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Making tennis simple as ... ABC

June 5, 2007 02:39 PM

Jacque Houck has just about had it with the dearth of American stars in professional tennis. And she's set on changing things -- even if it's 15 minutes and 15 to 20 kindergartners at a time.
Houck, the president of Public Tennis Inc., began last month going into area kindergarten classes to teach her "ABC's of Tennis," a program she hopes to expand next school year.
"I just thought with us having just seven competitors in all these majors and the Russians having 37," Houck said, "I just thought, we've got to start doing something different, because what we're doing isn't working. ... Maybe this will help."
Her numbers are a bit hyperbolic, but they're based in reality. Nine U.S. men and 10 U.S. women started the main singles draw at the French Open this week, and only one -- eighth-seeded Serena Williams -- was still alive Friday.
Houck's program won't provide a quick fix, but she's doing what she can, visiting kindergarten classes at St. Francis Catholic School and Mount Calvary Baptist School a couple of days a week to give local kids an introduction to tennis.
"They're so cute," Houck said Tuesday, after her 15 minutes with 19 kindergartners at St. Francis Catholic School whizzed by more quickly than the American men's exit from Roland Garros. "I wish I had them for an hour ... but their concentration isn't much longer than what we had today."
Some of the students have been exposed to the sport before, but it's apparent Houck has her work cut out with others.
"This isn't soccer," Houck said after one pupil booted a sponge ball up and over the makeshift net. "This is tennis."
And that's precisely why Houck has started the program -- to try to get kids hooked on tennis again. With sports such as soccer and lacrosse quickly moving from the fringes to the mainstream, there are more activities than ever clamoring for kids' attention, and tennis seems to be losing ground.
There are plenty of tennis programs for kids in the area, including Emmett Diggs' classes at the Boys and Girls Club, Patricia Hy's Hytennis programs and camps, and Cameron Everett's programs through the Island Recreation Center, but such programs require the children and their parents to make the first move.
Houck hopes she can provide an introduction to the sport, then nudge her pupils toward those other programs.
If she can just get the ball in the air, so to speak, maybe the rest will take care of itself.
"I just wanted to get the children started a little sooner," Houck said. "My kids were doing everything -- tennis, golf, swimming -- by the time they were 8."
Houck is not new to teaching -- she taught physical education for more than a decade at Penn State and the University of Delaware, and has taught at several high schools.
Nor is she new to coaching -- she coached swimming and tennis during her 10 years as a guidance counselor at Newark (Del.) High School before moving to Hilton Head Island in 1989.
But she's less experienced working with 4- to 6-year-olds, so she's doing as much learning as teaching.
"These kids are sort of my guinea pigs," said Houck, who plans to use a marketing grant from USTA's Southern Section to expand the program next school year. "With them, I can get an idea of what works and what doesn't."
What she's teaching barely resembles tennis -- she starts out having the kids toss and catch scarves and balloons to help develop hand-eye coordination, and she introduced kid-sized rackets and sponge balls this week.
A caution tape stretched from a chain-link fence post to a basketball goal serves as a makeshift net -- and gets the kids ready for some competition.
"Somebody get over here so I can whip 'em at tennis," said Chase Phillips, racket at the ready.
That's the attitude American tennis needs. Now it's time for people like Houck to work on the skills.

From the Hilton Head Island Packet
Published Saturday, June 2, 2007