First Pro Tournament

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My son has experienced all sorts of “firsts” lately: he won his first national doubles title; he won all his backdraw matches in a sectional designated; he earned his first ITF main draw berth and subsequent ranking points; and, most recently, he played in his first Futures tournament.

For almost a year now, my son has been asking to play in a Futures event. In case you’re new to this stuff, the Futures circuit is basically the ground floor of professional tennis. These events are populated by older juniors like my son but also by college players, recent college graduates, foreign players who chose to bypass college, and seasoned professionals who for whatever reason have seen a drop off in their rankings and who are trying to work their way back up the ladder. One of my friends refers to the Futures tour as the “slums of pro tennis” (though I think that’s a bit harsh)!

Anyway, after totally missing the entry deadline for the Irvine Futures in September, my son and I made sure he was entered on time for the event in Birmingham, about 2 1/2 hours from our home in Atlanta. We watched the tournament website as my son’s name climbed up the Alternate List and finally onto the Qualifying List about two weeks before the check-in date. He was in!

Let me back up a step or two, though, and tell you HOW to enter these tournaments. First of all, like the ITF Junior events, the player must register for an iPin number then indicate that he/she would like to be eligible to play both junior and pro circuit events. Once your child has an iPin, you can go to the ITF website, look at the calendar, and sign up to play the various tournaments. We were advised to look for Futures tournaments that had a 128 player qualifying to increase my son’s chances of getting into the draw. After entering the tournament, you then have to continually check back on the ITF website to see whether or not your child has been selected to play. The tournament Fact Sheet will specify the tournament check in date and deadline. Don’t be late! Typically, the check in ends EXACTLY on time (usually at 6pm on the Thursday before the Friday qualifying start day). In order to check in, the player needs a photo ID (passport or driver’s license), iPin number, USTA number (if American), and cash to pay the entry fee. If the player is younger than age 18, a parent or guardian will have to sign a release form as well.

The qualifying tournament usually begins on Friday morning. The draws and first match times will go up online sometime around 9pm on Thursday, after all players have checked into the tournament. With a 128 draw, there are 4 rounds of qualifying before getting into the main draw. Just like junior ITF tournaments, there are Lucky Loser spots in the main draw as well as Wildcards, so be sure to ask about those if your child doesn’t make it all the way through the qualies.

Now, back to last weekend . . . my son got all checked in for the qualies on Thursday afternoon and had arranged to hit with a buddy later that day. The tournament was on clay, not my son’s favorite surface (!), so the hitting session was crucial to his peace of mind. While the boys hit, I sat in the clubhouse and chatted with some of the players and coaches who were there. It’s a very different scene than a junior tournament, that’s for sure! Many of these guys are just trying to earn enough money to pay their bills for another month. They’re scrambling for a free place to stay and doing intel on the cheapest places nearby to get a good meal. I was one of maybe 3 or 4 parents there – remember, that’s out of 128 players! This is tennis with the Big Boys.

After he hit, my son and I grabbed dinner and waited for the draws to be posted. It turned out that he was set to play Ryler DeHeart first round. For those who don’t know Ryler, he’s a 30-year-old leftie, originally from Hawaii, who is a 2-time University of Illinios All American and who reached a career high singles ranking of 174 (120 doubles ranking) on the ATP tour. He is currently the assistant men’s coach at the University of Alabama and loves challenging his players to a practice set or two. One of my son’s friends who plays at Bama couldn’t wait to tell my son about one of Ryler’s recent 15-minute 6-0 victories over a fellow teammate who also hails from Georgia! Yikes!

Okay, so this was going to be one of those tournaments where it was all about the experience, about seeing what my son could learn from his seasoned opponent, about gauging where his game is versus a guy that has recently been where he wants to go. My son had to let go of outcome and focus once again on process. It was going to be tough, and it was going to be humbling, but it was time for him to take this next step.

The match started out okay with both guys holding serve for the first 4 games. But then Ryler’s experience kicked into high gear, and he started hitting the lines for winner after winner. Did I mention the word “humbling”?

We had heard that moving from the juniors into the college game was a big leap, but the jump from juniors to Futures play is astronomical! There’s such a big difference, physically, between the type of ball my son is used to seeing from his peers versus from these grown men. And, while my son is certainly up for the challenge, he still has plenty of work to do to make inroads at this level. One step at a time, one ball at a time, one match at a time . . .

As Messy As We Predicted

Image courtesy of tsukasachronicles.blogspot.com
Image courtesy of tsukasachronicles.blogspot.com

The player selections have been posted for the upcoming national hardcourt Level 1 tournaments, and, as predicted, it’s another big mess. (See ZooTennis.com for more details)

Like the clay court selections, there are several top-ranked players who were either selected into the qualifying event (16s and 18s) or placed on the alternate list or, worse yet, weren’t selected at all because they didn’t even apply. The recent Wimbledon Junior Boys Champion, Noah Rubin, is in the qualies for B18s. Last year’s Kalamazoo champion and runner-up are both in qualies as well.

Remember USTA’s reason for shrinking the draw size for this event? Remember the statement about reducing the number of 0 & 0 matches in the early rounds for the seeded players? Remember the “this will save families time and money” argument? Remember the t-shirt comment? Please go back and read my post from August 2012 (click here) for a reminder. Well, how do you think the kid who won the event in 2013 is going to feel about having to go through 3 rounds of qualies just to get in the main draw? And how do you think the kids who have to face him during qualies are going to feel? And now those kids have to be at the event 3 days before the main draw starts which costs money in terms of hotel and meals and maybe even rental car. How does any of this accomplish USTA’s stated goals?

Let me remind you, too, that USTA only has 8 wildcards to award in each age group. In the Boys 18s there are at least 15 players who deserve to be in the main draw, including the Wimbledon Junior Finalist, the winner and runner-up of the 2013 Orange Bowl, and several players in the top 15 on TennisRecruiting.net. Again, there are only 8 wildcards, so what happens to those players who aren’t among the Chosen 8? They either decide to go through qualies (if they even bothered to sign up for the tournament and were selected) or they skip the event altogether, weakening the field for our most prestigious junior event. I really don’t see how this is better for junior tennis, do you?

The USTA Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee members and the Junior Comp staff have some major cleanup work ahead of them to fix this broken system and to fix it quickly before even more kids fall through the cracks. The sad thing is that all of the selection outcomes we’re seeing with both clay courts and hardcourts were predicted and discussed ad nauseum before anything was voted on or approved and yet USTA still went forward with the 2014 changes. I want to renew my plea to USTA to go back to the drawing board, to clean up their mess, to enlist the help of current junior tennis parents way smarter than me who can help create a system that will provide the best opportunity for the most junior players to reach their highest potential.

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How ITF Junior Tournaments Work

Just when I thought I had the USTA tournament thing finally figured out, my kid decided he wanted to try playing some ITF events.  And, after reading the current ITF Junior Regulations and searching all over the Web for information and coming up pretty much empty-handed, I started asking questions of those with way more knowledge than I have so I could understand how the ITF process works.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far about ITF events held in the US:

  • You must be between the ages of 13-18 to play in an ITF Junior tournament. You may enter a tournament starting at age 12 years 11 months, however.  Unlike USTA which uses the player’s birth month to determine age and eligibility, the ITF uses the calendar year.  For the 2012 ITF season, for example, players must be born between January 1, 1994, and December 31, 1999.
  • Before you can sign up for an ITF Junior Tournament, you have to get an iPin number.  Plan ahead as it can take a day or two for you to get the actual number.  All requests are authorized within 24 hours Monday-Friday.  You cannot enter a tournament without this number.
  • Most ITF Junior events have a qualifying draw that plays the Saturday and Sunday before the Main Draw starts on Monday.  Usually, a player has to win 3 rounds in Qualies to get into the Main Draw, but that can vary according to draw size.  The Main Draw is typically scheduled to play Monday through Sunday.
  • There are Singles and Doubles events in all tournaments.  You can sign up for the Doubles once you arrive.  Even if you don’t get through the Qualies, there may still be an opening for you to play Doubles – you’ll need to check with the tournament officials.
  • It is very important that players and parents check the tournament Fact Sheet for information regarding sign-in dates, locations, and times.  There is a do-or-die sign in deadline for the Qualies and the Main Draw, typically 6pm the Friday before matches start for Qualies and 6pm the Sunday before matches start for the Main.  In order to sign in, you must bring a passport or other photo ID.  You must also know your iPin number and USTA number.  A parent or coach has to sign the Medical Release, just like in USTA tournaments.  Without any one piece of the aforementioned information, you could be denied the opportunity to check-in and play!
  • For those who don’t get into the Main Draw or Qualifying Draw, there are on-site alternates.  It’s important to note that even alternates must have an iPin number, so if your child is even thinking about playing one of these events, you might as well go ahead and apply now.  Check the specific tournament’s website for details on how to alert the tournament officials that you want to be considered as an alternate in case of an opening.
  • After check-in on Friday night, the Qualifying Draws are created and posted online along with first match times.  Often, it is after 10pm before the draws and times are available.  Also, the draws and times may be posted on the ITF Junior website OR the tournament site OR the USTA site – you may have to do some digging before you find your first match time.  Be persistent!  And, be sure you know when you play BEFORE you go to sleep on Friday night – it could be 8am!
  • Only those who are in the Main Draw are given a tournament t-shirt.  Those who don’t make it through the Qualies may be able to purchase a shirt if they want.  I know, this isn’t all that important to some of you, but for others, the t-shirt is key!
  • All singles matches play out a full third set – no 10-point tiebreakers here!  And, just so you know, there is NO COACHING and NO BREAK between the 2nd and 3rd set.  Doubles play two tie-break sets and a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a 3rd set with no-ad scoring.  In the case of bad weather, alternative scoring options may be used in accordance with the ITF 2012 Rules of Tennis (see page 22).
  • If your child has dual citizenship, please refer to Page 36 of the Rules for information as to how to determine which passport your child should use in these events.
  • The time an entry is submitted is not significant; it does not matter if a player is first or last to enter a tournament.  Waco ITF Referee, Ken McCain, told me, “A common comment I receive is that ‘my child has a higher ranking than some players placed higher on the Acceptance List.’  The Federations can send a ranking list to the ITF, usually once a Quarter, to determine the Acceptance List Order (non ITF-ranked players).  One tournament may be using an old list and the following week an updated list is used.  This does occur and this is my best explanation.”  Read Section 45 (starting on page 13) of the rules for details on how selection into the tournaments works.  I’ve read it, and I’m still a bit confused, so if you understand the process, please enlighten the rest of us in the Comments box below!
  • There is a “freeze deadline” which occurs at 14:00 GMT on the Wednesday preceding the tournament week.  At this point, iPIN closes, and it is no longer possible to withdraw online. Instead, withdrawals must be made using the official withdrawal form and sent to the ITF and Referee before the close of sign-in. The published acceptance lists will not update with any withdrawals. The reason for this is that this is the moment the tournament information is sent to the Referee to prepare for the tournament. The acceptance list is sent to the Referee, who now manages the withdrawals. Any questions about the acceptance list from this point on should be directed to the Referee.  Any player who withdraws from a tournament Main Draw or Qualifying Draw after the Freeze Deadline without using the official withdrawal form, sent to the ITF and ITF Tournament Referee, will be subject to a No Show penalty.
  • Wild cards are decided by the host nation.  If players wish to apply for a wildcard they should get in touch with the host National Association (i.e. USTA) and/or Tournament Director.  ITF does not give out wild cards.  Numbers of wild cards available is based on the size of the draw.  For example, a 64 Main Draw will have 8 Wild Cards available.  For US tournaments, a player can apply for a wild card at www.usta.com/itftournaments.  The application deadline is typically right after the regular entry deadline – check the individual tournament’s website for details.  Refer to page 20 of the Junior Circuit Regulations for more information.
  • Lucky losers almost always come from those losing in the final round of qualifying.  If more Lucky Losers are required for substitutions, those players who have lost in the previous qualifying rounds are considered.  Lucky Losers must sign the Lucky Loser list that the Referee will open. It closes 30 minutes before play begins.  Colette Lewis told me that she watched all this take place last year at the US Open juniors. If you don’t have an ITF junior ranking, you go to the bottom of the list, in a similar number assignment with any others without an ITF ranking.  There can be zero lucky losers or as many as seven or eight, which happens at some sparsely attended events in less desirable locations. I think at this week’s Atlanta ITF four boys made it in as lucky losers. Late withdrawals or no shows are the most frequent reason for lucky losers getting in, but an injury or illness can also lead to a last-minute vacated spot.  See page 23 of the rules for more information.

A big thank-you to Colette Lewis of ZooTennis.com for her willingness to share her vast knowledge with me and, by extension, you!  If you have any questions or need more clarification on any point above, I urge you to contact the ITF directly at:

International Tennis Federation, Bank Lane, Roehampton, London, SW15 5XZ
ph: +44 20 8878 6464 | fax: +44 20 8392 4735
email: juniors@itftennis.com   www.itftennis.com/juniors

For the complete rules of Junior ITF play as well as the ranking points table, click here.

NOTE (added December 2, 2012):

APPENDIX G: ITF JUNIOR CIRCUIT AGE ELIGIBILITY RULE
1. ITF Junior Age Eligibility Chart

Age/Number of tournaments permitted

18/Unrestricted
17/Unrestricted
16/25
15/16 (unless player achieves a top 20 ITF Junior Ranking in which case an additional 4 tournaments permitted)
14/14 (unless player achieves a top 20 ITF Junior Ranking in which case an additional 4 tournaments permitted)
13/10 (unless player achieves a top 50 ITF Junior Ranking in which case an additional 4 tournaments permitted)
11-12/0
NOTES
1. The number of tournaments permitted is counted between the date of a player’s birthday and the day before their next birthday, not between 1st January and 31st December.
2. Participation in an ITF Junior Circuit tournament includes singles and/or doubles and/or qualifying.
3. Minors under the age of thirteen (13) shall not be eligible for entry. For the
purposes of this Rule, the player’s age as of the first day of the tournament Main Draw shall be used.
4. The number of tournaments permitted by the ITF Junior Age Eligibility Rule is in addition to the number of professional tournaments permitted by the Age
Eligibility Rule (please refer to ITF Professional Circuit Regulations, and WTA
Regulations for details on the Age Eligibility Rule.)

A Great Fix

I recently met with Ross Greenstein of Scholarship for Athletes to talk about various aspects of junior and college tennis.  Ross grew up playing junior tennis and went on to play at the University of Florida.  He now works with junior players and their families to navigate the college recruiting process, so I trust him as a reliable resource on matters having to do with junior tennis and college.

He asked me to give him the down-and-dirty rundown on what’s going on with the USTA’s proposed changes to the junior competition schedule and the feedback I’ve been hearing from other parents as well as coaches.  Then, he shared with me what I consider a brilliant solution . . .

Instead of making the draws smaller at the big national tournaments (Winter Nationals, National Clay Courts, and National Hard Courts), taking away the opportunity for many junior players to have the experience of playing at these events, why not have 2 equal-sized draws of 128 each where the players ranked 1-128 play in one draw and the players ranked 129-256 play in the other?  There would be a modified feed-in consolation for each draw, so players would either be guaranteed 2 or 3 matches (that detail can be worked out later).  The two separate draws could have a staggered start-date so that court availability wouldn’t be an issue, and play would continue on a daily basis so no player would have a day off, needlessly spending money on a hotel and meals and rental car.

What made Ross come up with such a format?  He says, “I was looking at how many matches are uncompetitive at our national events.  I looked at Hard Courts and Clay Courts in the 18’s for boys and girls this summer, and over 20% of all main draws matches are not competitive.  I would define that as one of the players not getting even 3 games in either set.  6-2, 6-2 is not competitive.”

From the tournament directors’ perspective, this approach is a win-win.  More players means more income from entry fees.  More players also means more revenue for the host community in terms of hotel rooms, restaurants, rental cars, shopping, etc. which makes the event an easier “sell” to potential sponsors.

From the college coaches’ perspective, it’s a win-win.  The coaches from the top D1 schools could focus their time watching Players 1-128, those most likely to be candidates for their programs.  The coaches from the 2nd tier D1 and the D2 and D3 schools could focus their time watching Players 129-256, those most likely to be candidates for their programs.  This format would attract more coaches from a variety of schools, which would give the players and their families a chance to speak to those coaches face-to-face and learn more about the individual programs.

I asked University of Georgia’s Men’s Head Coach, Manny Diaz, what he thought of the proposal.  He says, “I like the idea. In the context of keeping more kids involved in the highest levels of our sport, I would also think having a 64 qualifying draw with 8 qualifiers into a 128 draw would be a good consideration.”  Not a bad addition to the plan, Coach!

From the players’ perspective, it’s a win-win.  More kids get to play in the most prestigious American junior tennis tournaments.  They have the opportunity to play more competitive matches from the get-go since the draws will be separated by ranking, which should avoid that dreaded 0&0 “triple crown” effect that Lew Brewer alluded to when I spoke to him about the smaller draw sizes.  More players have the opportunity for face-to-face meetings with coaches who will be interested in, and have the possibility of, recruiting them.  For those players in the 129-256 draw who aspire to play at a higher-level D1 school, getting their ranking into that top 128 so those coaches will watch them play gives them a concrete goal to work toward for the next year.  For those who say it’s too expensive to travel to these national events, this proposed format would reduce the amount of time you would have to stay at the event by ensuring play (barring weather delays) on consecutive days.  Of course, whether or not a family chooses to travel for a child’s tennis is completely their own decision, but if the child’s goal is to compete on the national level and eventually play college tennis, why not provide a scenario that gives them the best chance of getting into the tournament and playing some good competitive matches while there, not to mention the best chance of being seen by the appropriate college coaches?

And, unlike the “waterfall draws” of our current Southern Level 3 tournaments, under this proposed format the top kids would get the chance to compete against one another, driving each other to get better.  Ross told me the story of a player he worked with a few years ago.  He asked me, “Do you remember when Federer was #1, Nadal was #2, and Djokovic was #3?  Do you know how many times Djokovic played Federer and Nadal that year?  Thirteen times!”  Ross talked about how much Djokovic improved that year, how playing the top two guys drove him to work harder to figure out how to beat them.  He then went on to tell me about his player, ranked #3 in the country, a very strong recruit.  “Do you know how many times my player got to play the #1 and #2 players during his junior year?  Zero!”  That is one of the often-overlooked flaws in our current tournament system.  We need rivalries at the top.  That’s what fuels hard work, ambition, and a hunger to get better.  And it’s one of the reasons we see many college players at the top programs develop to the next level – that daily competition against their peers.

To summarize . . .
Benefits:
  • Better match play for all participants
  • Better for athletes and parents in the recruiting process
  • Better for college coaches in the recruiting process
  • Better for the host city and the tournament director
  • Gives more kids a chance to play the big national events
  • Gives kids concrete goals to shoot for
Negatives:
  • I just don’t see any.  Do you?  If so, please share in the Comments below.