While the US Open championships monopolized the tennis spotlight earlier this month, a different kind of tennis event was taking place not far away in Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel. Using a court set up in the hotel's ballroom, the US Tennis Association held its 15th annual national teachers conference, a three-day powwow begun with a a lively lecture on the application of aikido, a Japanese system of self-defense, to tennis.
Such fare can seem pretty radical to some participants, but it is just the sort of fresh perspective Eve Kraft likes to slip onto the agenda.
Kraft, a founder of the conference, is no stuffy schoolmarm. She enjoys bringing new ideas to bear on teaching the game, and has been actively doing so for the past 14 years as director of the USTA's Education and Research Center.
Tennis magazine recognized the impact she's made by naming her one of the 20 most influential people in the game over the past 20 years. But it's what the next 20 years hold in store that really excites her.
She envisions a second tennis boom on the horizon, and is busy trying to fulfill her own prophecy on a number of fronts.
The one she anticipates will really start the ball rolling in a big way is the USTA's Schools Program.
The objective, she says, is ``to get tennis into the curriculum so that kids grow up with tennis like they grow up with English.''
For years the American tennis community has tried to crack this nut, but in a somewhat scattershot manner. Now, however, Kraft believes all the pieces of a comprehensive strategy are in place.
The instructional guides have been written, the teaching clinicians hired, and the network of townwide tennis associations established. Throw in the support of the national organization and a local business eager to underwrite some of the costs, and the recipe is complete.
Of course you've got to have the pupils, parents, and school personnel in your corner, but Kraft says that's a snap. ``The program is like motherhood and applie pie; it's a very easy sell,'' she observes. ``People want tennis in the schools. It's good for the town, good for the kids, and the parents like it.''
The young program has already taken off, reaching some 200,000 students at about 400 schools in the first two years. And by next June, an estimated 600,000 pupils will have received a series of lessons in school physical education classes. The elementary and junior high schools are the main focus of this effort.
The idea is to let youngsters grow up with tennis just as they do with other sports, but not force it on them. Kraft believes instruction should begin in the third grade when a child is about eight years old. That's the ideal time in group teaching, she feels, to start developing the proper coordination through readiness type training.
``If you start someone at five or six you're really a glorified babysitter,'' she indicates. ``On the other hand, the exceptional youngster reaches a plateau too soon at that age and becomes bored. Then the danger is that you lose them to tennis forever.'' And since the point is to nurture a lasting interest in this lifetime sport, the important thing is to introduce youngsters to the joys of tennis, not try to mold them into little champions.
``I hope that kids will play soccer or whatever seasonal sports they like at school, plus have a series of tennis lessons each year,'' Kraft says. ``Those who are really interested in tennis will be able to specialize when they want to, not when the parents want them to. I'd like to de-parentize tennis. It should be part of the schools and parks system. Kids should have fun.''
During the past two decades, the challenge for Kraft and her recreational colleagues has been to explore the uncharted waters of group teaching, to apply the techniques of the physical educator to tennis.
``Many teachers in the early days did not know the progressions to make tennis fun for a group of eight-year-olds,'' she says reflecting on the '60s. ``There were no materials on group teaching, there were no materials on how to teach in a gymnasium. Tennis was still an elitist sport and the teaching professional was still teaching one-on-one in private clubs.''
So during the 1960s, and even during the tennis boom of the '70s, research was being done on how to apply sound educational principles to teaching the masses. The effort grew like topsy, as reflected in the expansion of the USTA Education and Research Center.
When begun in 1972, the center's lone employee was Kraft, who today oversees a $2 million-dollar operation with 27 fulltime staff members.
The USTA's educational arm is housed in Princeton, N. J., where in 1955 Eve founded one of the country's most successful community tennis programs. She's been up to her cheery eyes in tennis ever since.
But as a young woman, there had been no hints her life would someday revolve around the sport. At Antioch College she studied political science and held internships with the State Department, Life magazine, the New York Herald Tribune, and MGM Studios. After graduation she worked briefly for the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, then turned her attention to raising three sons, all of whom are Harvard graduates. Eventually she too made it to the Ivy League as Princeton's first women's tennis coa ch from 1971 to 1974.
Of late, many top players have dropped out of college or bypassed the experience altogether in order to turn pro. But Kraft predicts that there will be a resurgence in college tennis as talented young players see the twin benefits of holding an athletic scholarship and receiving an academic education. ``That's the way Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Brian Gottfried, a whole generation of players did it,'' she says. ``They went through college under outstanding coaches and had marvelous opportunities to devel op, not just as players but as whole persons, which is what I stand for.''