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USTA's ambitious endeavor an attempt to garner instantaneous results

The scene is one that has taken place on thousands of tennis courts across the United States for years: an enthusiastic youngster is trying to hold a heavy racket for too long and hit too hard over a net that is too tall on a court that is way too big.
The frequent result is the frustrated child determines tennis is just too hard, and moves on to a different sport.

That distressing scenario should now be a thing of the past.

At least that is the hope of the USTA. The association followed a trend that has been set in other parts of the world, and developed and trademarked QuickStart Tennis, a two-step play format designed to make youngsters fall in love with tennis the minute they pick up a racket. The use of smaller rackets, softer, low-compression balls and more manageable-sized courts enables children in 8-and-under and 10-and-under age groups to experience instantaneous success the first time they're introduced to the game. This new approach to tennis also puts forth an easier scoring system that allows matches to be played in a shorter -- approximately 20-minute -- period of time.

If the QuickStart Tennis debut serves as an indicator of whether this initiative, designed to bring tennis to the masses and to develop future American tennis superstars, will flourish, the answer could be positive.

The USTA unveiled its new play format during the action-packed "ESPN: The Weekend" at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Feb. 29 through March 2. The weekend bustled with sports superstars from today and yesteryear, including Donovan McNabb, Herschel Walker, Scottie Pippen and Gary Carter. And in the house to help introduce QuickStart Tennis were Grand Slam champion and Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mary Joe Fernandez.

In the interactive zone setup, in which kids could play and experience sports, there were four 8-and-under QuickStart courts, which filled a regulation-sized tennis court, and one reduced-sized regulation court for 10-and-under competitors. The courts were constantly as crowded as other sports' areas such as football, basketball and baseball.

"Better late than never," said Martina Navratilova, who is particularly hopeful that this new learning method will bring back the one-handed backhand she favors but knows has been too hard for kids to perfect because regulation rackets weigh too much.

"They've been doing it in Europe for a couple of decades now and it's been successful. Apparently, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin came through a [similar] program, that's how they got started," Navratilova said. "I think the biggest key is for kids to feel they are successful when they first try out tennis. We've been getting kids to try out tennis, but then they don't stay with it because there are so many other distractions and so many other sports, and you need to really make it successful from the get-go. Downsizing the equipment -- the rackets, the balls are fluffier, don't bounce as high and don't travel as fast and the courts are smaller -- but most of all kids can just hold on to the racket it and swing it."

Fernandez, who had her 6-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and 3-year-old son, Nicolas, in tow for the weekend, could see the benefits of this new tennis crusade from a parent's point of view. "I think QuickStart is going to make it fun for kids, and that's what it's all about," said Fernandez, who is married to sports agent Tony Godsick, whose clients include Roger Federer and Lindsay Davenport.

"I know from my kids, they gravitate to things that are a little bit easier and more fun right away. I'm watching the kids play here, and on a traditional court most kids can't rally with each other, but now with QuickStart they'll be able to do that. And kids want to be with kids, they want to play with each other, and when you play soccer or T-ball or basketball, there's a lot of people out there and their all touching each other and all having success right away, and this is going to enable kids to have that in tennis."

To demonstrate just how small children might feel when they experience tennis on a regulation court with regulation equipment, Navratilova and Fernandez rose early Friday morning and, with a studio backdrop of a small town in Provence, France, attempted to play tennis on an oversized court with oversized equipment.

With both Mickey and Minnie Mouse on hand and dressed in track suits, the two tennis stars laughed and giggled throughout the experiment -- "You can do wrist curls with this puppy," Navratilova said of her larger-than-life racket.

Afterward, both could relate this grown-up experience to how they felt when they first took up the sport, which managed to capture enough of their attention for them to persevere through the pitfalls of learning the game to become tennis stars.

Of her introduction to tennis at age 3, Fernandez said: "I remember being really little, being on the service line, the court being so big and not being able to come to net because I would get passed. My dad cut a wooden racket for me in half, shaved down the handle until it was so tiny that finally it would fit in my hand. But mainly I played against a wall or a wall in my room or the refrigerator because that was the only place I could hit the ball more than a couple of times in a row.

"On the tennis court, it was really, really tough. I remember I learned to serve at around 6, and that was a huge accomplishment because to get the ball over the net, it was not so easy for someone so little."

"When I first started, I played with my grandmother's racket, actually," Navratilova said, "and it was too big so I played against the wall for two years. I stayed with it because my parents went to the tennis club, so I'd just hit against a wall. There were no kids playing my age, and the first tournament I went to I was 9 years old and the other kids were 11 or 12, so they were huge -- two heads taller than me -- so I was overmatched from the get-go. But I liked the game so I stayed with it, and I liked coming to the net even though I was so small that I was toast and always getting passed."

During the day at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Navratilova spent some time on the court with the kids that were filtering through the QuickStart Tennis setup.

Mackenzie Chambers, 10, of Orlando, who has been playing tennis on a regulation court for two years, enjoyed trying out the scaled-down game. "It's easier to hit the ball because the nets lower than a full-size court," Chambers said. "The ball is easier to hit because they bounce higher and they're easier to see because they're bigger."

There's no denying that the USTA is banking on this new approach for junior-oriented tennis to deliver future champions from the United States. But it is also an aim to make tennis a sport that people will want to play recreationally for a lifetime.

"I think it's fantastic and will be a big, first breakthrough for the game in the United States," said Jane Brown Grimes, President of the Board -- USTA. "I think it's very exciting and will catch on like wildfire. This will make tennis easier to get into and offer more opportunities. From the very beginning when a youngster walks on a court, they will have a good time. We're hoping they'll take up the sport and stick with it."

Navratilova seemed to say it best when she invoked the theory behind the beauty of QuickStart Tennis: "Kids can play to learn instead of learn to play."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.