Ron Halaka arrived at Tampa Tennis at Hillsborough Community College in February as the general manager and immediately set about improving the club. One of his first goals was to create a buzz for youth tennis.
"I came to HCC because I knew we had a great facility that could be first class, and I wanted to promote youth tennis,'' Halaka said. "It started as a grassroots effort, and now we are on our way.''
He started by creating a 10-under tennis program that uses 36-foot courts, smaller rackets, and low-compression tennis balls that bounce lower and don't travel quite as far. It's called QuickStart Tennis and HCC is the only tennis club in Florida that offers it. Halaka said there are kids coming from all over the state for the Saturday morning lessons that he conducts on the 18 courts that are designed only for kids 10-under. The "festivals" run from 9-10:30 a.m.
On a recent Saturday, more than 30 kids showed up for lessons on the smaller courts for a play day that followed with hot dogs and sodas, but Halaka said that wasn't enough to satisfy him yet. He's looking for 125 kids every Saturday.
The scoring is easy for the kids to understand. They play best 2-of-3, seven-point tiebreakers, so the matches don't go on for hours.
Halaka hasn't kept the QuickStart program restricted to HCC. He has portable QuickStart courts that can be easily set up in schools and he has done several clinics at local elementary schools. The courts at HCC are permanent but the portable ones just require a net and temporary-taped lines that are easily removed. He said he could set up inside of a school gym in minutes.
The smaller courts also make it easier for kids to improvise games in their driveway or yard. Halaka said that kids can play baseball, football, basketball and other sports almost anywhere, but tennis requires a dedicated facility. The smaller, portable courts make it easier to set up in the driveway or and take up about as much room as the typical driveway basketball court.
The rackets are smaller than regulation adult rackets, but Halaka said parents don't need to check out every sporting goods store in town. He has more than 100 smaller rackets available.
"Kids can't use their parents' rackets because they are too heavy,'' Halaka said. "If they hit the ball, the ball flies off the racket. With the smaller rackets and the balls we use, it all works out perfectly. Their arms are still developing and it is more important for them to develop their swing than to hit the ball with a regular racket. It gets heavier as they grow up.''
Manny Lontok has two children in the program, Maia, 7, and Marcus, 5, who are just learning the game.
"They love it,'' Lontok said. "They are blown away and don't want to leave. It's great to see them having fun on a Saturday morning. If we can get a group of parents involved in bringing more kids, that would be perfect.''
For kids 10-under, the United States Tennis Association offers free membership. The USTA is also helping out the QuickStart program financially. The Florida Section alone contributed more than $5,000 of tennis equipment and annually directs more than 90 percent of its membership dues back into the Florida tennis community.
"This is the best kept secret in tennis and in all of Florida,'' said Jeff Davis, the 10-under coordinator for USTA Florida. "Everyone is blown away when they come out, and we just need to attract more kids. We get kids from all over the state, but we want more. We want to teach team tennis, not just individual tennis. You can see how much fun they are having.''