NORTHDALE - Many tennis prodigies are thrown into the game feet first with demanding parents who watch their every move and criticize every coach. Tennis isn't necessarily the proper, genteel game it appears to be.
Remember the days when guys like John McEnroe would go nearly insane over any call that didn't go his way? They are still staples of vintage ESPN highlights, and the McEnroe explosions are tame compared to what you might see on television today.
Things are different at Northdale Golf and Tennis Club. It's about fun, especially for the kids. They're not expected to have tennis elbow by the age of 5. They're expected to enjoy the game and win.
David Freeman, who runs the instruction program at the Northdale facility, said that young kids don't play the same game as the prodigies, who usually burn out before they're old enough to legally drink.
A nationally ranked doubles player and a former college star, Freeman decided to change the rules around a little bit for kids just starting the game or those just playing for fun. He started the Quick Start program at Northdale, which involves lower compression tennis balls and a shorter court.
"The kids love the game this way,'' Freeman said. "(They) can learn to like the game a lot sooner. The lower compression balls make it easier on the kids because it's easier for them to return. They can play that way up until they are around 8 and ready for the next level, but at least they are able to appreciate the game and have fun with it."
Freeman uses a smaller-than-regulation tennis racquet to go with the slower ball. Tennis, Freeman said, is a difficult enough sport, so why not make it fun while kids are learning?
"Tennis takes a lot of patience," he said. "They can enjoy (the game) if they get the chance but a lot of kids never (do)."
Freeman offers four different types of tennis balls, from one with the least compression all the way to regulation tennis balls. There's no pressure and, since Freeman runs the lessons, he keeps it all about enjoying the game at Northdale.
"I still play and I am a certified teaching pro,'' Freeman said. "I know the competitive part of the sport, but making sure it is fun is still the most important thing when it comes to teaching kids the love for tennis."