Did you enjoy Emma Raducanu’s performances at the US Open? Tennis coaches up and down the country marvelled 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 ahead of the final at the 2021 US Open.
Does this have anything to do with how we teach juniors tennis in the UK nowadays? 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 tennis using balls that suited her age and size, rather than going straight to regular adult tennis balls.
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.
“A traditional [adults’] 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.”
Emma’s dad used to feed her red balls to hit, and and we can see video of Emma, aged 8, hitting orange balls. We also know that she won her first ever competitions in LTA-sanctioned orange ball and green ball tournaments [*].
While her skill levels were through the roof, it’s clear that her parents and coaches were happy for her to stick to coloured balls and equipment which fitted her size and her age. Pre-ROGY, she would surely have been pushed into ‘adult’ tennis, perhaps too young.
It’s not just a training tool. Nowadays all LTA sanctioned junior tournaments are ‘colour coded’, so juniors have to play red ball tournaments, then orange ball, then green ball, before they can enter ‘adult’ yellow ball tournaments from 12yrs onwards.
David Ince, from St Ann’s Tennis, coaches and hosts junior LTA competitions using red, orange and green balls. His outstanding young pupils – including Isabella Kreel (below), the Sussex County U12 singles and doubles champion – all learn using that system. “You watch some of these orange ball tournaments sometimes and the standard is so high you could be watching a professional match,” says David. “The slower ball allows the kids to develop strategic skills in a way you can’t do with adult balls.”
The red balls, which we use for our LTA Youth courses St Ann’s Tennis, are 75 per cent slower than a standard yellow ball and they are aimed at players aged 5-8. The next step is the orange ball, which is 50 per cent slower than a standard yellow for players aged roughly 8-10yrs old. The final step is the green ball, which is 25 per cent slower than a standard yellow ball and is aimed at players aged 9-10. Junior LTA tournaments use the ball types appropriate for each age group, which is how Raducanu took her first steps in competitive tennis [*]
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 lead the LTA team which pushed through the changes. She came up with the ‘traffic light’ colour system, then had the tough task of persuading coaches to adopt the new method, and manufacturers to make training balls to an agreed specification. It’s quite something that major manufacturers world wide now produce red, orange and green balls to those original LTA specifications. Procter later became General Manager of the Bromley Indoor Tennis Centre, which – guess what – is where Raducanu learnt to play.
Arguments continue to simmer among elite coaches about using the ROGY pathway with top young players. Some suggest that the coloured balls are really for the ‘normal’ kids, while promising youngsters should be accelerated on to adults balls and full tennis courts at the earliest opportunity. A closer look at Raducanu’s development, however, suggests the ROGY method enhances, rather than restricts, elite development. And for the brightest young talent of her generation, taking active part in red and orange ball tournaments (see video below) has turned out very well indeed. Raducanu’s opponent in that delightful orange ball rally was Sussex player Sonay Kartal, now making her own progress in professional tennis after significant injury interruptions. Kartal says: “I went through red, orange, green and yellow [and] I think it helped develop different skills. Playing in an orange court, where the lines are smaller, you develop these skills of navigating the ball to different parts of the court. It’s definitely given me more of an applied skillset. If I was a coach I would recommend my player going through that [system]” – (From “Control the Controllables” podcast, December 2021).
As an official ambassador of LTA Youth, and the beneficiary of an LTA scholarship, Raducanu clearly appreciates the role the governing body has played in her early career. Unusually for a British tennis player, she publicly thanked the LTA in her acceptance speech after the US Open Final, and she keeps her US Open trophy at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton.
The ROGY 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 practicing 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.
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.”