I remember growing up and competing in so many tournaments all over NSW. It was important to compete against a variety of players so we often ventured out to the regional events as well. The one thing I can recall vividly is that coaches, tournament directors, referees, parents etc would often comment on the reduced size of the draws within the older age groups. They would often be at a loss as to why this was occuring.
Fast forward over 10 years and I see the same thing happening. If you take note of the amount of entries in the under 12 and 14 events, the figures are healthy. In contrast, the under 16 and 18 events are more than often struggling to fill a draw of 32 players (elimination). There doesn’t seem to be a difference in the singles and doubles events either. Now, I don’t have the statistics to back up my comments however if you have competed in any NSW sanctioned event or frequented tournaments held within NSW, I am confident you will agree that there is a direct correlation between age and participation. I believe that there is enough statistical data for Tennis Australia to analyse and perhaps acknowledge the fact that there is definitely a correlation between age and participation.
Tennis is a unique sport, because you can play tennis for your entire life, no matter your level. It is a very challenging sport, so naturally the more time and effort you put into developing your game, the better you will become. This leaves the question, why are the entries into the under 16 and 18 events dropping off? There are so many reasons for this, for example it could be education, social life, work, friends, family, loss of interest, moved onto another sport etc.
If you are a serious athlete, it is important to compete against players within your age group, otherwise it is irrelevant. Here is my potential solution to this issue:
The Potential Solution
- Introduce a ‘kids circuit’ of events which incorporates the hot shots stages of tennis*. There is a lot of potential here at this stage, whereby tennis clubs, coaches and facilitators can really engage families and their children by the philosophy that tennis is ‘more than a game’. The club culture and atmosphere can set the tone for the crucial developmental years ahead. It can help boost participation at a club level, which is the springboard to competitive tennis. A special ‘Australian Open’ prize for the entire family could be one of the many offers available to competitors.
- No change to the under 12 and 14 event categories. Why change something that has a proven track record?
- No change to the under 12, 14 and 18 national championships. Perhaps the under 16 national championships should be revised as relevant or not and ultimately scrapped if the latter is decided upon. The reason for this is that there is no ‘reward’ or ‘incentive’ for the players who excel here. For the under 12 and 14 category there is the potential for exposure, selection into national academies and other touring programs and for under 18 category there is the Australian Open wildcard, AIS scholarship program opportunities etc.
- Scrap the under 16 and 18 junior category and introduce a new category named ‘Open Teens’, with a minimum age, ranking and number of events played per calendar year criteria for younger players (this should align with the current ITF junior circuit age and eligibility rules and regulations). In terms of the draw types, there are many options here, such as having players compete in various pools, leading to a main draw play off, a compass draw or round robin with a play off, or main draw and qualification. Of course, the rankings will play a part in terms of the seeded and unseeded players as per normal. The positives of this change is that the draw will fill up with better competition due to the variety in age and ability. As a coach, I can tell you that the amalgamation of two age groups within a 4-5 year range will be the best thing for the development of a junior player. If the ITF are doing that, then why can’t we do the same in Australia? There will also be a reduction in administrative and labour expenses for clubs and most importantly, improve the culture of tennis so that players are encouraged to compete as adolescents and not discouraged due to the lack of entries. This can lead to further participation at a higher level and a better transition into professional tennis.
- No change to the Australian Money Tournament and Pro Circuit.
- No change to other events not mentioned.
This may seem like quite a revolutionary ‘idea’ however something needs to be done. There is no use to continue using a structure that is not working, so there really isn’t any risk with implementing a new structure in my opinion. If nothing is done, then we need a miracle.
*Hot shots tennis events are currently being held across Australia, however to my knowledge there is no ‘circuit’.