Meridian Star

June 27, 2013

Growing the Game

Northwood aims to spread tennis in Meridian

Sarah Moomaw
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Meridian needs more Coyt Majures.

    Or so said Anthony Hiatt, head tennis pro at Northwood Country Club, during the State Games of Mississippi junior tennis tournament over the weekend.

    Majure has been playing tennis tournaments since he was 11, which he and Hiatt agree, was a late start for the presence Majure has racked up.

    "It seems young but most kids start at seven or eight," Majure said. "My first few years playing, I felt like I was at a disadvantage because all the kids had been playing so much longer than me. But when I was 14, I started to get a lot better and started to catch up. Now I've caught up with other guys."

    Use this past high school season as proof: Majure found his way the semifinals of the MSIA AA State Championships, but suffered a "disappointing" loss. But that didn't stop him. Majure has chugged right along into the summer tennis tournament season sanctioned by the United State Tennis Association youth program, quickly racking up wins.

    In the USTA Mississippi state tournament in Jackson the first weekend of June, Majure faced a tough draw against the No. 1 seed in the round of 16. After being blanked by Robert Mounger of Jackson, Majure moved onto the consolation bracket with relative ease. Four wins later, he'd earned the consolation title and qualified for the Southern Regional in Mobile, Ala.

    Southerns didn't go nearly as well, facing top players from across the region. Two quick losses sent Majure home looking for redemption, which he found at State Games.

    "It's nice to not have to travel for once, and come out on my home court and play," Majure said of State Games.

    To win gold at State Games, Majure didn't allow any opponent to take more than two games per set, grabbing the title in straight sets from Louisville's Austin Baskin, 6-2, 6-1. 

    Majure's work ethic, success and determination is something Hiatt wants to see in Northwood's 10 and Under players. The county club currently has an abundance of youth tennis players that could be the next "Coyt" and almost all thanks to the USTA's "Grow the Game" initiative.

    Wanting to further tennis in the United States, three years ago the USTA changed the rules for 10 and Under tennis. They shrunk the court, racket and ball bounce to fit smaller bodies, which Northwood was quick to jump on as well.

    "They've scaled it down just like they do for youth soccer or basketball," Hiatt said. "Now, you don't have to be a great athlete to have any kind of success at a young age in tennis."

    "It's probably the greatest thing that the USTA has done in a long time. They've been doing that in Europe for years and year, and I think that's one of the reasons they've had better players."

    Northwood was the first private club in Mississippi to install the permeant "10 and Under" black lines on their hard courts three years ago. The lines were quick to return after this spring's resurfacing.

    "USTA has had some good grants programs where they'll match, almost pay for the lines, and we jumped right on board. We were able to get our lines real early in the game," Hiatt said.

    The black lines pull in the bases line 18 feet to shrink the court length to 60 feet. To further make the game adaptable, an orange tennis ball has been introduced at 50 percent the compression of a regular tennis ball to change the height of the bounce. Matches are also shorter, being played to four games instead of six.

    "The rackets are shorter and the ball bounces at their waist instead of their head like a real ball [would]," Hiatt said.

    Hiatt said the changes to the sport have made it easier for new-to-tennis families to completely emerge themselves into the sport. Additionally, the club has seen an influx of younger beginners progress quickly that the future looks bright for area tennis.

    "If we can just keep half of our 10 and Under players playing tennis as they get older and playing tournament tennis, then we are really going to get to where we have a high performance program," he said. "That would be the ultimate goal and raise the bar and get more high level players like Coyt [Majure]. Instead of just having Coyt, I hope we have 10 Coyts playing."

    Hiatt said the Majure has been a great player for the younger ones to look up to, as it gives them something to look forward to.

    "We have the clinics next to him sometimes and you can see the kids looking over there and wanting to get in there," Hiatt said.

    One of those kids is 10-years-old Collier McRae. He has won state level tournaments.

    Avery Weed is 8 years old but mostly plays in the 10 and Under bracket as opposed to the under-8s. She earned a trip to Under 10 Southern Regionals in Memphis, pushing two matches into a third set tiebreak before being knocked out in the Consolation quarterfinals.

    McRae and Weed both started playing as Northwood adopted the USTA's junior programing and according to Hiatt, are two of their more advanced youth players as their resumes prove.

    McRae has grown to love tennis and is on the courts almost every day now that it's summer.

    The 10 and Under program over the last few years has grown at Northwood to the point of needing more options for younger players. In addition to lessons and clinics, they've added the USTA's Junior World Team Tennis to the line-up.

    "We have so many kids playing now that we needed and avenue for them to play in and so that's what they've done in areas like in Jackson and along the coast because they have an abundance of players, so we started a juniors team tennis so that the kids that are taking lessons and playing here on their own have a league to play in," Hiatt said.

    He emphasized that tournament play is the best way for improvement, so the league is not only fun, but keeps players learning and focused on improvement. The State Games tournament is the only USTA Jr. sanctioned tournament in city limits each year, so the team tennis gives kids from across the area a chance to play competitively.

    McRae said the team tennis is a lot of fun because he can play singles, doubles or mixed doubles any given week as part of a team. The Northwoods Jr. Team Tennis has 12 teams, up from last year's four, grouped by age: U10, U12, U14, U18.

    "I like doubles," McRae said. "Because it's just fun for us to play together and we get to have fun doing it and get better at tennis. [Singles is] harder because theres more court to cover and you have to run a lot more. You have to move a lot more, in doubles there are two people it's easier."

    Hiatt said the team tennis also helps keep the younger players interest in the sport, which is key to growing the game, making the whole process full circle.

    "It's really just about getting them hooked and getting them use to playing all time, and what tournament tennis is all about," Hiatt said. "That's kind of the goal. The more they play, the more they are going to want to play."