Are Junior Rankings Truly An Indicator of Future Success?

Rafael Nadal

I read a very interesting post this morning on ZooTennis.com showing the top 10 men and women currently playing on the pro tour with their highest junior ITF rankings.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

Now it would be interesting to see a study on how many Top 10 ATP/WTA players over the past 15 years were never top 10 in the juniors. I’ve done a tiny bit of that research on the current ATP/WTA Top 10s and here’s the numbers, with the player’s highest ITF singles ranking in parentheses.

1. Novak Djokovic (24)
2. Rafael Nadal (145)
3. Roger Federer (1)
4. Andy Murray (2)
5. David Ferrer (-)
6. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2)
7. Tomas Berdych (6)
8. Mardy Fish (14)
9. Janko Tipsarevic (1)
10. John Isner (93)

1. Victoria Azarenka (1)
2. Maria Sharapova (6)
3. Petra Kvitova (27)
4. Agnieszka Radwanska (1)
5. Samantha Stosur (27)
6. Caroline Wozniacki (2)
7. Marion Bartoli (2)
8. Na Li (20)
9. Vera Zvonareva (3)
10. Andrea Petkovic (36)

The one that jumped out at me was Rafa’s 145 ranking.  145???  Really???  Is anyone else shocked by that number?

To me, it simply reinforces the idea that players develop at their own pace.  That how a player performs at age 10 or 12 or even 16 may not be a true indicator of their eventual up-side potential.  That continuing to work hard, staying passionate and purposeful during practices, may pay off in the long run.  That writing off a player at a young age because he or she isn’t tall enough or strong enough or fast enough or disciplined enough could be a huge mistake.  That, in terms of junior player development, each kid goes at his or her own speed.  That the kid who is #145 in the juniors may wind up being #1 as a professional.

It reinforces my belief in my own son’s ability to continue growing as a player and realizing his tennis dreams.  Each new day brings new opportunities to improve.  Each drill session, each fitness session, each practice set, each high school match, each tournament bring new opportunities to get better and better.  Who knows what the end result will be?  All I know is that, as long as my kid keeps working hard and maintains his passion for tennis, I will be there cheering him on to victory.

When Hard Work Leads to Lucky Breaks

My son to his high school tennis coach (after not being in the lineup for 3 consecutive matches):  “Coach, when you put me in the lineup last week, did I do what you asked and expected of me?”  Coach’s response:  “Yep.”  Son’s next question:  “What do I need to do for you to put me in the lineup again?”

That conversation happened about 2 1/2 weeks ago.  Since then, my son has been in the lineup for each subsequent match.  What changed?  The same 13 boys are still on the team.  They all show up for practices and matches.  So, why has my son had the opportunity to play these last few matches?

When my son met with his coach, the coach thanked him for taking the time to talk then told him what to do to get back into the starting lineup.  My son no longer needed to worry about why he wasn’t playing – he knew the answer, and he knew the fix.  He needed to continue to work hard at practice.  But, beyond that, he needed to show the coach that he could WIN MATCHES in practice, even if that meant beating boys who are a year or two or three older than him.

My son played Line 3 singles for the next two matches.  (For those new to high school tennis, the team plays 3 lines of singles and 2 lines of doubles against each opposing team.  Whichever team wins 3 total lines out of the 5, wins the match.)  He won both matches pretty handily, even when he had to play against Seniors.

He could’ve let those wins go to his head, but he didn’t.  He kept working hard in practice, showing his coach that he was committed to the team and committed to winning.  Then, in yesterday’s match against a local rival school, he got the opportunity to move up in the lineup and play Line 2 singles.  As luck would have it, his opponent was another freshman boy who my son had been playing in tournaments since the 10-and-unders and whom he had never beaten.  I was a nervous wreck!  I walked over to the coach during the warm-up and let him know about the boys’ playing history.  I figured that knowledge might come in handy if/when the coach needed to do a little on-court therapy during the match! (Again, for those of you new to high school tennis, coaching – and cheering – is allowed.)

The match started off pretty evenly with both boys holding serve.  But, the 5th game of the match – with the opponent serving – turned into a marathon.  Deuce, ad in.  Deuce, ad out.  Deuce, ad out.  Deuce, ad in.  That went on for more than 30 minutes until, finally, my son won the deuce point AND the ad point to take the game and go up 3-2.  But, as so often happens in this type of match, the opponent broke my son’s serve quickly in the next game to tie it back up at 3 a piece, a huge disappointment for my son and his team-mates!  That’s when the coach worked his magic, talking my son off the ledge, helping him calm back down and focus on the task at hand.

It worked.  My son went on a rampage, winning the next 8 games.  He was blasting serves, moving his opponent up and down and side to side, and hitting winners off both the forehand and backhand to go up 6-3, 5-0.  The end was in sight.

His opponent was serving.  My son had a match point.  He lost it and lost that game.  Then, my son was serving.  He had another match point.  He lost it and lost that game.  It was now 5-2 with the opponent set to serve again.  My son had 2 more match points but, again, lost them and lost the game.  5-3.  Time for the coach to do another side-line visit.  Time for my son to find something inside himself in order to close out this match and show his coach that he deserved the opportunity that he had been given.

My son dug deep.  He bombed a serve that his opponent just couldn’t return.  15-love.  He bombed another serve that came back but just barely.  My son hit a winner.  30-love.  He double-faulted.  30-15.  The boys had a long rally that ended with my son netting a forehand.  30-all.  Big first serve by my son – unreturnable.  40-30 and match point.  First serve in the net.  Second serve with a big kick that earned a weak return.  Forehand winner up the line.  Game, set, and match!

My son’s team wound up winning all 5 lines, finishing the season undefeated (though they do still have one more out-of-division match to play next week).  After the matches were complete, I was talking to one of the dads on my son’s team who knew both my son and his opponent pretty well.  He confirmed what I had seen.  He told me that my son’s tennis had moved well beyond his opponent, that all the hard work was really showing out there.  How lucky!

If the Pros Do It . . .

A while back, I wrote an article about watching the pros play in order to improve your tennis game.  Well, what about watching them in order to improve your tennis parenting skills?

As y’all know, I was lucky enough to get to go to the BNP Paribas Open last weekend in Indian Wells and see some amazing tennis.  In two of the matches – Isner (Go Dawg!) vs. Djokovic and Nadal vs. Federer – the higher-ranked player lost.  And, in my non-professional opinion, they lost not only because their opponent played a better match but also because they just weren’t 100% on their game that day.  They were missing shots that they would normally make in their sleep.  They were a half-step slow in their movement around the court.  They seemed a bit out of focus and not really up to the task of problem-solving in the moment.  And they looked frustrated which, especially from Nadal, you rarely see.

So, if these guys – who have been playing this game for probably close to 2/3 of their lives – have off days, why should we expect any different from our junior players?

I saw Djokovic griping to himself and to his player box numerous times throughout his semi-final match against John Isner.  He would throw his hands up as if to say, “Now what?” after another Isner ace.  He would walk back to the baseline with his head down and shoulders slumped after he made another unforced error.  He would look over at his coach with an aggravated look on his face after another failed attempt at a passing shot.

I saw Nadal muttering – in Spanish, of course – at the baseline after failing to keep his forehand deep enough in the court to prevent another Fed winner.  I saw him hit a ball at the back wall in frustration after missing an overhead.  I saw him drop his head, projecting NOT the invincible warrior we’re used to seeing but rather a defeated underdog.

Negative self-talk.  Negative body language.  Griping at the coach.  All behaviors I see from time to time with my son and all behaviors that I cannot stand!  Only now, after seeing some of my favorite professionals do the same things, I’m hoping I can keep them in perspective and remember that if the pros do it, too, then maybe I need to cut my kid (emphasis on kid) a little slack.

If you would like to see my photos from Indian Wells, visit the ParentingAces Facebook page.

A Little Tennis in the Desert

My husband and I are headed to the Left Coast later today, making our way to Palm Springs for the BNP Paribas Open this weekend.  I am beside-myself-excited!!!!!  I’ve been wanting to go to this tournament ever since my oldest daughter moved to Los Angeles to attend USC five years ago.  And, now, finally, I’ll be there to see the Quarters, Semis, and, hopefully, Finals – how awesome is that?!?!?!

I will be tweeting from the tourney, so be sure to follow me @ParentingAces.  I’ll post a summary here with photos next week.

And, if you’re watching on tv on Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday, look for the woman with the huge grin and the little red phone – I promise to wave if the camera comes my way!

Meeting a Legend

It’s not often in life that you have the opportunity to meet a legend.  Lucky for my son, it happened this past weekend when Ivan Lendl just so happened to be coaching one of the players in the tournament my son was playing.

My son was on court playing his semifinal match when I spotted Mr. Lendl walking up the steps.  At first, I couldn’t figure out who he was though I knew he looked very familiar.  Then, the caffeine kicked in, and I realized it was Ivan Lendl – WOW WOW WOW!  I was beyond thrilled to get the chance to see him and talk to him (well, to say hi and ask if he would mind posing for a picture)!  I mean, how many times have I watched him play on tv, in awe of his incredible tennis skill?

Those who know me know that I’m anything but shy, so I didn’t hesitate to walk over to him and introduce myself then ask for a photo.  He was very gracious, even though he was there as a coach and had work to do.

Later in the day, after my son had finished playing, he, too, got the opportunity to say hello to Lendl and pose with him for a picture.  I’m not sure, at age 15, that my son fully realizes how awesome it is to meet Ivan Lendl, but I have a feeling that he will cherish this photograph and will show it to his own children and grandchildren some day and say, “Once, I got to meet a legend.”

Why Tennis?

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the demise of American tennis.  We haven’t had a Major champion on the men’s side since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003.  Of course, we’ve seen Venus and Serena Williams win several Majors since then, but Wimbledon 2010 was Serena’s last Major title, and neither she nor Venus has won one since.

USTA is doing its darndest to find the Next Great American Tennis Champion.  In fact, Patrick McEnroe’s mission, plain and simple, as the General Manager of USTA Player Development is to ensure more Americans are in the second week of the US Open.  That’s it.  That’s his job.  And, he says, the best way for him to accomplish that mission is to get more kids playing tennis so there’s a wider pool of potential champions out there.  Hence, the big push with the new 10-and-Under initiative.

Let’s look at this analytically:

1.  We need to find the next American champion on both the men’s and the women’s side.

2.  The average cost of developing a junior tennis player from age 8 through age 18 is $475,776.

3.  The number of Division 1 college tennis scholarships available to men is 4.5 per year, 8 for women.

4.  The cost of breaking even on the professional circuit is approximately $143,000 per year.

5.  The Delray Beach International Tennis Championships and The Honda Classic (golf tournament) were held simultaneously about 10 miles apart last weekend. The Delray winner, Kevin Anderson, won $76k for the week, less than what the 20th place golfer received ($79k). The Honda Classic golf winner, Caroline Wozniaki’s boyfriend, received a little over $1 million for his victory. Unless you are top 10 in the world in tennis, the prize money pales in comparison to golf’s prize money.

Is it any wonder we’re having trouble finding, much less developing, the next American champion?  Tennis is expensive.  Not to play recreationally – in fact, it’s one of the least expensive leisure-time activities to play – but competitively, it’s cost-prohibitive for many families to absorb the expense related to developing a junior player.  And, once that player IS developed, then what?  College tennis scholarships are becoming harder and harder to earn, so to spend money on your junior with the thought that he or she will “earn” back the money in the form of a free college education is not the best plan.  What about going pro?  Well, unless the player is among the top juniors in the world, it’s going to cost him a pretty penny to start out on tour.  According to this article from The Tennis Times, full clothing and equipment sponsorships are only awarded to the top 200 players; add in travel, coaching, tournament fees, and medical expenses, and you can quickly understand how it can easily add up to $143,000.

So, there has to be another reason to choose tennis over, let’s say, golf or football or lacrosse, but what is it?

How about the life lessons that tennis imparts?  Lessons such as independent thinking, strong work ethic, self-sufficiency, mental toughness, self-discipline, honesty, and fairness.  How about the health benefits of playing an individual sport that requires you to run and stretch and swing non-stop for an hour or more?  How about the fact that team sports aren’t for everyone – some kids enjoy the challenge of being alone with themselves and mastering the mental and mechanical aspects of our physically-demanding sport.

Whatever the reason your child has chosen tennis, please try to keep in mind all the priceless benefits he or she is getting from this great sport.  It’s not about winning or losing.  It’s not about ranking points.  It’s not about a college scholarship.  It’s not about earning millions of dollars as a professional.  It’s not about you.  It IS about developing into the best adult he or she can be while having the privilege of playing a game.