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Archive for Friday, May 2, 2008

Courting new players

Saturday’s tennis ‘block party’ aims to grow sport

Lawrence Tennis Center will be the site of Saturday's "Block Party," an all-ages event put on by the city and First Serve Tennis to try to attract new players to the sport.

Lawrence Tennis Center will be the site of Saturday's "Block Party," an all-ages event put on by the city and First Serve Tennis to try to attract new players to the sport.

May 2, 2008

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Scott Elwell recalls a time when tennis was a very big deal in Lawrence.

"It was huge here," said Elwell, a 2003 Lawrence High graduate who now serves as tennis pro at Lawrence's First Serve tennis facility. "There were tons of tennis players. It was really popular. I know at Lawrence High, we would have had state champion after state champion if everybody played."

Elwell played collegiately at Iowa and currently moonlights as head coach at Seabury Academy - which is located in the building that used to house Alvamar Racquet Club.

In an effort to help bring back the halcyon days, Elwell is more than happy to take part in community outreach programs like Saturday's "Block Party," one of more than 100 such events nationwide sponsored by the United States Tennis Association in an effort to grow the sport.

"We're really trying to reach everyone," Elwell said, "but a big part of what we're doing is trying to reach the kids, to introduce them to the sport."

Saturday's block party will run from 10 a.m. to noon at Lawrence Tennis Center.

It's a joint venture of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department and First Serve. Participants get to take part in several tennis-related activities, including drills and instruction at various stations on seven of the LTC's eight courts.

Activities are tailored to different ages and levels of experience - from an obstacle course and hitting balls off tees for young beginners to a "beat the pro" station for more experienced players. There also will be hot dogs and prize give-aways.

Admission is free.

"The point is to teach people that tennis is fun. It's a fun sport," said Jo Ellis, recreation program supervisor. "Unfortunately, tennis seems to be on the back burner. There's basketball, soccer, gymnastics : we're just trying to get people interested. It's a fun sport, but it's hard to get people to come out."

That's not unique to Lawrence.

The USTA and Tennis Industry Association have kept tabs on the number of people swinging rackets through the years.

Way back in the 1960s, fewer than an estimated 7 million Americans considered themselves tennis players -ages 6 and up, having played once or more per year.

The sport saw steady growth before peaking with a whopping 40.9 million participants in 1974.

Then came a similarly precipitous drop, bottoming out at 15.6 million players in 1985. The introduction of the wide-body racket was credited with another surge to 27.2 million players in 1992, but the graph plummeted to 21.3 participants just three years later.

Since then, participation has held steady around 23 or 24 million players.

Enter the USTA and its Block Parties.

"It has really picked up a lot in the last few years," Elwell said. "Some of that has to do with Andy Roddick and Venus and Serena Williams, the face of American tennis. That has drawn some people into the sport. And the USTA has had a big role in that. They've become really active in the community, helping to put on events like the block party. They're not just sticking to the upper-level kids. They've become really active in the community, and that's helped a lot."

This is the second year for a Lawrence Block Party.

Last year's event at First Serve drew an estimated 100 participants.

Ellis said she's hoping for more than 150 on Saturday.

"The big thing is getting people to try it," she said. "We think if we can get them to try it, they'll like it and come back for more."

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