Since its inception more than two years ago, the USTA’s Net Generation initiative has made its mission to get more kids playing tennis, and has attempted to reach this goal through fun and unique events throughout the year.
A major aspect of this initiative takes place at the end of the summer during the US Open, where players and coaches from different clubs and programs get the opportunity to show off their skills and demonstrate their progress on the same courts used by the professional players just before they arrive.
“There is no better way to inspire the next generation then by bringing them to the US Open and playing on the same courts as the pros before the matches,” said Leah Friedman, USTA’s National Manager for Net Generation. “We had around 600-700 kids on court in our first year, and in our third year, this summer, we had over 1,500 kids on court.”
In three years, the amount of kids who were able to get on court has nearly tripled, a clear indicator of the growth of the sport as well as the expansion of opportunities being offered. Only the four main courts, Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, Grandstand and Court 17, were used, but more of the side courts were added this year.
“We also added four night sessions on Ashe,” Friedman added. “And we’re already thinking of ways on how to expand on that next year….The experience is priceless in terms of what it can do it motivate kids, and how it can motivate and inspire the parents to believe in tennis and what it can do for their child going forward.”
The kids are welcomed with VIP treatment on the day that they are on court. They arrive on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center before the public which allows them great access to the players practicing, and they are able to take pictures and even snag some autographs. Each group is provided with 50 grounds passes for the day for free.
“To bring in 50 people from your community tennis program for free to the US Open can be life-changing, and I’ve seen how this experience can change lives,” said Friedman. “We’re trying to make sure that families get a chance to enjoy the Open together.”
In the first year, it was primarily kids from the USTA Eastern section, with some from Middle States and New England section, who went on court. But that has expanded significantly and this year, kids from all over the country, from as far as Southern California, came in. Friedman credits Eastern for a lot of that, as the work and support from the section is invaluable, because it can be a strenuous and challenging process.
“We start putting this out there in the beginning of the year in January and February, and we have an application process for the programs to come,” said Friedman. “We require they bring 24 kids, and each kid is allowed to bring a chaperone, plus two coaches.”
Thousands of kids are treated to the experience of a lifetime of being able to play a part in the US Open, with some of them even being given the opportunity to do the coin toss before the match. Each group can select one of its players to do the coin toss:
“To see the look on those kid’s faces when they to do that and have the interaction with the players is amazing. I’ve seen crying, I’ve seen total shock and I’ve seen kids who are speechless. I know we are doing something good when I see those reactions.”
More of those same reactions would come during the trophy presentations after each of the finals, both singles and doubles, as Net Generation players were selected to be a part of those ceremonies.
“During the men’s singles final, we were prepared to go out there during the third set, and we ended up sitting there for two more hours,” recalls Friedman. “But then to watch Nadal put his arms around the kids during the presentation, that was a moment I’ll never forget and I’m sure the kids won’t forget either.”
In the three years since Net Generation was introduced, the experience the kids have at the US Open continues to expand, helping to create both lasting memories and a passion for the sport that may not have developed otherwise.
Friedman and her team already have plans to build off the success and add more to the programming for next year’s event.
“USTA Eastern has just been incredible. It’s because of them that we can keep expanding,” she said. “I’d like to see us expand to another court, and then just continue to think of ways that we can show just how inclusive our sport can be. In 2018, we had one adaptive tennis group come and play on Ashe. This year, we had multiple adaptive groups play on Ashe, and we also had groups that brought adaptive athletes. We’re always thinking of new ways to show how great our sport is, and how it can continue to change lives.”