Numbers Don’t Lie with Craig O’Shannessy of Brain Game Tennis

Craig O'ShannessyThis week’s podcast:

Coach Craig O’Shannessy knew there had to be more to developing players and analyzing matches than simply relying on the opinion of others. He looked to other sports like baseball, basketball, and soccer and found that those sports relied on a unified method of collecting data, analyzing it, then using it to improve performance. The eyes, afterall, don’t always tell the whole story!

In early 2010, Craig started Brain Game Tennis (click http://www.braingametennis.com to go to his website) so he could share his data with others in the tennis world. As Craig writes on his site, “Tennis looks like a game of pinball, with the ball careening here, there, and everywhere. But it’s not. It’s actually the exact opposite. Tennis is a game of repeatable patterns in four specific areas – serving, returning, rallying and approaching. Study the patterns, learn the winning percentages, and make the game simple. That’s what Brain Game Tennis stands for. No more guessing. No more opinions. Just the facts please…”

And now Craig has introduced Gameplan, his newest product for use in junior development, college tennis, and beyond. Listen to this week’s podcast for more information on Gameplan and how you can purchase it. Then go to this link (https://www.braingametennis.com/stop-guessing-start-knowing/) to read more.

NOTE: If you purchase Gameplan – or any of Craig’s other Brain Game Tennis products – during the two weeks of the 2017 US Open, you will receive a 20% discount.

To contact Craig directly, go to his homepage here (http://www.braingametennis.com) then scroll to the bottom for the Contact Craig O’Shannessy link.

If you are interested in becoming a sponsor of the ParentingAces Podcast, please contact us. You can email me at lisa@parentingaces.com.

Check out our latest podcast!

Advice to Parents of Young Players

advice

Here is another article written by Andy Brandi for the USTA Player Development website and reprinted here with his permission. Coach Brandi served as a partner of the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute since 2007 before joining the USTA staff in August 2010. From 2001-06, Brandi was Director of Tennis for IMG at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, and from 1984-2001, he was the head coach of the University of Florida women’s team. During his career, Brandi has worked with top professionals, including Elena Dementieva, Shahar Peer, Maria Kirilenko, Lisa Raymond, Ryan Sweeting and Jesse Levine. While at the University of Florida, he led the Gators to three NCAA Division I Team titles, coached four NCAA women’s singles champions and four NCAA doubles champions. Brandi will be returning to college tennis as the Head Coach of the LSU men’s team this Fall.

Consistency in coaching is essential. Avoiding going from one coach to another keeps the process and development going. There has to be trust amongst the team – player, coach and parent all have to be on the same page. Changing coaches is like restarting the process. Coaches have different styles, systems and philosophies. Your job is to find one that best fits your child.

Try any program for about a week before you commit to that program. Do research! Be sure there is a plan when you start. A developmental plan, two areas of focus and a tournament schedule is essential in the planning. The two areas of focus are to be evaluated every two months and then replaced if they have been achieved.

Be supportive and patient with the coach. If you have issues with him or her, discuss them without the child present. Understand where the coach is coming from and why he is doing things a certain way. Give the coach a chance.

Parents who are the coaches need to be patient and should not get so consumed that the child only lives, sleeps and eats tennis. Seek help in areas where you might feel you are weak in your knowledge or expertise. I coached my son until he was 15. At 15, I wanted to be his father and not his coach. My role was to give him advice and support when he was training under a new coach. His job was to learn to make decisions and be responsible and accountable for his tennis. Good tennis players are independent thinkers. He now asks, “Why did you not make me do this or that?” My answer is, “I gave you choices; you made the decisions.”

Tennis has to be left at the club or courts, not brought home every day. At home, let them have a normal life. They need friends. They need to develop their social skills. They need to build good character. They need to be good students in school. Provide a balance of tennis, a social life and academics. Remember, 99 percent of all players go to COLLEGE!!!! In the process, be sure you do not try to skip steps or cut corners. There are no shortcuts!!!! It takes time! It takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication by you and them. Set goals and keep the training fresh to keep them engaged and to prevent burnout.

A few things to keep in mind:

Kids do not always need to practice with someone better. They do not always need to play up in age groups. The ratio of practice should be 25-50-25, meaning 25 percent with weaker players, 50 percent with players of their own ability and 25 percent with players better than them. Does Roger Federer practice with someone better than him all the time? No! He practices with young pros, juniors or college players!!!!!! And 50 percent of the time, they need to experience the pressure of playing with and against their own peers.

When choosing to play up, they need to have a 65 percent winning record or better in their age group to justify it. Keeping track of match counts is very important. We do not want them playing 130 matches a year at 12, 13 or 14! It is not the number of tournaments but the match count that matters! Burnout and injuries will occur if you overplay them.

One area that we tend to neglect in their training is off-season breaks. Pros take 4-6 weeks at the end of each year to set a fitness base and improve on specific areas. They will follow up with a couple of weeks off before the clay season and a couple of weeks off after Wimbledon. They build in regeneration, fitness, cleaning their games out to be sharp, fit and healthy. In the junior schedule, we could build this in after Winter Nationals, after Easter Bowl and finally after Hard Courts.

The pros in the off season at the end of the year do not touch their racquets for a couple of weeks. They focus on physical fitness and mental conditioning. Then comes the tennis. Our ‘99s recently did a six-week-off season where they did not play tennis for two weeks. Jez Green, who was Andy Murray’s fitness coach, supervised the six weeks. His comment was that our juniors are 16-18 months behind in fitness than the Europeans. Why? Because we do not do this! We have to play, play, play! We are very short-minded and short-sighted!

Give them responsibility and accountability in their game and preparation. Let them get their tennis bag organized. Let them get their own water, bars and snacks. Let them carry their own tennis bag! We want to facilitate, not incapacitate. Remember, they have to be able to be independent thinkers. They have to be able to take care of themselves out there. They have to learn to survive in the heat of battle. They have to learn to compete and love it. Doing minor tasks builds their confidence and self-esteem.

Lastly, be supportive. We tend to forget that they are the ones competing. We forget what it is like to compete. It is the team that gets them prepared, and they are the ones who are playing and competing. We are not playing! We are part of their support group.

When they play, we tend to get too emotionally involved. Stay calm and control your emotions. I got too nervous watching my son. My wife was the one who went to tournaments with him. As I used to tell my wife, figure it out. I can sit through a Grand Slam final and not get nervous but cannot stay calm watching him! They will react to you and how you react! They will feel your emotions and nervousness. Stay level-headed and even keel! Show them support, winning or losing.

It is easy to criticize from outside. Things are crystal clear when you are outside the ropes. Being in the heat of battle clouds your reasoning and how you perceive things. After matches, give them time to settle down, and yourself, too, before you start discussing the match. Ask questions. Point out things that they did well and things that they need to work on in future matches. Do not be just negative! Give them positive feedback! Let them give you their perspective of what happened out there. They have to be aware of what happened and how they can control that the next time. Win or lose, love them for who they are – your child!

Like building a house, we need a good foundation. You build the outside of the house, followed by the inside. It takes time to build a house. It takes a long time to develop a tennis player. Good luck with the journey!

Data Tells the Story

The following article was written by Javier Palenque and is reprinted here, unedited, with his permission.

In the past thirty years American tennis has seen a 73% decline in the amount of top 100 players in the ATP tour. This alarming number basically tells us that we lose every decade 25% of our players in the higher echelon of worlds’ tennis. What then will happen in the next ten years with the new massive investment by the USTA in Lake Nona and the new crop of American stars who seem to be on the rise? Will this change the clear trend line that the sport is basically slowly dying for America at the professional level? When you talk to the people at the USTA, they will tell you that things could not be better and that the new crop of players will reverse the disappearing number of Americans. Of the current top 100 stars, we will lose the older players and replace them with the younger players. Essentially this will mean that over a 40 year period we managed to keep our declining rate at 73%.

In my opinion here is how the top 100 will look like for the next decade.

We will lose the players in Yellow and replace them with the players in green. These new kids are truly remarkable as breaking the top 200 at such a young age, truly means that they are very, very talented. However the number of players in the top 100 still remains low, for the largest and richest country on earth. This makes me want to learn further more about the way these new group of young stars came up through the system here in the US?

So, I wanted to see if there is some sort of pattern to figure out of a career path that these guys have taken, so we can try to replicate it and have instead of 8 new stars 80.

The first thing that comes to mind as I read these names is how close to tennis (having a tennisfamily or coaches as parents, or ex. playersis so significant) Escobedo, Fritz, Koslov, Tiafoe, Mmoh, Rubin (father had tennis knowledge). This in essence means that of the eight future American stars 75% have a solid tennis family tradition. The reason this number is important is because then it stands to reason that if you as a current 18U player do not have this tradition, if you thought the odds of becoming a pro were low, I can tell you with a 75% chance of being right that in three out of four kids if your parents don’t have years of knowledge of the sport the chance for you to make it as a pro is even worse than you think. What about the other 25% the other two players? Reilly Opelka has the physical advantage of size (like Isner) and the last kid Jared Donaldson, took 2 years of training on clay in Argentina, a surface that here in America we don’t play in. Ok, got it so what does that mean to me as a parent? Why should I invest in this sport? The hours, the trips, the never ending tournaments, the rankings, the way the tournaments are governed and award points, the way the sport is targeted for who can afford it and not who is most likely to be a pro. While on the surface this looks like a great reversal of fortune of American tennis. In essence I think it reveals the exact opposite, I know, I will get a lot of mail, telling me how incorrect I am. But, follow me, I may be able to present my case to you. Who knows you may end up agreeing with me.

The data reveals three important things that are at the core of tennis in America that remain flawed and only enable the further destruction of American tennis supported by system in place and the governing body structure.

1) Tennis is simply not reaching the very people who will make it grow.

2) Coaches and academies in general must not be that good if for 75% of the future top players the coaches are the parents coaches of the stars who have years of knowledge of the sport by being regular coaches. The other 12.5% Opelka is a big guy who was coached very well, but his size is his differentiator (though he was lucky to train with a well-known coach) and Donaldson the other 12.5% trained for two years on clay. In summary, if you have a coach-parent you are most likely to be in the highway to become a pro, if you are not (which means 99.99 of the population, you are out of luck). Then your only option is to have good coaches around where you live, but who can tell if they are good or not if you don’t know tennis?

3) The tournament and competition structure does not bring up tennis stars. Let me show you my arguments for these three key issues:

TENNIS IS NOT REACHING THE MASS OF PEOPLE WHO CAN GROW THE GAME

There are roughly 9.9 Million (*) core tennis participants (that play more than 10 times a year in the US that is only 3.1% of the 318.9 million population. This number is extremely low if you consider that of 75% of our next stars come from people who played, coach or had been for a lifetime in tennis in this small group. Please realize that maybe there are 100,000 tennis coaches in the US (this number is very high only for calculation purposes). This number represents 1% of the tennis population. This effectively means that about 99.9% of the population remain separated from tennis and with no way of connecting, much less to aspire to be a professional athlete? As the pool of players is so small, the vast majority of possible tennis people is simply not reached. What is the USTA’s plan to reach 99.9% of the population if week in and week out, it plays under a competition system and ranking system that feeds the impossible numbers?

Within the US population there are ethnic groups that are growing at a faster rate than the rest; Hispanic and Asians. Yet these ethnic groups are not known for being physically big and the same USTA states that the future of tennis is for the bigger sized players given the new equipment and speed of courts. What to do?

Another aspect is the cost of playing as a junior. We all know that tennis is an elite sport, given its costs and years of training it requires. So, from a financial point of view tennis is not only played by only 3.1% of the population, it is so expensive that it excludes the masses of people who cannot afford it. Yet, the number of the future pros and their own financial backgrounds tell us that it not need be so expensive as for 6 of the 8 new players for the next decade come from modest background and modest income. Being a coach is not a high income profession.

A big part of being a pro prospect is about the proximity to good tennis knowledge, and passion for tennis.

What is the USTA doing to address this? What is the governing body doing to supply the market with exactly that: the proper tennis knowledge? This void and market reality clearly reveals that who tennis currently attracts and gets to travel and compete every week are the same very people that have the lowest chance of being a pro, even though they may be highly ranked, or under the current system attended a high number of tournaments and therefore acquired the rankings with cash. This makes no sense, yet the sense that the USTA conveys is as if these kids were under a pro path and nothing can back that up in the last twenty years. Nothing.

Finally, if we know that there is a direct correlation for 75% of the new stars of having a tennis coach and family, the key group to target then are adults ages 25 -40 who are the vehicle for growth of tennis in America. This means these are the parents to be that need the fun and excitement to enroll their kids in tennis. What is the USTA doing about them? Nothing.

THE KNOWLEDGE LEVEL OF THE AVERAGE COACH IN THE US IS UNABLE TO PRODUCE PRO- PROSPECTS

If you then consider that of the next stars: Fritz, Escobedo, Koslov, (all parent coaches), Mmoh (dad a pro), Tiafoe (he lived at the facility in Maryland- 24 hr. tennis exposure) and Rubin (McEnroe Academy and dad high school player). Where does that leave the vast amount of kids that are left along the way who with the best intentions and support but who are never with the proper professionals. Here the weakness of tennis in America is the poor level of coaching and the lack of a standard basic USTA driven certification system to validate coaches and facilities. For the 99.9% of parents who want the services, yet do not have the knowledge of who they are hiring. So, in a marketplace where it is driven by no standards, we have the suppliers of the service with no real knowledge of what is a world class forehand is and the country’s governing body certifies no facilities or coaches, So, ignorant parents (the core of the future for tennis ) waste time, money and dreams. The result, nothing is achieved. Nothing is tied together, the coaching, the kids, the USTA, the parents, each work on their own and everyone loses. Why would anyone in a leadership position at the USTA allow this? This weakness revealed and the initiatives the USTA takes show how it does not understand what are the root problems of tennis in America are and how it has no plan to address the problem. I live in Miami, sun 90% of the time, warm weather 95% of the time. Yet the providers of tennis services is extremely weak. Imagine how it is in other parts of the country where there is not a tennis court in every neighborhood or park or condo, or where the weather does not cooperate?. Unless something is done to address this, the next decade will produce the same poor results we have been for the last two decades even with all the investments, and hoopla. This is a tragedy and mismanagement of tennis.

TOURNAMENT STRUCTURE DOES NOT ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION

The current structure and system of competition makes the pool of participants smaller and smaller as the kids get older. All one has to do is see the pool of players from ages 8-12, 12-16, and 16+. Tennis needs to have a complete change of shape.

Do any of you reading this disagree with the suggestion?

The way to do this is to grow the game, to create competitive environments and competitions that are “out of the box”. Not the century old tournament structure and point allocation that is giving us results that are low under any parameter and only shrink the pool of players:

Suggestions:

  •  One day Tournaments Round Robin by level
  • USTA camps for the masses in each age group, not the top players. Good education.
  • Training for local coaches who may have great prospects but not a competitive program
  • Some form of match play for all
  • Promote competitive team tennis locally
  • Allow tournaments where coaching is allowed
  • Create a structure to increase the appeal of tennis as opposed to the current structure that only encourages individual participation. (remember this individual participation is boring, has produced the best results 30 years ago, it is dead, yet the structure and results we get continue to be the same)
  • Other ideas and input from players and parents
  • Pricing structure revisit, ex, two tournaments a month cost $100 for 4 matches. In other words to play a match in the US we need to pay $25.00. This is absurd. We need thousands of match play hours that need to be FREE, In South America and Europe kids play match play every day at no cost. Here in the richest country on earth that produces the least amount of tennis players and pays the most amount of money we have the fewest hours of match play? How does this make sense?
  • Working together is the key, we don’t as a common group work together as parents, kids and coaches.
It is the failure of vision and leadership at the USTA that creates this void and poor results.

Conclusions:

The next decade of men’s pro tennis has clear data as to where the kids will come from. They will come from tennis parents and coaches with kids. So, if you are a parent whose kids love tennis and you know little about it, you are out of luck. Why do we make this so hard, so exclusive of the very people who will grow the game and so expensive that it allows the people with hunger and attitude to be excluded and the people with resources and not attitude to endure the journey and both with poor results.

Why are we continually doing this? Who can answer that?

We need critical analytical thinking of business people for the benefit of tennis in America. The way it is, it is announcing its death. The worst part is that it will be our fault. We will have watched it die and changed nothing. We need fresh thinking from outside the walls of what now is the USTA. Count me in for help.

I wish the USTA leadership would open its mind and hear other perspectives because from where I stand I only see what will never happen, change. Expecting different results from doing the same things is the definition of insanity. Can anyone tell me why we put up with this?

I can be reached at @palenquej or jpalenque@yahoo.com

4 Ways Tennis Tech is Changing the Way We Hit the Courts

Today’s guest post is by Alexander Johansson and was originally published on Pulse Play’s website. It is reprinted here with permission. Be sure to listen to our latest podcast with Harsh Mankad as well for more information on how technology can aid in junior development. 

Just a decade ago, the Hawk-Eye calling system was made for the pros and video analysis software was complicated and cost over $3000. Tennis tech was simply not for the common coach or player. But in the last few years that’s been rapidly changing. Here I’ll preview 5 different ways tennis tech is finally starting to hit the courts.

1. Smart courts

Tennis tech Mojjo

Mojjo

Smart Court systems include a kiosk and 1-6 cameras installed on a court. Once installed, the system will automate scoring, line calling, video analysis and real-time target hitting accuracy. The limitations of the systems are affordability and accessibility but the products and potential uses remain nonetheless extremely exciting. Today, Smart Court systems like Playsight and Mojjo are getting installed at a fairly high rate where funds exist.

2. Player management apps

Companies like Lifetime FitnessSportlyzer, and Coachanize are creating comprehensive client management, coaching, and communications platforms for their members and innovation in the field will probably speed up as corporations recognize the opportunity and start building their own tools. It’s very likely these systems will be large and include many features for the end user. One just hopes that these companies will truly develop with the end user’s perspective in mind and deliver products with great user experiences.

3. Data collecting hardware

Tennis tech Qlipp

Qlipp

Sensors like Shot Stats, Qlipp,  Sony SensorZepp, and the Babolat Pure Drive are the very first step in collecting data on court: all focus on gathering information on technique and are attached to or built into the racket itself. Today, their accuracy is questionable but they’ll likely improve quickly. These products are already inspiring more companies to get into this space in new ways as well. A list of ITF approved on court data collection hardware was compiled by the International Tennis Federation.

4. Remote Match Video Analysis

Match video analysis is no longer restricted to tournaments and can be done by anybody online from services like Tennis Analytics or Game Smart Tennis. All will take your 1.5 hour match, distill it down to 20-30 minutes, and add stats, visuals, and a highlight reel of key moments to send to the player and coach.

The future of these services is very interesting because they save coaches and players time and bring tremendous value. I can see specialized services like remote analysis from top coaches emerging in the future. The key will be how to present the data to athletes to maximize the value of the analysis.

What held tennis tech back for so long?

The answer is simple: coaches had no incentive.  Learning to use new technologies would take away from paid hours on the court and the return on investment was still uncertain. 20 years ago, the first video analysis software was cumbersome and very expensive at around $3,000. For those reasons, many coaches shied away from tennis tech innovation and its potential in coaching tennis.

Players, parents, and, enthusiasts had a different reason for not adopting early tennis tech – they didn’t know about it. Few knew about the available technologies for the simple reason that they only made for coaches.

It wasn’t until 2012 with the release of smartphone apps like Ubersense (now Hudl Technique) and Coach’s Eye that the tennis industry suddenly woke up. The apps offered FREE video analysis tools for EVERYBODY and it was simple to use and readily available.

Tennis tech Coach's eye

Coach’s Eye

As the tennis community gained access to real tennis tech and started using it in high numbers, the race to get all video analysis users on one platform was on. This is still playing out between Hudl Technique, Dartfish, Coach’s Eyeand the likes.

Video analysis apps were the case of the explosion, but players, coaches, club managers and more are starting to look beyond. The industry is finally dreaming of new innovations across the spectrum to aid in the quest to improve tennis skills and have more fun.

The future is now

Today the tennis tech landscape is exploding with new, exciting tech for players and coaches. Coaches engaging with technology are still at the forefront of what’s inevitably to come. I believe that a big factor in technology adoption moving forward is generational. While the older generation of coaches might think players need to choose between technology or hard work, the younger generation sees tech as an amplifier of hard work and just another tool in the coaching arsenal.

Alexander Johansson Tennis TechAlexander Johansson is a long-time coach and founder of Hoplu, a sport management app for coaches and players focused on skill building. Hoplu is an extension of coaching and combines communication, logging, progress indicators, and feedback.

First Pro Tournament

image

 

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 . . .

What A Difference 2 Years Make!

Image courtesy of www.ITFtennis.com
Image courtesy of www.ITFtennis.com

Almost exactly two years ago, my son played in his very first Junior ITF tournament in Waco, Texas. While it was an excellent learning experience for him to understand what he needed to do to reach the next level, it was also a very quick experience in that he lost his first qualifying match pretty handily. A couple of weeks later, he played in his second Junior ITF tournament near our home in Atlanta. That time, he got through the first round of qualies but came up against a very talented player from the midwest in the next round and went down fighting.

Fast forward to last weekend, my son’s next experience playing a Junior ITF event, once again in Atlanta. He was on the alternate list for the qualies when he went to check in for the tournament but found out that he had indeed made it into the qualifying draw. He was set to play the 6 seed, a young man from Canada, in his first round qualies match . . . not the best draw one could ask for!

But, my son, unbeknownst to me, had set a goal for himself to achieve an ITF Junior ranking before the end of 2014 (when he ages out of the ITF Juniors), so he was determined to get through the qualies and into the Main Draw Round of 16 to earn those elusive ranking points (click here for a detailed look at the ITF ranking point tables). He took care of business in his first match, dropping only 1 game. He had a second match later that day and again took care of business. The following morning, he was slated to play the 10 seed, a high school freshman from the DC area who trains at the JTCC. My son was definitely feeling the pressure going into that match. Not only was he trying to make it into the Main Draw with the win, but he was also facing a much younger – though very accomplished – opponent. Once again, my son stepped up, stuck to his game plan, and overcame the pressure to reach the next stage of the tournament winning 7-5, 6-2.

In his first Main Draw match, my son again faced a seeded player, this time the 7 seed from Florida. Again, the pressure was on, but my son handled it beautifully, losing only 3 games in his straight-set victory. The next round, though, was where the real pressure set in.

For boys playing ITF Grade 2-5s with a 64-draw, they only receive ranking points by reaching the Round of 16. That meant my son HAD to win this next match in order to achieve his goal. I later found out also that TennisRecruiting.net only counts ITF match wins if the player makes it into the Main Draw.

My son’s 2nd round opponent was a familiar one, an 8th grade Blue Chip who my son used to train with in Atlanta. So now, not only was my son feeling the pressure of winning to earn the ranking, but he was also feeling the pressure of playing a MUCH YOUNGER opponent who he was, of course, expected to beat. That said, this younger player had also fought his way through the qualies and had won his first-round Main Draw match, so it wasn’t going to be an easy match in any way, shape, or form.

Let me say that I very rarely get nervous before my son’s matches. I figure it’s him out there on the court, and he’ll give it his best effort, and, win or lose, hopefully learn something to help him in the next match. This time was different though. I was a nervous wreck! And so was my son!

My nerves, though, stemmed solely from the knowledge that if my son lost to this younger player, he would be a nightmare to deal with for at least several hours (if not several days). He knew he was expected to win, and he had to find a way to stay calm and focused in order to make that happen. It wasn’t going to be easy. The pressure was all on him, very little on the other guy because a 13 year old isn’t expected to beat an 18 year old, right?

We didn’t talk about the match beforehand. Not the night before, not on the ride to the tournament site, not at all. The car ride was all about listening to music – we spoke very little – and once we arrived, I left my son alone to do his pre-match preparation while I drank my coffee (and tried to keep down the little breakfast I managed to choke down!). Once my son went on court, I found a place to sit where I could see the match but not be within earshot. The opponent’s mom, who is a friend of mine, sat elsewhere.

The match started off well for my son. He broke his opponent’s serve then went on to hold and go up 2-0. He knew his opponent’s game style very well and found a way to stay on top of the score line throughout the match, eventually winning 6-1, 6-1.

It was a victory unlike any he had had before. Yes, he had won and earned an ITF Junior ranking, and that was critically important to him. But also, he had withstood the pressure in a series of matches and had stuck to his game plan in each one, maintaining his focus and finding a way to win even when he was the underdog and even when he was the favorite – two very different types of pressure, for sure.

The next day, my son played the 11 seed, the same boy he had lost to in the 2nd round of qualies 2 years before. This boy is now a senior in high school and has committed to play for Duke University next Fall. He’s come a long way, developmentally, in the last 2 years. But so has my son. It was going to be a good match.

Due to expected rain, all matches were moved indoors for the Round of 16. The boys went on court as scheduled, and my son went up a break right away. After several more games, the score evened out, and my son wound up losing that match 6-3, 6-3.

What did he take away from that last match? He learned that he can compete well against the top players in his class. He learned that he has the ability and skill set to create opportunities to win points and games and matches. He learned that he can adapt quickly to a change of court surface. He learned that he is strong enough and fit enough to go deep into a tournament. He learned that he is continuing to develop as a player. He learned that he’s almost ready for the next step: college tennis.

 

The Beginning of the End

Image courtesy of www.urbanite-diary.blogspot.com
Image courtesy of www.urbanite-diary.blogspot.com

July 1st marked the first day of my son’s last year in junior tennis. That day came and went with some very mixed emotions on my part (though I’m guessing my son was oblivious to its implications beyond which of his friends he was going to hang out with on the beach for the day). On the one hand, I’ve been rather frustrated with the entire junior tennis process – the confusion, the changing rules, the inconsistencies tournament to tournament. On the other hand, this has been an amazing journey, an amazing opportunity to spend countless one-on-one hours with my son, an amazing way for him to mature and develop as an athlete and as a human being, and I’ll be sad when it ends. I can’t tell you how many incredible people we’ve both met along the way and how many doors have opened to us both because my son chose tennis almost a decade ago.

And, while I know the journey isn’t really ending but rather veering in a new direction as he prepares to enter the world of college tennis, I will miss the hours in the car with him and the nights in the hotel reflecting on the day and, yes, even the monotonous dining options inherent in each tournament town’s Panera and Carrabas.

Those of you who are already on the other side of junior tennis have shared with me over and over again how much you treasured those years with your child(ren) despite the craziness and expense and disruption to “normal” family life. I know I’ll feel the same way in hindsight. For now, though, I will take things one day at a time – the 364 I now have left – and try to focus on the good stuff, not sweat the small stuff, and enjoy creating a few more memories before this all comes to an end.