Pedersen on Sports

A local tennis pro is working to bring the sport to more young Tucsonans

With the calendar soon turning from summer to fall—a literal thing in most parts of the country but just a figure of speech here—the parks, playgrounds and open grassy areas of Southern Arizona have been infiltrated by the soccer masses. Youth football, too.

Children of all ages are kicking balls or making tackles, scoring goals or touchdowns, immersing themselves in sports that over the years have evolved to the point they can be played constructively by kids as young as 3.

The same goes for baseball and softball, which crowd those same parks from March to July with players of varying ages and abilities, on fields of various sizes.

The overwhelming participation is the envy of many other sports, most notably tennis, a game with roots that stretch deep into this country's history but which seems like it's been left in the past in many respects.

It's an especially frustrating time for a tennis pro, who isn't a professional tennis player, per se—though Tom Lepisto did spend a few years long ago traveling the pro circuit—but someone who is tasked with teaching tennis at a local establishment.

Lepisto, 48, has been the head pro at the Westward Look Resort in the foothills for 10 years. He's given countless lessons to kids and adults, but only in the last few years has he seen participation at the youth level start to return to where it was when he was growing up in Minnesota.

"Here's the scenario I face: Kids play soccer; they take tennis lessons," Lepisto said. "I don't want to just give tennis lessons, I want kids to play tennis. We need to get kids out there playing, out there rallying."

To that end, Lepisto is among a handful of tennis pros in the Tucson area at the forefront of the United States Tennis Association's way-late-to-the-party changes to the game at the youth level.

"We have a really big program for (kids) 10 and under," he said. "We've changed the rules."

Instead of the standard 78-foot-long court, at the 10-and-under level, kids play on a 60-foot surface that is also narrower but can be played on full-size courts thanks to different-colored baselines and sidelines.

Get down to the 8-and-under level, and the court size is so small (36 by 18 feet) it can be turned perpendicular in order to situate four little kids' courts on one big-guys' playing surface. The nets are even lower at this level, and for the 8-, 10- and 12-and-under levels, a modified tennis ball has been introduced that lessens the bounce strength.

All of the changes have multiple motives: beyond reintroducing the game to age groups that have abandoned it for sports more willing to cater to their size-necessary needs, Lepisto said it's in the best interest of the USTA to get development going as young as possible if America ever wants to return to the golden age of dominating professional tennis.

"We haven't had a real big group of young up-and-coming stars in a while," Lepisto said.

The most recent ATP World Tour men's singles rankings has only two Americans in the top 30: John Isner at No. 14 and Sam Querrey at No. 29. And on the women's side, Serena Williams is still No. 1 in the WTA rankings, but the next U.S player on the list is Sloane Stephens at No. 17.

The rankings are filthy with European players, a circumstance heavily influenced by the fact that European countries long ago altered tennis at the younger age groups to make it more conducive to getting into the sport and developing as a player.

Lepisto still does plenty of work with adults at Westward Look, where he says roughly 100 people have tennis club memberships that let them use the resort's courts at their convenience. But he spends most of his time working with the kids he hopes can be part of America's tennis future.

The resort's 12-and-under junior team-tennis outfit, the Cactus Stars, won the Southwest sectional title in 2012 and reached the championship match this summer. The co-ed teams play singles, doubles and mixed doubles in a format that's as much about competition as it is about camaraderie.

"It's not for the top, top junior players; this is really for my kids who are at an intermediate level," Lepisto said.

Although Lepisto's team is based at Westward Look, membership there is not required. It's one of many misconceptions he says he has to fight regarding the cost of tennis, which, as one of the stereotypical country club sports, is usually associated with affluence and privilege

"It's only about $15 for a (kid's) racquet," Lepisto said. "And group lessons, you can get those for $8 an hour."

To that end, Lepisto is working to put together a nonprofit venture that would provide tennis lessons around Tucson for as little as $5 a session. He said there's ample court availability in the community, even in places you might not expect the best of surfaces.

"Cholla High School has maybe the nicest courts in the city," he said.

The work that Lepisto and his staff of assistant pros—Bruce Connors, Greg Cooke, Doug Miller and Dan Prasil—have put into the youth movement recently caught the eye of the Professional Tennis Registry, an organization that oversees club pros. It named Lepisto the Member of the Year for Arizona in 2012.

"I would like to say it was just all me, but certainly not," Lepisto said. "It really is a reflection of your program than of me."

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