Help! My kid wants to play in a tournament!

For those of you just starting out in the overwhelming world that is Junior Tennis, I thought I’d give you a down-and-dirty breakdown of how the USTA tournament and ranking system works.  Hold onto your sanity because you’re in for quite an adventure!

The first step in playing a USTA tournament is getting a USTA junior membership and number for your child (see USTA’s website) – no USTA number means no tournament play!  Make sure you write down the number and keep it in a safe place until the actual membership card arrives in your mailbox – you will need this number for pretty much everything your child does in the tournament world.

Most tournaments require online registration via a service called TennisLink.  You can search for tournaments in your town or state or section by simply using the drop-down boxes on the website.  You can also search by month and year or by division (age, singles vs. doubles, all junior tournaments, etc.).  Once you find a tournament to enter, take note of the entry deadline.  Until you get to know the different tournament directors and can ask for a special favor every now and then, those deadlines are written in stone.  To enter a specific tournament, click on the name of the tournament in TennisLink which will then take you to that tournament’s webpage.  From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory – you’ll click on the online registration link and fill in the blanks.

Junior competition is broken down into age groups based on the child’s age at the time of the tournament.  The age groups are 10-and-under (10U), 12-and-under (12U), 14-and-under (14U), 16-and-under (16U), and 18-and-under (18U).  A child can play in an older age group if he chooses, but he can’t play in a younger age group.  How do you know in which age group your child should play?  When starting out, he should always play in the age group in which he falls.  For example, if your child is 11 years old, then he would be in the 12U group.  He would move up to the next age group the month he turns 13.  So, if your child’s birthday is March 6th, then March 1st would be the “aging up” date.

Once your child wins a tournament match at any level in any sanctioned USTA event, he will then have a ranking.  If he’s playing a Satellite tournament, that ranking will be in your state of residence.  If he’s playing a Championship or higher State tournament, then he may also gain a sectional ranking.  Once he starts playing the higher level Sectional tournaments, then he might be earning points toward a national ranking.  I’ll talk more about how the ranking system works in a separate post.  Please note that each USTA section has its own set of rules and guidelines – for the purposes of this blog, I’m using those set forth by the Southern Section (the light turquoise area in the map above).

For you visual learners, here’s a graphic depiction of how the tournament structure is set up  (apologies for my amateur graphics!) . . .

STATE TOURNAMENTS (TO ESTABLISH STATE RANKING)

SECTIONAL TOURNAMENTS (TO ESTABLISH SECTIONAL RANKING)

The layout for National Tournaments is very similar.  So, for a child playing his or her very first tournament ever, the Satellite (State Level 5) would be the appropriate starting point.  Once the child has become used to the tournament environment and IF he decides he wants to play at a higher level, then it may be time to try a State Level 4 tournament.   If he’s having good success at that level, then moving up through the system becomes pretty straightforward.  As one of my tennis go-to people puts it, though, you first want to be the best in your house, then the best on your block, then the best in your neighborhood.  In other words, winning tournaments at the lower levels should be a pre-req for moving up to the next level.

In the tournaments themselves, there are two types of draws:  the main draw and the consolation draw (aka the back draw).  For most USTA tournaments of any level, singles players are guaranteed at least two matches since, even if they lose in the first round of the main draw, they still move into the back draw to continue playing.   For doubles play, typically the tournaments are single-elimination, meaning that once a doubles team loses a match, they are done with that tournament.

I hope this helps clarify things a bit!  If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the Comments box below.  Remember, this blog is a fluid entity, and I’m certainly no expert, so please add your own experiences so we can all learn together.

Edited August 23, 2013: Once you have registered your child for a tournament, you will receive a confirmation email (as long as you entered your email address on the registration form in TennisLink). Unless something very much out of the ordinary happens, that is the last communication you will receive from the tournament. The onus is on you and your child to keep checking the tournament website to see the draws and find out your child’s match times. Be sure you look for your child’s first match time on the Main Draw as well as their next match time (if it is posted) on both the Main Draw and Consolation Draw. Note the match location, too, if multiple playing sites are being used. One last tip: be sure to check the tournament website early in the morning of each day of play, especially if weather delays could be an issue. The tournament director should update the website no later than 7am for 8am matches and will post any delays. All of this information can be found on the specific tournament’s webpage through TennisLink. If you have trouble, contact the Tournament Director or Tournament Referee – their contact information should be on the webpage as well. See What To Take With You on Tournament Day for more suggestions.

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