Tennis with Zip gives kids an early start

Kristine Diederich

A new teaching method is getting even very young children excited about tennis.

Uniquely designed for ages 4 to 10, Zip Tennis is modeled after a transitional approach to teaching the sport that's popular in Europe. Youngsters learn fundamental skills, like moving to the ball and using two hands, right off the bat. The courts and rackets are smaller, the net is lower and the balls are softer.

The Longfellow Club in Wayland, Mass., has grabbed the concept by the horns and created an indoor Zip Tennis facility, the first of its kind in the nation.

Mike Barrell, a tennis instructor from England, consulted with the Longfellow Club in the development of the facility, training of the staff and structure of the classes. Barrell is also working with the International Tennis Federation to develop the program worldwide. Similar programs elsewhere are dubbed Progressive Tennis or QuickStart, Barrell said. Clubs can call their program whatever they like.

"I helped them to design the layout. Something that was very aspirational. We didn't want it to look like (a fast food restaurant) or too childlike," he said. "What we've created here looks like a real tennis court, only smaller. It makes it accessible for everyone."

Typically, tennis instruction focuses on individual skills rather than situational play. Students line up, hit a ball tossed directly to them by the instructor, then rejoin the back of a line. A fine drill if the ball came directly to the player each and every volley of the match.

Zip Tennis mimics the unpredictability of the real game - like splitting the youngsters into pairs and having them toss and catch. In this exercise, the balls sometimes go all over the place - just like in a real match. The students learn to move to the ball as they should while playing.

"The overriding philosophy is we want kids to play tennis, really play tennis, not a lot of silly games but be able to play the real game as quickly as possible."

Barrell said three things must be in place in order for children to learn tennis.

"Are they physically or mentally ready; are the body and mind ready for this? Two: Are there things (they) have that are basic versions of other skills; running, catching, that sort of thing? Three: environment," meaning a proper place to learn, he said.

"If you don't have one of the three things, it's going to be hard - not impossible, but hard - to teach the new skill," he said. "You need the foundation."

Longfellow's tennis pros have been trained to observe the young students in class - how well do they jump from one spot to another? Can they catch a ball well? Can they balance on one foot? Can they handle a racket with one hand, two hands?

Stow resident Laura Acosta's two sons, Jose, 8, and Javier, 5, are enrolled in Zip Tennis at the Longfellow Club.

Jose began lessons on the regular courts before Zip Tennis was introduced. Javier had one year on the regular courts before moving to Zip Tennis this fall.

"I can see the difference from my older son to my younger. (Javier) is learning more about volleying back and forth," she said. And, "he really wants to come to class," she added.

"At first, Jose didn't think he'd like (Zip Tennis), but the softer balls are easier to handle. He really likes it," Acosta said. "He feels that he can serve better. He's now using one hand (to hold the racket)."

The U.S. Tennis Association will officially launch the QuickStart tennis program some time this year, Barrell said, and promote it to clubs around the country. There's also a Web site with instructional information at

If enthusiasm at Longfellow is any indication, Zip Tennis will keep kids in the game.

"The old way, we made them take lessons for a year before we'd let them play," said Longfellow Club's Tennis Director Phil Parrish. Some kids lost interest in all the drilling with little playing time.

"I think the thing we're most proud of is the kids are playing almost right away," he said.

Catie Ashe, 8, of Framingham takes Zip Tennis with her 6-year-old sister Allie.

"(I like) rallying; hitting with the racket back and forth," said Catie.

Dad Mike Ashe can see the difference in Zip Tennis for his girls. "Sometime when you take them on the bigger courts, they get a little lost," he said. "On these smaller courts, they can hit the ball back and forth.

"We came over the Christmas break (and played together). It's so much more scaled down."

Trainers are enthusiastic as well.

"It's new to us, (but) it's not new to...Europe," said Sylvia Swartz of Medford, a tennis pro at The Longfellow Club. "I think it will keep our kids in tennis.

"The fact that the kids are successful so early is very good. I think the kids are excited by the thought they'll play sooner," she said. "My hope is they'll...stay in the game longer."

The Longfellow Club is located at 524 Boston Post Road in Wayland, Mass. Three 10- to 13-week sessions of weekly Zip Tennis classes are held between September and June and cost $187-$322 per session. For more information about Zip Tennis classes, visit or call 508-358-7355.