost all momentum.”

 

Towpath, along with other businesses, eventually reopened with limited capacity, and that’s when the staff realized — the wall filled an important gap between play and the pandemic.

 

“You and your family could come do the wall. You don’t have to interact with anyone else,” says Natalie. “Kids who weren’t wanting to be in group lessons, they could come and just use the MultiBall wall by themselves.”

 

“November, December, January… There were parents that could not take their kids anywhere, but they would bring their kids here and just let them wear themselves out from a half-hour on the wall,” says Dallas Aleman, the owner/manager of Towpath Tennis Center.

 

Suddenly, kids would rather be at Towpath than home playing video games.

 

With more than 15 games installed on the wall, it keeps the kids’ attention. Towpath uses it a lot for junior programming and supplements that training with an in-person instructor.

 

The players benefit from repetition, while also improving their hand-eye coordination and aim. Kids who are more successful hitting the target score points and the wall calculates their percentage of accuracy. The virtual match between Towpath Tennis Center and New England Tennis Academy Natick compared the kids' scores side by side.

 

The match was held Sunday, March 14, 2021.

 

Katie says, “The kids really got into it. They were all about scoring points and getting better.”

 

One by one, juniors hit against their facility’s respective wall, while a staff member recorded the whole thing on Facebook Live. The kids’ families (even some grandparents) watched from home. 

 

Each child’s ability was tested before the event so they were matched with a similarly-skilled child on the competing team. Once they were paired up, the six players from each team competed in three rounds, lasting a minute each, and scores were totaled based on how well the kids hit against the horizontal, vertical, and hexagon settings.

 

So how did scoring work?

 

Each player gained points based on the number of times they hit the target and how quickly they returned the ball. Scores for both teams were announced on Facebook after every round.

 

A delay in the streaming service, which would otherwise spoil an event, actually allowed the kids to wait with anticipation to hear the other team’s score. 

 

Could this new excitement replace the old standing butterflies one gets when waiting on a line call?

 

“It got the kids excited. Maybe they never would have played against kids in Boston,” says Katie.

 

Players aren’t the only ones who love the wall — families look forward to using it, and so do former players who haven’t picked up a racquet in years. In just 30 minutes, they can hit the ball nearly five times more than they would during a clinic. Towpath Tennis Center lets anyone book the wall in increments of 30 minutes to an hour.

 

“The kids who play this, they’re very quick to adapt,” Natalie says. “They’re used to technology.”

 

“They teach us,” Katie adds. Those same children, so accustomed to the latest gadgets and screens, were nervous for their first match on the wall. Not from fear of technology failing, but that raw fear of competing, and desire to come in first place.

 

“I never saw our kids get so nervous. I mean, I saw this as a tennis player on a real tennis court. I’ve never seen a player get like this on a wall. I used to hit against the garage door all the time,” Katie recalls, “but now they’re competing against six other kids in Boston.”

 

Virtual sports make up a significant portion of video gaming since the 2010s at the latest. The University of Akron offers scholarships to esports players.

 

“We should have e-teams,” Katie thought, “E-fourth grade, e-fifth grade, e-sixth grade! We should see what we can do with this stuff.”

 

There are other possibilities the MultiBall system offers, like objectively scoring a players’ abilities and suggesting a level of play — moving towards NTRP ratings.

 

By the end of the match, kids at Towpath Tennis Center scored 16,230 points. They lost to the players at New England Tennis Academy Natick who racked up 17,594 points.

 

More than 500 people saw the kids play on Facebook Live — something that could never be achieved in person during a pandemic.

 

“The players asked immediately 'when’s the next match?'”

 

Natalie says Towpath Tennis Center is planning another one for the future. She also wants to see MultiBall systems installed across the country, so her kids can play with more groups.

 

“If you would have asked me three years ago, do you think we’ll ever have a virtual tennis match? I would have said no. That can’t exist,” admitted Katie.

 

Dallas says the wall speaks to the power of innovation.

 

“Attracting youngsters is one of the biggest challenges right now,” Dallas says. “Trying to capture their attention in this fast-paced, video-crazy kind of world…” He believes the wall, and the game, Raqts, keep tennis real and relevant. “That’s the real challenge.”

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