Founder, Spec Tennis
Nate is currently a tennis teaching professional at Belvedere Tennis Club in Tiburon, California. He played college tennis at Idaho State. He recently presented Spec Tennis at the USPTA San Diego Convention and is scheduled for the USPTA Middle States Conference in November.
I came up with the idea for Spec Tennis after my experience playing paddle tennis in Southern California and platform tennis in Connecticut. Both of those sports are a ton of fun, but are played only in specific areas of the country on an extremely limited number of courts. By comparison, I was struck by the number of pickleball courts that are popping up all over the US, seemingly on a daily basis.
So I began experimenting by trying out various tennis balls, paddles, and rules on pickleball courts with other tennis pros. The end result was Spec Tennis!
In Spec Tennis, the relationship between the net height, the dimensions of the court, and the bounce of the ball make it difficult to hit a lot of outright "winners". As a result, there are lots of incredible rallies and players have to focus on constructing the point. This is true in both singles and doubles.
I also created the rules and designed a scoring system that is easy to remember, and makes play very efficient. With players getting only one serve, the majority of the time spent on the court is actually playing Spec Tennis. There is not a lot of time spent picking up balls or changing sides. Another key benefit of Spec Tennis is that even if there is not a court in your area, A court can be created in 10 minutes using painter's tape (to mark the lines) and a portable net, on any standard tennis court.
Is the Secret to Growing Tennis Really this Simple?
By Nate Gross
With tennis in the US showing flat growth the past 5 years, it’s safe to say that something needs to be done to foster change. Sure there are programs like Cardio Tennis and Net Generation that are doing great things, but they only have an effect on a small percentage of the pool of available tennis players (16 million new people have expressed interest in trying tennis according to the TIA).
Pickleball has done an impressive job of getting new players on the court and that’s great for the racquet sports industry, however, it is not great for tennis itself, because it takes away potential tennis players. Most who start in pickleball do not go to tennis later on, but the reverse is common.
Why? Because tennis is hard. It takes a long time to get good enough at tennis to be able to rally with a friend, whereas with pickleball you can be rallying in a matter of minutes.
Also, the cost to get good at tennis is much higher, with players likely needing to spend $1000s on private lessons.
In today’s society where there are so many distractions, short attention spans, and alternative options, tennis is a tough sell.
Nate Gross (left) and tennis pro Austin Miller
Solution to Growing Tennis
I’ve come up with a solution that makes a player’s tennis experience more enjoyable and successful from early on. With it we can: 1) grow tennis 2) attract new players 3) retain current players and 4)help our players reach their highest possible level in the shortest amount of time.
Let me introduce you to Spec Tennis. It’s formally played on a pickleball court with an orange dot low compression tennis ball and an 18” perforated paddle, but can also be played on any tennis court or hard surface. The learning curve is smaller than in tennis. The no-volley zone rule does not apply in Spec Tennis.
As you may know, this court size is optimum because you can fit 4 courts on 1 tennis court, meaning 16 people playing doubles at once on 1 tennis court (24 players if running clinics). Players have success very quickly due to the slower ball, smaller court and less powerful paddle.
You may be wondering how Spec is different from Pop Tennis? It uses a slower ball on a smaller court with a less powerful paddle, which makes for longer rallies & players developing more control.
Everyone Can Benefit
Spec Tennis can be for everyone, not just for a specific segment of the market. Every skill learned has a direct translation to tennis.
New players can develop control, and develop sound technique due to more compact swings & fewer balls being out of their strike zone. Seasoned players can improve every aspect of their game such as patterns & tactics, learn new shots, improve their fitness, and much more when they cross-train with Spec Tennis.
Players who ‘age-out’ of tennis can switch to Spec and have the enjoyment they used to have because the rallies are longer and their ability to cover the court is better.
Families looking to get on the court can have fun even if they are at different levels. With the absence of the overhand serve and the ability to rip groundstrokes winners, mixing levels works really well.
Coaches can use Spec as a part of their player development pathway to engage and retain players, and a way to maximize court space, fitting 4x more players on every court.
Clubs can use Spec to run killer events and get members on the court that aren’t tennis players.
When the transition tennis balls were introduced (Red, Orange, Green), the goal was to make success easier and pair players with better equipment for their height and skill level. There is a lot of benefit to following a ROGY program, the problem is many don’t buy into it. Parents often pressure coaches to get their child playing with a yellow ball on the full-sized court before they are ready. It has a negative stigma that it’s ‘kids tennis’ instead of it being a training tool.
I’ve had adults on the tennis court before that would benefit from starting off with a transition ball and smaller racquet, but they don’t want to do it because it’s frowned upon.
With Spec Tennis, adults and juniors use the same equipment and court size, and it can be a separate entity (meaning not everyone who plays Spec Tennis also plays tennis) so that negative mentality goes away.
How Can Our Players Improve Faster
As a tennis coach, I’ve asked myself why certain players I coach don’t improve as fast as I would like them to. I’m confident the answer is that they don’t practice outside of the lessons. Sure, they may go out and play tennis a few times a week, but when they play, they aren’t working on what we practiced in the lesson.
The reason most don’t ‘practice’ is because the skill they are working on with the coach is too difficult to execute with a player of their same skill level.
Imagine a 3.0 player was working on their overhead with a coach. The coach says to go practice this on their own after the lesson. The player may have the intention of doing so, but when they get on the court with their 3.0 friend and start a lob-to-overhead rally, it’s a disaster. The lobber can’t place the lob well enough to give the overheader the right ball, or the overheader can’t hit the overhead back to the lobber. After a few minutes of this, both players agree to just rally from the baseline.
Now imagine a setting where these same two players could execute this drill. How much faster would each player’s overhead improve?
Spec Tennis creates the environment for successful practice. By having players practice this same drill in Spec, the ball is coming slower off the paddles which gives both better reaction time. The paddle is less powerful which gives them more control of their shots. And the court is smaller so more shots are gettable. You won’t see lobs going over the net players’ head the same way they do on the tennis court.
Or say you want to train your tactics. According to Styrling Strother (founder of TennisMapPlay and Transform the Practice Court) “Spec Tennis is great for teaching strategy & tactics. Players that can see the whole court visually, can see & understand patterns and tactics better. Most kids can’t visually see patterns on a bigger court. When you train something in a small space, and then open up the space, players still utilize that small space, which increases precision and reduces errors.”
As a big believer in progressions, this makes a lot of sense. Start simple, and then build from there.
How Can Spec Benefit You?
No matter what role you play in the tennis community, I bet that Spec Tennis can benefit you.
High School Coaches: Are you tired of trying to manage practice with 50 players on 6 courts? I was speaking with a friend in Iowa who has this exact problem. Now instead of players waiting around ½ the time due to lack of space, they can set up Spec courts and have everyone playing at once, which raises the overall level of the team.
Want a way to practice during inclement weather? Spec can be played indoors on a gym floor.
Teaching Pros: Do you want new players to join your tennis program? Maybe you want to set yourself apart from pros in your area? Members from your club who haven’t participated in your program before will start showing up to give it a try when they walk by the courts and see people playing something less intimidating than tennis. Players from other clubs will hear about the new & exciting thing that you’re doing and want to come try it. Also, lesson retention is high with Spec Tennis.
Like me, do you want to develop your players at a faster rate? Using Spec Tennis takes players through logical progressions, and when I use Spec to introduce a new skill, the players are able to execute that same skill in tennis much sooner than if we had trained them with tennis only.
Tennis players: Are you tired of losing matches and not being able to make the jump from 3.0 to 3.5 despite taking every clinic and lesson you can get your hands on? Train all of the strokes & strategies that you need to win more matches in a more favorable environment.
Or maybe you simply want to bring the fun back to tennis, with a more social way to play with less emphasis on ratings? Maybe you want to play singles, improve your net game, or get a great workout? All of these can be achieved with Spec.
Noah Newman ( Head Pro, West Hills Racquet Club) says, "Spec Tennis is more social than tennis, not as loud as pickleball, and all-around a very pleasant sporting & social experience."
Parents: Need to get your kids out of the house, and doing something athletic that can literally be set up in the driveway? Want an activity that you can enjoy as a family? Players can take a full swing at the ball and still control it which makes driveway/street Spec so fun.
Tennis Clubs: Looking for a low-cost amenity you can add that doesn’t require any facility modifications? If you don’t already have pickleball courts don’t worry, you can set up temporary Spec courts on your tennis courts in under 10 minutes or simply play in the service boxes.
Want to get a higher percentage of your membership on the courts? You can cover all bases when you offer tennis, spec tennis, and pickleball. As we know, there are some people who refuse to play pickleball or don’t have enough time to devote to tennis. The more you can offer your members, the more perceived value they are getting as well.
So how do you get started?
Email me, SpecTennis@yahoo.com, and let’s get on a 10-minute phone call to discuss how Spec Tennis can cater to your needs. Additional info & videos of the sport can be found at SpecTennis.com.
Thanks for reading!