Forever Friends

My dad is the one 4th from the left. His opponent/friend from yesterday is on the far left.

This week, I’m visiting my parents in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I grew up.  Yesterday, I had the chance to go watch my 74-year-old dad play tennis against his long-time friend and rival in what has become a once- or twice-weekly ritual.  These two guys have been competitors since childhood.  They have also been friends since childhood.  They played against each other in the juniors and with each other in college.  Yes, the level of tennis has changed over the years.  Neither one moves too well these days.  Neither one has the piercing groundstrokes that once defined their games.  And neither one has lost the desire to win when facing the other across the net.

On the court next to my dad and his friend/opponent was an 18-year-old high school senior who is preparing to play Division 3 tennis for Sewanee University in the fall.  We struck up a conversation.  I asked him if he knew one of the seniors on my son’s high school team, Danny.  He did. Not only did he know Danny, though, but he told me they have been friends since the 10-and-unders and have been competing against each other ever since.  He went on to tell me about their most recent match, in detail, describing how the 3-hour-and-45-minute match in the extreme summer heat and humidity had taken his last reserves so that, even though he won, he went on to lose handily in the next round of the tourney.  He also told me what a great guy Danny is and how excited he is that Danny’s getting to play D1 tennis next year.  He is truly happy for – and proud of – his friend.

This is what junior tennis can do – it can create life-long friendships that originate on the courts but extend way beyond them.  My dad has recently re-connected with several of the other guys who played with him at Tulane.  They rehash old matches, tell their “war stories”, and reminisce about their glory days.  The friendships that started on some green clay courts 60+ years ago have survived graduate school, marriage, children, divorce, illness, and tragedy.  I hope my son has these same stories of friendship to share with his kids and grandkids some day.

Are Junior Rankings Truly An Indicator of Future Success?

Rafael Nadal

I read a very interesting post this morning on ZooTennis.com showing the top 10 men and women currently playing on the pro tour with their highest junior ITF rankings.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

Now it would be interesting to see a study on how many Top 10 ATP/WTA players over the past 15 years were never top 10 in the juniors. I’ve done a tiny bit of that research on the current ATP/WTA Top 10s and here’s the numbers, with the player’s highest ITF singles ranking in parentheses.

1. Novak Djokovic (24)
2. Rafael Nadal (145)
3. Roger Federer (1)
4. Andy Murray (2)
5. David Ferrer (-)
6. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2)
7. Tomas Berdych (6)
8. Mardy Fish (14)
9. Janko Tipsarevic (1)
10. John Isner (93)

1. Victoria Azarenka (1)
2. Maria Sharapova (6)
3. Petra Kvitova (27)
4. Agnieszka Radwanska (1)
5. Samantha Stosur (27)
6. Caroline Wozniacki (2)
7. Marion Bartoli (2)
8. Na Li (20)
9. Vera Zvonareva (3)
10. Andrea Petkovic (36)

The one that jumped out at me was Rafa’s 145 ranking.  145???  Really???  Is anyone else shocked by that number?

To me, it simply reinforces the idea that players develop at their own pace.  That how a player performs at age 10 or 12 or even 16 may not be a true indicator of their eventual up-side potential.  That continuing to work hard, staying passionate and purposeful during practices, may pay off in the long run.  That writing off a player at a young age because he or she isn’t tall enough or strong enough or fast enough or disciplined enough could be a huge mistake.  That, in terms of junior player development, each kid goes at his or her own speed.  That the kid who is #145 in the juniors may wind up being #1 as a professional.

It reinforces my belief in my own son’s ability to continue growing as a player and realizing his tennis dreams.  Each new day brings new opportunities to improve.  Each drill session, each fitness session, each practice set, each high school match, each tournament bring new opportunities to get better and better.  Who knows what the end result will be?  All I know is that, as long as my kid keeps working hard and maintains his passion for tennis, I will be there cheering him on to victory.

When Hard Work Leads to Lucky Breaks

My son to his high school tennis coach (after not being in the lineup for 3 consecutive matches):  “Coach, when you put me in the lineup last week, did I do what you asked and expected of me?”  Coach’s response:  “Yep.”  Son’s next question:  “What do I need to do for you to put me in the lineup again?”

That conversation happened about 2 1/2 weeks ago.  Since then, my son has been in the lineup for each subsequent match.  What changed?  The same 13 boys are still on the team.  They all show up for practices and matches.  So, why has my son had the opportunity to play these last few matches?

When my son met with his coach, the coach thanked him for taking the time to talk then told him what to do to get back into the starting lineup.  My son no longer needed to worry about why he wasn’t playing – he knew the answer, and he knew the fix.  He needed to continue to work hard at practice.  But, beyond that, he needed to show the coach that he could WIN MATCHES in practice, even if that meant beating boys who are a year or two or three older than him.

My son played Line 3 singles for the next two matches.  (For those new to high school tennis, the team plays 3 lines of singles and 2 lines of doubles against each opposing team.  Whichever team wins 3 total lines out of the 5, wins the match.)  He won both matches pretty handily, even when he had to play against Seniors.

He could’ve let those wins go to his head, but he didn’t.  He kept working hard in practice, showing his coach that he was committed to the team and committed to winning.  Then, in yesterday’s match against a local rival school, he got the opportunity to move up in the lineup and play Line 2 singles.  As luck would have it, his opponent was another freshman boy who my son had been playing in tournaments since the 10-and-unders and whom he had never beaten.  I was a nervous wreck!  I walked over to the coach during the warm-up and let him know about the boys’ playing history.  I figured that knowledge might come in handy if/when the coach needed to do a little on-court therapy during the match! (Again, for those of you new to high school tennis, coaching – and cheering – is allowed.)

The match started off pretty evenly with both boys holding serve.  But, the 5th game of the match – with the opponent serving – turned into a marathon.  Deuce, ad in.  Deuce, ad out.  Deuce, ad out.  Deuce, ad in.  That went on for more than 30 minutes until, finally, my son won the deuce point AND the ad point to take the game and go up 3-2.  But, as so often happens in this type of match, the opponent broke my son’s serve quickly in the next game to tie it back up at 3 a piece, a huge disappointment for my son and his team-mates!  That’s when the coach worked his magic, talking my son off the ledge, helping him calm back down and focus on the task at hand.

It worked.  My son went on a rampage, winning the next 8 games.  He was blasting serves, moving his opponent up and down and side to side, and hitting winners off both the forehand and backhand to go up 6-3, 5-0.  The end was in sight.

His opponent was serving.  My son had a match point.  He lost it and lost that game.  Then, my son was serving.  He had another match point.  He lost it and lost that game.  It was now 5-2 with the opponent set to serve again.  My son had 2 more match points but, again, lost them and lost the game.  5-3.  Time for the coach to do another side-line visit.  Time for my son to find something inside himself in order to close out this match and show his coach that he deserved the opportunity that he had been given.

My son dug deep.  He bombed a serve that his opponent just couldn’t return.  15-love.  He bombed another serve that came back but just barely.  My son hit a winner.  30-love.  He double-faulted.  30-15.  The boys had a long rally that ended with my son netting a forehand.  30-all.  Big first serve by my son – unreturnable.  40-30 and match point.  First serve in the net.  Second serve with a big kick that earned a weak return.  Forehand winner up the line.  Game, set, and match!

My son’s team wound up winning all 5 lines, finishing the season undefeated (though they do still have one more out-of-division match to play next week).  After the matches were complete, I was talking to one of the dads on my son’s team who knew both my son and his opponent pretty well.  He confirmed what I had seen.  He told me that my son’s tennis had moved well beyond his opponent, that all the hard work was really showing out there.  How lucky!

If the Pros Do It . . .

A while back, I wrote an article about watching the pros play in order to improve your tennis game.  Well, what about watching them in order to improve your tennis parenting skills?

As y’all know, I was lucky enough to get to go to the BNP Paribas Open last weekend in Indian Wells and see some amazing tennis.  In two of the matches – Isner (Go Dawg!) vs. Djokovic and Nadal vs. Federer – the higher-ranked player lost.  And, in my non-professional opinion, they lost not only because their opponent played a better match but also because they just weren’t 100% on their game that day.  They were missing shots that they would normally make in their sleep.  They were a half-step slow in their movement around the court.  They seemed a bit out of focus and not really up to the task of problem-solving in the moment.  And they looked frustrated which, especially from Nadal, you rarely see.

So, if these guys – who have been playing this game for probably close to 2/3 of their lives – have off days, why should we expect any different from our junior players?

I saw Djokovic griping to himself and to his player box numerous times throughout his semi-final match against John Isner.  He would throw his hands up as if to say, “Now what?” after another Isner ace.  He would walk back to the baseline with his head down and shoulders slumped after he made another unforced error.  He would look over at his coach with an aggravated look on his face after another failed attempt at a passing shot.

I saw Nadal muttering – in Spanish, of course – at the baseline after failing to keep his forehand deep enough in the court to prevent another Fed winner.  I saw him hit a ball at the back wall in frustration after missing an overhead.  I saw him drop his head, projecting NOT the invincible warrior we’re used to seeing but rather a defeated underdog.

Negative self-talk.  Negative body language.  Griping at the coach.  All behaviors I see from time to time with my son and all behaviors that I cannot stand!  Only now, after seeing some of my favorite professionals do the same things, I’m hoping I can keep them in perspective and remember that if the pros do it, too, then maybe I need to cut my kid (emphasis on kid) a little slack.

If you would like to see my photos from Indian Wells, visit the ParentingAces Facebook page.

Wayne Bryan vs. USTA

For those of you trying to follow the extensive back-and-forth between Wayne Bryan, father of doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan, and Patrick McEnroe, Head of Player Development for the USTA, I have included links below to all of the communications I have seen to date.  If you know of additional letters and/or emails and/or articles, please post a link to them in the Comments box below.

I would like to point out that there have been some extremely well-though-out comments made to many of the original posts, so please do take the time to read through them as well.

If you are the parent or coach of an American junior tennis player, I think it is imperative that you educate yourself on what’s happening with our governing body and the criticisms which are now being launched against it.  Agree or disagree – that’s up to you.  But, please take the time to get informed!

Original email from Wayne Bryan to a USTA Exec

Tim Mayotte’s reply

Colette Lewis’ response

Wayne Bryan’s reply to Colette Lewis

Patrick McEnroe’s response

Wayne Bryan’s reply to Patrick McEnroe

Brian Parrott’s comments on the matter

Wayne Bryan’s letter to his sons

Exchange between Wayne Bryan & an unnamed high-performance coach

A Sickening Lesson

My son and I both learned a very valuable lesson this week.  Unfortunately, it involved a nasty case of food poisoning (we think), but, hey, sometimes you have to suffer in order to grow, right?

Wednesday was the first scheduled match of my son’s high school tennis season.  He didn’t know if he would get to be in the lineup as a first-year Freshman, but he was so excited at the prospect of playing for his school.  He was coming off a great tournament win the weekend before and was working hard to be ready to compete.

The Tuesday before was Valentine’s Day.  Since my hubby was out of town, I figured I’d fix a dinner for my son and myself that wasn’t one of hubby’s favs – Shepherd’s Pie.  We had a nice dinner followed by home-made chocolate chip cookies and went about our evening.

A few hours later, my son and I both woke up deathly ill.  Either we both came down with the same nasty stomach flu or something wasn’t quite right with the shepherd’s pie.  Needless to say, there was no way my son was going to school the next day OR playing his match.  He was so disappointed, and so was I.

The next day (Thursday), after recovering to about 75%, he went back to school and to after-school drills.  He talked to his coach about how bummed he was to miss the school match.  And, that’s when he learned another invaluable lesson from his amazing coach:  Treat high school matches the same way you treat a tournament!  Go through your same rituals, eat your same pre-match meals, do what you need to do to get your mind and your body ready to compete.

If he or I had thought of that on Tuesday, all this awful stomach junk could’ve been avoided because I would’ve cooked pasta for dinner like I always do the night before a tournament, even though it was Valentine’s Day.  Okay, lesson learned.

Pardon My Gushing, But . . .

When I first decided to write this blog, I made a promise to myself that I would steer clear of self-congratulatory pieces praising my kids (and myself) for their accomplishments.  However, today I’m giving myself a “pass,” so please bear with me!

The path to success is usually pretty twisty and hilly – there are good days and not-so-good days, days where you’re on top of the world and feel indestructible and days where nothing goes your way.  When your kid is on that path, and you’re just the observer and facilitator, it’s a tough place to be.  You have to watch as your child struggles with failure, struggles with losses, struggles with injuries, struggles with self-doubt – all the while, continuing to love them and encourage them toward their goals.

This past weekend, I got to witness just the opposite.  My son played in an 18s tournament, a local one, playing up for the first time (he’s still just 15).  The weather, after having been very mild all season, decided to take a turn toward full-on winter, with temps in the low 30s (20s with the wind chill factor) and high winds with a few snow flurries tossed in for good measure.  When I tell you that these conditions have never worked in my son’s favor, I’m being very understated.  He has always HATED playing in the cold and wind and, in the past, made every excuse under the sun for why he could never win in those circumstances.  I was bracing myself for more of the same, especially since there was absolutely no pressure on him as an unseeded 15 year old in the 18s draw.

His first match was at 8am on Saturday – a brutal time in the best of weather, but in the freezing cold it’s just tortuous!  Hubby and I bundled up in our warmest ski gear and stood courtside as our son quickly won 6-0, 6-0, beating another unseeded player.  The wind was whipping and the snow flurries were blowing, but somehow my son found a way to a quick win, making 100% of his 2nd serves even in those rough conditions.

His 2nd match was at 2pm that same day.  The weather took a turn for the worse (as if that were even possible!), with the winds howling.  My son had to play the #2 seed, but quickly put him (and hubby – I was playing my own match that afternoon INDOORS) out of his misery, winning 6-1, 6-1 with just one double-fault.  Somehow, he figured out a way to play quick and effective tennis so the wind and weather were taken out of the equation.  Though I wasn’t there to witness it myself, hubby gave me a full report, saying how amazed he was that our son was able to pull out the win so fast.  My son told me the tennis wasn’t pretty but it was effective!

The Final was scheduled for the next day at noon.  My son had to play the #1 seed, a kid he had never played but who had some very good wins on his record.  It wasn’t quite as windy on Finals Sunday, but it was even colder than the previous day.  Hubby and I bundled up again and braced ourselves to watch a tough match.

The players didn’t disappoint!  They each held serve for the first 6 games of the first set, but then the other boy broke to go ahead 4-3.  My son was showing some frustration, but he found a way to break back though he wound up losing that set 7-5.  In the second set, my son pulled ahead quickly with 2 breaks of serve, going up 4-1 and serving to take a 5-1 lead.  But, his opponent found his way back into the set, breaking my son’s serve then holding then breaking my son again to tie it up at 4-4.

If this match had happened 6 months ago, I would’ve said it was over at this point.  My son would’ve checked out mentally, making all kinds of excuses for why he couldn’t win.  But, he didn’t.  He stayed tough, competing even better as the match progressed.  Both boys continued to hold from that point forward, eventually reaching 6-6 and a tiebreaker.  His opponent went up 3-0 in the breaker, and hubby and I were feeling pretty stressed out watching our son struggle.  But then he found another gear, mentally, and climbed out of the hole, winning the set 7-4 in the tiebreak.  That was a huge momentum shift.

Because of the extreme weather, the boys were told to play a 10-point Super Tiebreaker instead of a full 3rd set.  My son’s tiebreak record over the past 6 months is pretty solid – he’s only lost one 7-point breaker during that time and has won 100% of the 10-point breakers he’s played – so I’m guessing he was feeling pretty confident down there.  His opponent was looking a little shaky, stretching his quads and calves after each point, taking the pace off his serve and, basically, just pushing it in to get the point started.  At one point, maybe due to the wind, the opponent hit an underhand serve a la Michael Chang, and my son unleashed an inside-out forehand return winner which put an end to that tactic!

The boys kept trading mini-breaks then holding serve, keeping the score in the tiebreaker very close.  At 10-all, hubby and I realized this match could go either way.  Both guys were playing very solid tennis, working each point, making very few errors.  Over the next few points, each of them had a chance to close out the match, but then other would come up with a winning shot to tie things back up.  My husband, who is usually a pretty cool character, was jumping around like a jackrabbit, muttering “c’mon” under his breath, trying to keep our son motivated to fight.  Finally, at 14-14, my son pulled ahead and had the chance to serve for the match.  He hit a huge body serve to his opponent who was unable to handle it, netting the return.  My son had won 5-7, 7-6, 16-14.  His first 18s tournament and his first 18s tournament championship – wow!

I know it sounds cliche’d, but it really was a shame that one of the boys had to lose that match.  They both played high-level tennis for almost 3 hours in very tough weather.  They both continued to compete, staying mentally strong and going after every ball.  They both wanted to win and were willing to stay out there all day to do it.  In the end, it came down to a big serve and an even bigger heart.  I couldn’t be prouder!