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I was having a phone conversation with another tennis parent yesterday – we were discussing all the stuff going on with USTA (2014 changes, 10-and-under mandate, cost of competition, issues with wildcards, cheating, etc.) and what we could do as parents of junior players to get away from it all. We both agreed that our goal as Tennis Parents is to keep our kids playing as long as possible while maintaining their love of the game (and not going broke in the process!) – a huge challenge, to be sure.

Then, this morning, I read an article on 11-year-old Florida player, Adam Neff, and the resources that his parents have provided for him at their home – 3 tennis courts in the backyard, one with imported Italian red clay, a hyperbaric chamber, a full-time coach – and I had to wonder if that’s what it takes to develop a successful tennis player . . .

Then it occurred to me that, for (I’m guessing here – no stats to back this up!) a majority of junior players who are playing in tournaments now, success is gauged by their eventual opportunities to play in college at some level.  Of course, many kids dream of turning pro, but, at some point, they realize that’s a huge stretch and that life will probably take them in a different direction, one in which tennis will always play a part we hope.  So, in terms of college-playing opportunities, what’s the difference between being ranked #50 or #100 or #150 in the juniors?  Does the #50 player get that many more scholarship offers than #100?  Is it really worth playing the Rankings Race Game or is your time (and money) better spent finding good opponents and good matches so you get better at competing?  If college tennis is the goal, then shouldn’t the aim of training during the junior years be to develop into the strongest competitor possible so coaches will want you on their team?  And, aren’t there ways other than playing gobs and gobs of USTA junior tournaments to achieve that aim?

Let’s look at some of the options . . .

  • League tennis: Playing on a team with your friends, boys and girls, is fun.  You get to cheer for each other, you have that team spirit thing going for you, you learn what it’s like to play for something bigger than just yourself.  Isn’t that a big part of college tennis, too?  Typically, league tennis, at least where I live, tends to be more recreational in nature and not really geared toward competitive players, but it is still a great way to learn how to be part of a team.
  • High School tennis: See “League tennis” above but add to that a nice way to develop an identity at school, especially if you go to a big high school where kids tend to get lost in the shuffle if they don’t do something to stand out, either in academics, sports, the arts, or some other way.
  • Little Mo: Open to US players ages 8-11, these yellow ball, full court tournaments are held nationwide with regional winners competing for the national title.  Little Mo recently added international competition, too, open to any player worldwide ages 8-12.
  • Adult “Open” tournaments: For a kid with little or no competition nearby in his/her own age group, adult tournaments are always an option.  These events pose their own challenges for junior players (what adult wants to be beaten by a 12 year old?), but they can be a great developmental tool for kids who are looking to take their game to a higher level.
  • ITF tournaments: This is a tough route to take, especially if you want to attend traditional school, since the tournaments run during the week and since we have very few ITFs in the US during the summer when kids are usually out of school [see my How ITF Junior Tournaments Work post for more info].  But, if you’re homeschooled and have the financial resources to travel, ITFs will expose you to players from all over the world, showing you what you’ll face at the collegiate or even professional level.
  • Tennis Recruiting’s National Showcase Series: While these are USTA-sponsored tournaments, they’re not all sanctioned for all players (it depends on whether or not you play within your own section).  With all the craziness and limitations around national play coming in 2014, the TRN events are a great way to play kids outside your section and still impact your TRN star rating, even if they don’t affect your USTA ranking.
  • ITA Summer Circuit: I love these events!  They’re held on college campuses across the country during the summer, and the winners of the regional events go on to play for a national title.  The tournaments are open to any ITA member, so juniors are welcome to join and compete.

Am I missing anything?  If so, please let me know so I can add to the list.  The point is that, for those who are frustrated or fed up with all the rule changes and schedule changes from USTA, there are some excellent alternatives out there.  We can all still keep our kids developing and playing at the appropriate level, regardless of what’s happening with our national governing body.