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From Cairo to Cambodia: How tennis is gunning for world domination

By Sam Sheringham
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The International Tennis Federation launches its blueprint for global domination
  • The governing body is aiming to make the game more accessible to youngsters
  • Slower balls, smaller courts and lighter rackets are now compulsory for under 10s
  • Roger Federer backs the move as tennis chiefs predicts an explosion in popularity

(CNN) -- It is a move the tennis world hopes will have as much impact on the court as a bullet-like passing shot from Roger Federer or a fierce smash from Serena Williams.

By decreeing that all competitions for kids under ten be played on smaller courts, with lighter rackets and slower balls, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has signaled its intention to copy the likes of soccer, baseball and basketball when it comes to getting youngsters hooked on the sport.

Like a little league match or five-a-side clash, the game's governing body is desperate to create an "explosion" of interest among youngsters and make tennis more accessible to potential stars of the future across the globe.

And while aping the approach of their sporting cousins is the immediate goal -- overtaking them is most definitely the long term aim.

"It's going to be a whole new ball game," Kurt Kamperman, the chief executive of Community Tennis at the United States Tennis Association, told CNN.

"I think this really will help create a huge explosion in new kids who choose this ahead of other sports. Very few other sports have young kids play on the same size fields as adults.

"With these balls and this equipment you can play anywhere. The balls are so slow that you don't need a lot of instruction to play. It can be spontaneous.

"Tennis has been behind the times in our approach to young kids. This is one of the best things we can do to develop future generations -- we want to create a big pool of talented athletes."

Tennis under the Khmer Rouge
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The new measures, introduced under the banner of 'Tennis 10s', insist on three types of ball, all slower than a regular tennis ball, two lighter rackets designed especially for kids, and two sizes of court.

The ITF initiative is also aimed at globalizing the appeal of a sport which remains largely focused around its heartlands of Europe, North America, South America and Australia. Since it was launched in 2007 it has spread the word in countries such as Myanmar, Rwanda and El Salvador.

Roger Federer is one of a legion of stars who are supporting the campaign, hosting coaching sessions in Portugal and South Africa. If kids are going to listen to anyone, it is the man with 16 Grand Slam titles under his belt.

Federer said: "I definitely think it's easier for kids with lighter rackets to play with a softer ball. You can really swing through the shots, the ball doesn't fly all over the place, and it's easier for the arm.

"Eventually, you've got to change to the proper tennis ball but in the beginning, for kids to start off with a softer tennis ball I think is a very good thing."

For countries with less international pedigree, like Cambodia, Egypt and El Salvador, this new method is proving a key weapon in boosting the popularity of tennis and keeping youngsters out of the clutches of other sports.

In El Salvador, there are now around 1,000 children playing the game and coach Cecilia Ancalmo says the new form of the game helps kids maintain a longer rally which, in turn, helps develop their confidence.

I think this really will help create a huge explosion in new kids who choose this ahead of other sports
--Kurt Kamperman, United States Tennis Association

She told CNN: "The challenge has always been retention. We have been able to attract lots of kids to tennis, but very few stay in the game after 12 or 13. But we are seeing already more boys and girls and staying.

"Also, we see they are developing technically and tactically much better. In the past they learned to hit the ball but few learned to play the game. They are growing much better equipped to develop as competitive tennis players, if they choose to."

Hassan El Aroussy is a former Davis Cup player for his native Egypt and has embraced many of the methods now being insisted upon by the ITF in his role as director of the Palm Aroussy Tennis Academy in Cairo.

He told CNN: "It's an amazing sight, even though I see it everyday, how kids and juniors are getting into tennis and staying in it."

Yet despite Egypt's population of 80 million, only 100,000 play tennis, and just 4,000 of those are under the age of ten.

"The number one killer is football and number two is money," he added. "We need a national sponsor to come in and we need to change the perception of tennis as an expensive sport."

In Cambodia, they have faced an altogether different battle, after the game was virtually wiped out under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

For kids, to start off with a softer tennis ball I think is a very good thing
--Roger Federer

But Rithivit Tep has done much to bring the game back to life after starting the Cambodia Tennis Federation in 1994, and he says it is vital to ensure those early lessons for young kids are fun.

He told CNN: "Kids under 12 or 14 have a very short attention span of about 10 minutes -- so after 10 minutes of hitting we play games, which involve tennis equipment, like jumping over the net, catching balls or juggling, all with prizes on offer. You have to make sure that its fun.

"After two or three months, they are hitting really well, finishing their strokes and really playing tennis. We are not teaching shots or strategies. We are just introducing tennis in a fun and imaginative way."

The game is enjoying a resurgence in Cambodia but there are only ten full-time coaches to around 2,500 budding young players. That is why Tep is promoting tennis in schools and offering teachers financial incentives to teach the game during recess.

With 60 per cent of the country's population under 17, Tep says there is plenty of opportunity for the game to flourish given the new approach being championed by the ITF.

It is a feeling the sport's governing body hope will soon be replicated the world over.