Entering the era of the racquet

Translated by Adrian Margaret Brune

© Régis Colombo

Michel Russillon does not quite have the profile of a pensioner as one might imagine. This former Swiss tennis teacher with an infectious passion took advantage of his retirement to create Tennis Park, a system of multi-use courts (tennis, pickleball and urban tennis), aiming to develop tennis teaching and bring new audiences to racquet sports. Here, Russillon, 76, answers a series of questions about the strange multi-coloured block of courts he has developed. 


What is the Tennis Park?

The Tennis Park is a set of courts with reduced dimensions located on a classic court. There are three configurations: the education model for children includes four mini-fields of progressive lengths (10-, 12-, 15- and 18-meters long); the family model with four courts for four practices accessible with suitable equipment, including urban tennis, pop tennis, cardio tennis and pickleball; and the modular Tennis Park, which uses transportable nets to demo all these disciplines while retaining the classic tennis court. 


What is the purpose of the multicolored court? 

We added colored zones like traffic lights: red at the back of the court when I am in a defensive position. Orange, be careful, I am building my point. When we are in the green zone and the way is clear, I attack. The yellow zone corresponds to the finish of the point at the net. This system allows children and beginners to connect in a playful and fun way to all different racquet sport scenarios.


How did you come up with the concept?

I was first a sports teacher in Lausanne. Tennis is the sport that seemed the richest and most interesting to me because requires many qualities and skills that are transposed outside the court, including the ability enter into relationships. And then I had the opportunity to manage a tennis center. I asked myself: what can I bring as a teacher, as a teaching specialist? I noticed a tennis court was large and difficult for children to understand, and coordination skills are acquired before the age of twelve. This is how I came up with the idea of ​​setting up four mini-courts of progressive length on a classic pitch while respecting the original proportions. Tennis Park puts the child “in his kingdom” with a suitably sized court and equipment. We must respect the psycho-physical development of the child and adapt to it — without skipping steps  — to have solid foundations for the rest of their training. A six- or seven-year-old child playing with normal balls on a large field does not optimize their potential. 


So you’re changing the architecture of the court to revolutionize the method of teaching tennis…

I’m not questioning anyone else’s style, nor am I proselytizing. It’s just a matter of convincing coaches that this form of training is adapted to the child’s development. We often take the example of professional players who have learned by hitting the ball over and over to their coaches. For players at this level, there are fundamentals that they repeat like a pianist does his scales. And they can practice those. But for me as a teacher, I have to put the student in a situation. A ball in play must have meaning. Is it a ball where I have to defend or attack? With the Tennis Park teaching method, children are proactively learning, or developing their coordination, balance, and orientation. We know that it’s more positive than putting four children in a row and robotically throwing balls…

© Régis Colombo

Beyond this educational approach, is there also a desire to break the codes of tennis?

Yes, I would like to remove three prejudices that stick to tennis: from a so-called elitist sport, to a popular sport; from an individual sport, to a convivial sport; and rather than suggesting that tennis is difficult to access, offer a learning method that is simple and understandable for everyone. People no longer want to wait three years before being able to trade balls, they want immediate pleasure. It’s up to me to offer them game formats that meet their expectations. That’s my role.


How do you see the future of tennis with competition from new, more accessible racquet sports?

In all Western countries and for all sports, club, association or federation leaders draw the same observation: “classic” sport is of less and less interest to younger generations. Tennis is no exception and must imperatively adapt to the evolution of modern sporting practice. It is the role of clubs to adapt by offering all these new racquet sports to increase the number of practitioners. Tennis yes, but also progressive tennis, and all these sports which are close to it, and which offer a more exciting practice. We are entering the era of the racquet!


What are the reactions of people who play on these atypical courts for the first time?

When the adults come, they are incredibly happy to play in these little areas. Less time is wasted collecting balls. You can play as a family with parents on one pitch and the children on another smaller one. Changing the architecture of the court also means it is more social. And that’s good in this post-Covid period because we need well-being and encounters more than ever. When you have up to 16 people playing on a tennis court, there are exchanges and smiles. And that’s essential for me: bringing happiness to people! I also dream of a free and open Tennis Park in the middle of a city center, with passers-by — kids who put down their scooters and come to play. I really believe in this use of land to revitalize public space.


How many Tennis Parks have been installed?  What are their development prospects?

Two Tennis Parks have been installed in Switzerland, in Sion in 2021 and in Lausanne in 2022. A modular park will soon be operational in Fribourg. I really believe in this model; it can be transposed to all tennis courts. Cities, local authorities, clubs… the prospects are immense. I spoke with clubs in France. I also have contacts in the United States and China. It’s not hard to convince after people try it!

From a more personal point of view, how are you experiencing this adventure?

It’s awesome. Thanks to Tennis Park, I meet lots of people, I love it. So far no one has told me to go take care of my geraniums, even though I love nature (laughs). I have experienced very moving moments, including during the inauguration of the first Tennis Park in Sion in 2021 where there were 16 children playing with a smile. That’s what makes me want to continue the work. I feel like I came to this planet to do this. I have the chance to do what I was made to do: teach. It’s my role to make the children happy.