Thoughts about tennis

Juniors Coaching: What We Can Learn From Emma Raducanu
Have you been enjoying Emma Raducanu’s performances at the US Open? Tennis coaches up and down the country are marvelling at her exquisite technique – serve, backhand, forehand, volley, footwork…it’s all text book perfect. The drive volley is a ridiculously difficult shot, yet she seems to relish it. All her actions flow in a consistent and repeatable fashion, which suggests top class coaching and many hours of hard drills and exercises.

“Looking at Emma’s technique in the warm up…and it’s really immaculate. She doesn’t have a weakness in her game,” said Martina Navratilova.

Does this have anything to do with how we teach tennis at Buckingham Park? Yes, it does. Raducanu is one of the new generation of British players to learn the game using the ‘ROGY’ pathway, a progression of Red, Orange, Green and Yellow tennis balls. That means she learnt the game using balls that suited her age and size, rather than going straight to regular adult tennis balls.

We know that her dad used to feed her red balls, and we can see video of Emma, aged 8, hitting orange balls. It’s not that she wasn’t already very talented at that stage – clearly her skill levels were through the roof – but that her parents wanted her to stick to the balls and equipment which fitted her size and her age. This wasn’t just for practice – she played orange ball and green ball tournaments [*] (see the first photo in the video below).

The basic thinking here is that younger, smaller players struggle to rally using adult tennis balls, which are too hard and bouncy. The softer, slower balls make it easier for young players to progress, so the game is less intimidating and more accessible. They get to the fun bit quicker: the enjoyment of a tennis rally. The red balls, which we use for our LTA Youth courses at Buckingham Park, are 75 per cent slower than a standard yellow ball and they are aimed at players aged 5-8. The next step for players is the orange ball, which is 50 per cent slower than a standard yellow ball and is aimed at players aged roughly 8-10yrs old. The final step before moving to the full game is the green ball, which is 25 per cent slower than a standard yellow ball and is aimed at players aged 9-10.

There were certainly smart coaches using similar principles going back decades, with the Swedish introducing foam balls and ‘short tennis’ in the 80s, and the concept was later picked up by the French, who successfully pushed ‘Mini Tennis’. The regulated Red Orange Green Yellow system was developed and implemented in the UK by the LTA between 2002 and 2005, which was significantly ahead of its time. The USTA did not introduce the method as their preferred system for juniors coaching and competitions until 2015, and even the French have now taken ROGY to heart.

Today, the ROGY system is widely credited to British tennis coach Sandi Procter, who – working with the LTA – had the tough task of persuading coaches to adopt to the new system, and manufacturers to make training balls to an agreed specification. Procter later became General Manager of the Bromley Indoor Tennis Centre, which – guess what – is where Raducanu learnt to play.

“A traditional ball will bounce at a child’s head height or even higher making it impossible to strike at,” says Derek Price, who helped develop the red ball nearly 20 years ago. “This can lead to a poor grip on the racket and bad technique in general, that has to be re-learned later. Furthermore, there had often been injuries caused by the heavy rackets and balls.”

US coach Laurent Leclerc says the ROGY method works much better for his younger pupils: “You can see that their technique is so much sounder, and it is much easier for them to make the proper adjustments to be successful on the full court.”

“They are lower pressure so they move slower through the air. This allows children to move and adapt to the flight of the ball”

“Coaches like me love these training balls. They make our job easier,” says Jimmy Smith, a LTA Level 3 coach who supervises hundreds of LTA Youth courses in Sussex. “They are lower pressure so they move slower through the air. This allows children to move and adapt to the flight of the ball, and that helps to increase the speed of learning.”

This progression makes life easier for the player, the coaches, and for Mum & Dad having a hit with their kids, with hugely beneficial results in terms of enjoyment and technique. It’s common sense really, isn’t it? And it’s not just for kids. Professional players use red and orange balls for practice drills, and every intermediate club player can improve their volley technique by practising with a red or orange ball against a wall. So, overall, the ROGY pathway is a carefully-planned and thought out coaching system which produces excellent results, and what worked for Emma Raducanu can work for your child too.

Coach Ben Pugh with his first LTA Youth group at Buckingham Park Tennis this week
  • by Conrad Brunner
  • [*] [Simon Briggs in the Daily Telegraph] “One coach who worked at Bromley Tennis Centre remembers Raducanu chewing opponents up with the green ball at the age of eight or nine. “The green ball is a bit weird because you move up to a full-sized court after orange mini-tennis on a half-court. It plays very dead, like an ordinary ball that has had the stuffing knocked out of it, and that can favour people who play horrible, hacky tennis. Not in Emma’s case, though. She was outstanding because she covered the big court so well, which most of the young kids couldn’t do. I was watching her at the US Open thinking, ‘She is such a good front-runner,’ and then I realised that that is what she is used to doing. She has been slaying people from an early age.”……”When she was seven, Emma won the Kent County Closed under-nines,” said Hayden. “The girls played tie-breaks with an orange ball, and she won the final 7-0, 7-5. All she did was a little fist-pump before walking calmly up to the net for the handshake. You literally never see that. It’s the biggest tennis day of the year for these kids, and she had just beaten an older girl in a tight finish. Anyone else would have been leaping and yelling and waving their arms around. For Emma it was just normal.”