A Mission of Millions: May is Play Tennis Month

by: Cindy Shmerler | May 01, 2018

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WATCH: TennisExtra on Play Tennis Month

Jackie Guyton was feeling adrift. The Nebraska native had recently moved from Hendersonville, NC, to Shawnee, KS, due to her husband’s job change. A former hair stylist, Guyton was now a stay-at-home mom with two young daughters in school all day.

The girls, Morgan and Allison, had taken inexpensive tennis lessons in North Carolina, and Jackie was anxious for them to continue the routine in their new hometown. 

Jackie had never touched a racquet, though she did play volleyball in college. She signed her daughters up for lessons at the Genesis Health Clubs in Overland Park, KS, watching from courtside but never considering joining in.

“I just assumed that you had to have played for a long time to play as an adult,” says Jackie, now 36. “I didn’t even know how to keep score. I just thought, ‘I’m too old to learn.’ I guess I was just intimidated.”

But with some prodding from Thiago Santos, one of the 63 pros within Genesis’ 10-club Midwest operations, Jackie finally gave in, first submitting to a free assessment, which she showed up for in work-out clothes and running shoes.

“I was hooked instantly,” she says. “Maybe because of volleyball, I was coordinated enough. I felt I could improve and get better rapidly.”

Before long, Jackie was playing in league matches with other women at the club, making new friends—some of them more than double her age—and spending more than half her day in tennis clothes. Tennis parties have been planned; there’s even talk of a book club.

“I have definitely become a tennis weirdo,” says Jackie, who often plays twice a day, sometimes a match followed by Cardio Tennis or a volleying game. “I even appreciate my kids and their tennis more. I understand how hard it is for them to make a call or hit that backhand down the line.”

May is Play Tennis Month, a new national initiative designed not only to highlight current players but, more importantly, to bring newcomers to the sport. A key component this year is to emphasize tennis’ physical fitness aspect.

“Play Tennis Month is all about exposure to the game,” says Greg Mason, president of Head USA Racquet Sports and a big supporter of the program. “For tennis to grow we have to share the game we love with all those not playing today. 

“I saw a stat that says we have upwards of 10 million people that are interested in playing but haven’t yet. This gives them the chance to come into a facility and be welcomed with open arms, and find out what they’ve been missing.”

Play Tennis Month is largely the brainchild of Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), a not-for-profit tennis trade association that provides research reports and game-growing programs that help increase the economic vitality of the sport. For Play Tennis Month, the TIA is working with the entire industry, from club owners to teaching pros to manufacturers, to emphasize not only tennis’ health benefits but also its social elements. Included in that group are the United States Tennis Association, the Professional Tennis Registry, the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, Tennis Channel and PHIT America, the group’s designated charity.

At least 1,500 tennis facilities across the United States are expected to participate in Play Tennis Month. The goal for the month of May is for Americans to burn a combined 10 million calories through on-court activities.

This is no longer about hitting the perfect backhand,” says de Boer. “Millennials, our largest generation with 80 million people, are samplers. They want fun, social settings and to try a lot of things without structure. And they like fitness activities, like Cardio Tennis, which was No. 1 in year-over-year growth.

“Tennis happens to be the No. 1 sport for a long and healthy life. We want to get people, and then keep them playing.”

According to the 2018 Physical Activity Council Participation Report on sports and activities in the U.S., some 82.4 million Americans, or 28 percent of the population, are inactive, a three percent increase over the last five years. Of particular concern is that inactivity rates among low-income households are nearing historic levels. Forty-two percent of households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are now reporting to be sedentary, marking the sixth consecutive year that this demographic group has experienced an increase in inactivity.

“A lot of this program is about the physical health of our kids,” says former TIA executive director Jim Baugh, who founded the not-for-profit PHIT America, which aims to raise money to help school-aged children become more active. 

According to Baugh, out of 50 countries, children in the U.S. ranked 47th in terms of fitness. Fewer than a quarter of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 report being physically active more than three days a week. Those numbers have declined as high schools continue to cut physical education classes.

PHIT America’s GO! Grants are designed to help fund exercise programs and youth team sports in elementary schools, all in an effort to erase the “inactivity pandemic,” as Baugh calls it. Much of the money funding these grants will be raised in the month of May.

The goal of Play Tennis Month is to put low-cost, and even free, tennis programs in front of the public. Tennis providers—public facilities, private clubs, teaching pros—can register their location and list programs at RallyTheIndustry.org.

These can range from free beginner lessons to tennis date nights to Cardio Tennis introductions. On May 5, facilities will all engage in National Cardio Tennis Day, with a variety of cardio sessions, challenges and programming.

Mike Woody admits that he wakes up every morning saying to himself, “How do I make this game grow?” 

Woody, the national tennis director of Genesis Health Clubs—with 76 courts over 10 facilities from Kansas to Colorado—has spent the last 35 years impacting some 100,000 tennis players. He says that his most enthusiastic participants are not nationally ranked juniors, but fitness-minded adults. 

“We cater to all needs and fit all sizes and demographics,” says Woody, 54. “I just want everyone to experience the game of tennis, whether for fun or for its cardiovascular benefits.”

Woody has been known to have more than 100 players spread across eight courts at a time to participate in Group X Cardio Tennis, a fast-paced aerobic workout that brings together people of all ages and skill levels for an hour-long, calorie-burning session. He also attracts new players to the game with free trials, inexpensive clinics and a Play Tennis Fast program that teaches the game’s fundamentals in just five weeks at a cost of $75, including a new racquet. 

“We want to give them a lifelong skill so that they can go out with their friends, rally and play, and learn how to survive on a tennis court,” says Woody. “When people know they can play right away, they always come back for more.”

While Play Tennis Month aims to bring new players to the sport, it hopes to also continue developing lifelong participants, such as Lendy Muller. A former ranked junior from Chicago and varsity college player, the 60-year-old from Scarsdale, NY, recently began spending her winters in Palm Beach, FL, where she had no tennis connections.

“I had to do my research,” says Muller, who plays on club and USTA 18-plus, 40-plus and 55-plus teams. “I had to find a whole new group of women to play with.”

Muller tried out for several teams and began playing with new competitors. Soon there were post-match lunches, movie nights with her teammates and an excursion to the ATP Delray Beach Open.

“I feel like everyone has been so friendly and welcoming,” Muller says, “and that’s not for just one month of the year. It’s every day.”

For one month this year, tennis will roll out the welcome mat, hoping to find the next Jackie Guyton and inspire the next Lendy Muller.

“Tennis has defined my life,” Muller says with a chuckle. “It’s exercise; I feel invigorated. I don’t always win and I don’t always lose, but I always feel good. It’s my thing.”

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