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 . . .