Meet Nora Rauscher, age 6.
She can serve. She can volley. Most important to Craig Jones, the tennis director at Petersburg Racquet Club, she can use her head.
Nora uses tactics, Jones said.
Nora's practice partner, 9-year-old Sam Bailey, rushed the net for a return. Nora lobbed a shot over Sam's head and dropped it for the point.
"She actually controls the ball and moves it around," Jones said.
The development of Nora's mental game provides Jones the perfect test case for QuickStart, a program put in place by the United States Tennis Association to help children pick up the sport more quickly and promote it at a grass-roots level.
The mini-competition between Nora and Sam took place on a 36-foot court. The foam balls were light and large and the racquets were small enough for children to wield more easily.
On an adjacent court of similar size, head tennis pro Vu Nguyen worked to improve reflexes with another group. A young boy was instructed to hold a ball straight out by his side and drop it.
"Watch me," Nguyen said as he stumbled forward dramatically and reached for the bouncing ball. "Was that a good reaction time?"
"Noooo," came the response.
On another small court, Courtney Rauscher, Nora's older sister and an accomplished tennis player, ran volley drills with the young students, reminding them when to grip with one hand and when to grip with two.
The program has taken off at Petersburg.
Jones modified four courts at his club to accommodate the QuickStart craze. There is room for more with some strategically placed lines and a little caution tape.
For sanctioned competition, the 36-foot court is limited to age 8 and younger. After they reach a certain point, the kids advance to a 60-foot court and low-compression ball.
Jones flew to Chicago in December 2006 to meet with a group of pros from around the country and to hammer out the regulations for QuickStart, which began in Europe and produced such stars as Roger Federer.
The scoring format and equipment specifications were determined, and equipment manufacturers given the go-ahead to begin making the balls and racquets.
A week later, Jones sold the pros at his club on the format, and they incorporated it into their leagues.
The club held one tournament last year among its own players but wasn't allowed to hold another one because the format was not yet sanctioned.
This year, tournaments are sanctioned by the USTA. Jones's club will hold another tournament in March, and he's called other pros throughout the state, hoping to set up a 10-tournament circuit.
"It doesn't do any good if we keep growing here," Jones said. "Our kids have to play other people. And we're going to keep growing no matter what, but it's got to catch on nationwide and citywide. We've done a decent job locally, but we got to get all the pros on the same page."
Jones said some pros have been reluctant to change from more traditional teaching methods. The recently named 2007 USTA Southern Section Pro of the Year thinks the QuickStart method works, because kids can wield the lighter racquets better, can better work the smaller court and, in turn, learn tactics at a younger age.
Nora and Sam's exhibit came after the pair had struggled to keep the ball in play on the 60-foot court.
"Some of these skills, if you wait to teach them when they're 10 years old , you're in trouble," Jones said.
"I used to think you could wait. Not anymore."
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