If you follow ParentingAces on Facebook and/or Twitter, you may have seen the article I posted last week – Tennis May Reward Top Players To Play For High Schools – from Gazette.net. Bonnie Vona, Manager of Competitive Tennis for USTA’s Mid-Atlantic section, told the publication that “there is a movement toward ultimately awarding USTA ranking points for high school matches.”
I spoke to Bonnie a few days ago to find out how far along in the process USTA actually is. It turns out, not very.
While Bonnie told me that the intent is to entice more high-level juniors to play for their schools while at the same time encouraging high-school-only players to try their hand at USTA sanctioned and non-sanctioned tournament play – both of which are very good intentions in my book – it turns out that the underlying impetus may actually have more to do with boosting USTA membership numbers, thereby increasing her section’s quota for national junior tournaments under the 2014 rule changes. That’s a great outside-the-box way to help the Mid-Atlantic section’s juniors who are trying to make the cut at the national level, and I applaud Bonnie for finding a tactic to help her section’s bottom line while also bringing more young athletes to the game long-term AND helping the top junior players get into the national tournaments.
However, when I spoke with Tim Curry in USTA’s media office, I learned that what USTA is actually looking toward is implementing a rating system for high school tennis which might look like a mix of the current NTRP and the Universal Tennis Rating systems. Tim told me that USTA is not looking at adjusting its Points Per Round tables to include high school play at this time but rather is trying to find a way to better involve these high school players in tennis outside of school play. USTA is hoping that a rating system would allow for these kids to compare themselves to other junior players who might be currently playing in leagues or tournaments and inspire them to join in once their high school season is complete. But, Tim insisted, this rating system is only in the preliminary discussion phase and quite a way from being ready for public consumption.
So, while it would be great to incentivize current high level juniors to join their high school teams by offering ranking points as an enticement, and while it would be great to get those current high school players more involved in tennis outside of school, it doesn’t look like either is coming any time soon, at least not from a national perspective.
To understand why I’ve taken such an interest in this issue, below is a Q&A I did with a friend of mine whose son plays for his high school in addition to playing sectional USTA tournaments. She and I have had several conversations about the benefits of high school tennis, and her answers below may shed some light for those of you still on the fence.
ParentingAces: What role has high school tennis played in your son’s overall tennis development?
Julie Brown: It has given him more confidence in himself as a player. He was chosen by the coach last year to play the deciding line, if needed, in the playoffs. As it turns out, it was needed, both in the quarter and semi-final matches. Had he not won either of those matches, the team would not have gone on to eventually win the state championship. He has played some of his best tennis for his high school team.
It has also helped his focus to be able to play his game and not drop down to his opponent’s level, if they happen to be playing against a weaker team. (There are those schools that are lucky if they can recruit enough players to field a team, often getting football players to play so they can earn another letter) This isn’t always easy for a tournament player to do; you want to play the match at your level and not let it drop. David played a “golden set” his sophomore year and said, “well, the kid wasn’t very good” , which was true, but David also had to play perfect tennis, no double faults, no over hitting, no missing winners; not always that easy.
I think he has also discovered that he has some leadership abilities that he might not have discovered had he not played on his high school team.
PA: Was his private coach supportive of his decision to play for his school? Why or why not?
JB: Haha, NO, his private coach, like MOST private coaches, was NOT supportive of any of the academy kids playing for their school. Our academy was located around the corner from the school, so we were fortunate to be able to have players that were tournament players on the high school team. The matches were taking time away from training, since they were on weekday afternoons. Plus, in the coach’s mind, they weren’t “real” matches that challenged the kids as players, or so he thought. This certainly didn’t have any effect on the kids’ decision to play! It wasn’t until the team won their first state championship and the high school coach wrote an email to our academy coach thanking him for all the work he had done with the kids, that he was supportive. It was even put it on the academy website and, after the team won their 2nd state championship, they acknowledged that the starting line-up was composed of all academy players.
I’ve never understood why private and academy coaches are so against players being on a tennis team, whether it’s USTA, ALTA or high school. There are so many life-lessons to be learned from being part of a team, plus, it gets them on the court, regardless of their opponents’ ability.
PA: Would the opportunity to earn USTA ranking points have affected the coach’s perspective? Would it have made it easier or harder for your son to decide to play for his school?
JB: It definitely would have gotten the coach on board sooner, but it would not have changed David’s mind about playing; he has wanted to be a Brookwood varsity tennis player since middle school, maybe earlier!
PA: What is the impact of winning a state championship-twice!-on your son and his commitment to tennis?
JB: Well, he comes off those wins feeling energized and excited about tennis, going to the banquet, seeing his team mates sign to play for colleges, ordering rings. It usually carries over into the summer, and he’ll play some of his best tournament tennis then. After school starts back, the grind of getting up early, staying up late to finish homework after training or having to deal with the private coach getting upset that he missed training for some school related activity, gets to be a struggle and there is usually a slump in tournament play and rankings. He’s experiencing some of that now, along with a slight shoulder injury. The stress of looking at colleges and filling out applications, keeping up grades and enjoying senior year and its activities make it hard to keep up the training necessary to play and win at the top tournaments. I think as the high school season approaches (he’s a captain this year), the excitement and hunger for another winning season will get him back to training and, hopefully, winning again.
PA: We hear time and again that college coaches don’t care if kids play high school tennis-they just care about USTA/ITF events. Do you think having the ability to earn ranking points would change that? How?
JB: I think any coach, private, academy or college, that thinks high school tennis is a waste of a player’s time needs to come watch some of the state semi-final and final matches. At least in our bracket here in Georgia, which is the largest and, arguably, the most competitive, you have 3, 4 and 5 star players, some college tennis signees and some freshman, all playing full 3 set matches (singles and doubles play full 3 sets), none of that ridiculous 8-game pro-set or 10 point match tie-break crap that you see in those wonderful USTA events! I have never witnessed a player in a tournament refuse to give up a match due to cramping; they just quit, default, no big deal. But I have seen a senior, playing for his high school team, trying to get them to a state championship match, refuse to quit the match but is cramping so badly that he falls to the court after a shot, not once but several times. His coach finally had to FORCE him to retire the match. He then had to be carried off the court and taken by ambulance to the hospital for I.V. fluids. That’s what makes high school tennis so great; that emotion, that love for your school and your team, that idea that you can’t let them down, is something that coaches, ESPECIALLY college coaches, should want from their players. I don’t think that is something you will EVER find at any tournament, except at the professional level, and even then, they retire and go get treatment in the locker room. I think this player would have literally died to get his team that chance to win a state championship, it was that important to him. If getting ranking points will get private and college coaches on the high school tennis bandwagon, then that would be great! Something needs to get them out there because that is where the kids play for something greater than themselves; they play for their team, and isn’t that what a college coach wants?