Variation on a Theme by Players
by Ed Shanaphy, CMAA, USPTA
Music is always evolving. From the classical, to the baroque, to the romantic era, of which Paganini was one of the leading composers, music is ever-changing. Today’s musical forms boast southern rock, alternative rock, country and rap. Tennis, like music – and golf – is evolving, and faster than ever. Perhaps it’s the dual threat from pickleball and padel, perhaps it’s a natural progression, but tennis on the courts is changing
It’s a phenomenon that is not happening at just one club, but at almost every club across the nation. Live Ball. Not a specific game, but a specific hour or hour and a half of programming, from warmup through to competitive, pro-fed games. Members are coming back again and again, not for a weekly doubles game, but for a fast-paced group of drills usually set up on each court by level of player.
Players Desire Constant Play
Funnily enough, the boom box and music is largely a part of Live Ball just as the game 105 is a prime example of a Live-Ball drill and format. A game where the professional feeds immediately the winner of the past point, teams are awarded extra points for clean winners (where a racquet of the opponent does not make contact with the ball) from groundstrokes, volleys, overheads and lobs. 105 is now a daily staple at hundreds, if not thousands, of clubs – more players will most likely play more games of 105 this year than a regular game of doubles. In fact, we know of a few clubs that are making their club championship games of 105 rather than traditional doubles.
The History of Live Ball
Where did the Live Ball programming come from? Did it come from The Palisades Tennis Center and Tennis Channel founder Steve Bellamy’s game called “Live Ball” – where a team would challenge the “kings” for four out of five points to move across? Perhaps in name, but the Live Ball programming that is encroaching on doubles, singles, and pickleball, is more a group of demonstrative drills, rather than just one particular game.
Or, are these drills without serves and returns that comprise Live Ball programming, which is revolutionizing the country club courts, simply an evolutionary progression from Cardio Tennis? Did the Live Ball Clinic come from the golf course? Or, did it emanate from the junior games of ten to fifteen years ago like Touch The Fence? Is it because of how we learned to play competitive games as kids that the idea of, and the love for, Live Ball has been added to our membership desires in our adulthood?
We can try and trace the evolution of Live Ball programming and its associated programming, and in effect the evolution of tennis as a sport into these competitive games. But the fact remains: Live Ball is replacing doubles and singles across the country, and the globe.
Live Ball, as almost everyone calls it, is basically programming and fast-pace, game-based drills with an instructor on every court. Rarely does the instructor actually instruct, but rather feeds the ball into play to start the point. There is no serving, no returning, just constant play for the entire session. If done well, there really is no ball pickup for the hour or the hour and a half. It is a mixture of warmup and competitive drills usually in doubles formations, although the game Triples is a staple of Live Ball clinics with 3 on 3 across the net actively playing each other.
There are many reasons why Live Ball programming is taking over. And below we will look to not only discover why it is taking over tennis courts faster than pickleball, but also where it may have come from and why it is inherent in almost every program in the USA.
Live Ball Thrives with the Younger Generations Which Have Less Time
“If I have just an hour or 90 minutes of free time, I don’t want to spend half that time walking and picking up balls and serving or waiting for a serve… I want to play.” That’s a statement from a player recently discussing in Central Park, New York, why he plays Live Ball almost exclusively in comparison to the more traditional doubles or singles. This generation of younger players, from 25 to 50, is looking to play more points – they want quantity, and without serving, a quality feed to start each point.
Firstly, Live Ball is club-wide programming. It doesn’t require the time to cultivate new relationships to join a doubles game or get into that rotation for the Tuesday morning match. It’s easy to join and requires knowing no one at the club or facility. There is no need to find a partner or arrange a foursome – just show up at the appointed time and get on a court with a pro and players of similar ability. The guesswork and planning is taken off the plate of the member – it really is concierge tennis. And with your playing fee, you have the watchful eye of an instructor on each court. What we find interesting, as instructors, programmers, and club managers, is to see the games that do form, emanating from introductions on the Live Ball court.
Live Ball clinics take out the serve and return, the two strokes that take time, but also the two strokes that cause the most injury on court and the two strokes that are the hardest to master for beginner and intermediate players.
Like Barbra Streisand, Golf Got There First!
Live Ball clinics may emanate from golf. Shorter formats such as Nine and Dine, alternate ball, best ball, and Stablefords were all variations of a regular match-play game or stroke match, whether gross or net with use of a handicap. I recently learned of a new format: Scotch. Another form of alternate ball.
In fact, golf has had variations on a theme of a regular game in existence long before tennis’s 105, or the game many love, Dingles. In tennis, up through maybe ten to fifteen years ago, there was nothing but singles and doubles. Perhaps the golf course and the various formats for tournament and recreational play helped make the changes we are now seeing on the tennis courts. Whatever the cause, the change in play and format is dramatic.
At many of our managed clubs, we have moved over to flights rather than draws for our club championships and larger tournaments. We stole this as an industry directly from golf, didn’t we? Flights have been part of the golf season and that sport’s tournaments for years. Maybe the Live Ball phenomenon is derived from the golf at our clubs as well.
Is Live Ball a Throwback to our Junior Days?
It could have also emanated for something akin to Touch The Fence, which is a game that must be at least fifteen years old. If you’re not aware of what the kids call TTF, it’s a game where if a clean winner is hit, the player that is unable to get a racquet on the winner is out of the game for good. 105 rewards points for clean winners and the player missing the winner is replaced just for a short period. TTF is a one-time ejection for the victim of the winner.
There is a clear link to the game that is taking over courts from coast to coast, 105. 105 again is a game that allows extra points for winners from groundstrokes, more points from volleys and even more points from lobs and overheads. It may have its roots in Touch The Fence. From Hay Harbor and Fishers Island Club, where they have hours every day of 105 programming, or even Women’s 109 and Dine (with a nod to golf’s universal Nine and Dine) to Texas and that state’s larger, busier clubs in the Dallas and Houston areas, 105 and live ball is more popular than block or spot time for doubles or singles as we move into 2023.
“We couldn’t always fulfill the demand for 105 at Fishers Island Club,” says Dustin Goldenberg, former Head Professional at Fishers who is now looking to develop 105 at Agawam Hunt Club in Providence, Rhode Island, as he serves as its new Director of Racquets. “I can create a whole teaching program just around the game,” says Goldenberg.
Live Ball As A Social Outlet
We’ve watched Live Ball grow as an event – call it a social happening – across many of the clubs we manage and at clubs that we visit and with which we have connections. From Dingles to 105, from Champions of the Court to Touch The Fence, these drills through constant play and arranged partnerships in many instances force players and members to meet each other. Programming such as this is invaluable to acclimating new members to the club environment.
Live Ball programming cuts through those foursomes, or those club cliques, and pits players from across member demographics, and often, across playing abilities against each other or as partners. It is breaking down the social mores of a tennis foursome, much as golf has done over the past two or three decades.
How to Hire for Live Ball
One of the many roles of a good instructor has always been to feed a ball into play. Whether teaching, working with juniors, offering Spanish feeds and drills, feeding balls, whether by hand or with the racquet, is paramount. And with Live Ball, good feeding is imperative. Whether feeding in to push back the team at the net in 105 quickly, or starting a point in King of the Court with a fair feed in doubles formation, feeding is an art. Not only is the technique of the feed important, but the timing of the feed is crucial to the anticipation of players and allowing energy to flow through the drill. During the hiring process, it’s imperative during the on-court session, to have the candidate feed a Live Ball, competitive drill to see if the candidate has the ability to run the clinic through feeding and timing of the incoming ball.
And even professional exhibitions are turning to Live Ball, and especially to 105, as a popular format. “It’s a bit like Jai Alia – and a lot more exciting to watch than doubles,” said a member from Sippican Tennis Club following the season’s final 105 pro exhibition.
Whatever the case may be, and from wherever this Live Ball craze has come from, it is certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future. Over half of court usage at many clubs during prime time is now Live Ball programming across the nation. If not in terms of actual courts, certainly in terms of players during peak times. If you look at the number of members playing, it’s exponential as Live Ball programming allows up to eight members a court at times for particular activities and competitive drills. 105 can host easily 16 members on just two courts. So, a club manager, tennis committee or Director shouldn’t just look at the number of courts involved, but overall member usage. Once this is studied, the true value of Live Ball to the club or facility as its biggest portion of all tennis play and court usage is easily apparent
Ed Shanaphy is President of BeyondTheBaselines.com and serves as Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, MA, Sports Director at Pretty Brook Tennis Club, Princeton, NJ and as Director of Club Operations at The Boulevard Tennis Club in Vero Beach, Florida. His references to music stem from his musical studies at Duke University where he was part of the university’s orchestra, performing on the French Horn, and musically directed several of the barnyard musicals.