Growth & Development

My son is at an interesting place in terms of his tennis development.  As I’ve mentioned, he’s now playing up in the 18s even though he could still play another year in the 16s.  But, because of his July birthday, and because of his goal to play at Kalamazoo (which is the first week of August) next summer, he had to start working on his 18s ranking a year early.  That means he is often 2 years younger than his opponent, 2 years behind developmentally-speaking, 2 years behind growth-wise, and 2 years behind in the maturation process.

His goal during tournaments is still to win matches, of course, because he needs to get his 18s ranking to a place where he has a chance of getting into the National Hardcourts.  And, to that end, we look for tournaments for him to play where (A) he can get in and (B) he can, hopefully, win a few matches.

However, he also has another, equally (more?) important, goal:  to gauge his skill on the court against boys who are already playing the big national events and who are heading off to top college programs next year.  He needs to be able to see in black and white how his game holds up against more experienced players.  He needs to see where his strengths lie and where he still needs work.  He needs to see what specific developmental steps he has to take over the next 2+ years.

We were at a Southern Level 3 tournament in Hilton Head this past weekend.  First round, my son had the opportunity to play the 1 seed, a young man who recently committed to play at Clemson next Fall.  After the match, which my son lost 1 and 4, we all went to lunch together – my son, his opponent, his opponent’s dad, my husband, and me – and the boys talked about their match and about playing college tennis.  My son asked the young man for an honest evaluation of the match, and the young man told him that he made him work much harder than he anticipated and that my son is way ahead of where he was as a 10th grader.  I could see the smile peeking out from behind my son’s eyes!  Then, much to my surprise, my son asked his opponent if he would mention my son to the Clemson coach in hopes that the coach would take a look at him.  The boys went on to discuss the recruiting process and the things my son needs to be doing this year to get the ball rolling.  Mind you, it wasn’t anything that I haven’t been telling him for the past several months, but you know how it is with teenagers – they often don’t hear it until it comes from a peer!

The next morning, my son played another high school senior in his 2nd backdraw match and won.  It was a great boost confidence-wise for him to see that he had the goods to claim a victory over a solid player two years older and 124 ranking spots ahead of him.

Even though my son wasn’t playing his best tennis during the tournament, he found a way to eke out strong victories over two very experienced players and earn those precious ranking points.  He had the privilege of playing against someone heading off to the same post-junior-tennis life my son hopes to have and of putting his skills to a real test.  Developmentally, my son is still two years behind these guys – he still has two years to figure it out – but he needs to keep testing himself against these older players to monitor his progress.  As he has more opportunities to play these high-level guys at USTA, ITF, and ITA events, he’ll be able to keep a running tally of where he’s making strides and where he still needs work.  He and his coach will keep tweaking the training plan to help my son get where he wants to go.  And my husband and I will keep being the supportive Tennis Parents.

Southern Level 3s: One Parent’s Take on the New Format

We are more than 6 months into the new format for our Southern Level 3 tournaments, and, given that the Southern Section is often a testing-ground for policies that are later rolled out nationwide – and after spending yet another weekend at one of these events – I thought I would share my thoughts and experiences in hopes of generating some constructive dialog between us parents and USTA.

A quick recap on how the format changed in 2012 . . . the tournaments now have two 16-player draws for each age group with the brackets arranged by “waterfall” – for an explanation of exactly what that means, click here.  These tournaments must be played and completed on Saturday and Sunday with the goal of reducing missed school days.  Players are guaranteed at least 3 matches via a second consolation bracket.  The “real” consolation bracket will not play its final match, though the second consolation bracket will.  All singles matches will consist of a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a third set in both the main draw and consolation brackets.  There is also a new Points-Per-Round table for these tournaments with more points being awarded in every round (please note that there is NO CONSOLATION WINNER, however, so the most points awarded in the backdraw is 180).

The first thing I noticed with this new format is that there are two 1 seeds, two 2 seeds, 2 three seeds, and 2 four seeds in each age group; however, the winners of the two brackets in each age group do NOT play each other (i.e. there are 2 tournament winners in each age group).  That means the two top players at the tournament never have the opportunity to compete against one another, never have the chance to drive each other to work harder to improve.  Since healthy competition and rivalry are key factors in junior development, I don’t see how this new format is in the best interest of helping our players become stronger and more competitive once they leave the Section.  At the very least, I would like to see these tournaments add one more match to the main draws where the winners of each bracket play for the Championship.

I’ve also noticed that these events tend to have very long Alternate Lists in most age groups.  To me, that indicates a need for either (a) bigger draw sizes or (b) more tournament options.  I know y’all are sick to death of reading about my son’s experiences on the dreaded Alternate List, but, really, the size of these lists is a clear sign that there are players who want to play, so why not accommodate them somehow?

Another thing I noticed is that there are now 6 different draws – 2 Main, 2 Consolation, and 2 Extra Consolation – for each gender of each age division.  According to several Tournament Directors with whom I’ve spoken, this creates a mountain of extra work at the end of the first day of play, especially since the TennisLink tournament software hasn’t been updated to include the second consolation draws, meaning they have to be created and scheduled manually.  Assuming the Saturday matches finish by 9pm, that means the Tournament Director and staff start working on the second backdraws at that time for every single age division.  Not only do they have to create the draws, but they also have to schedule the matches and make sure they have enough courts available to accommodate the Main Draw, Consolation, and Extra Consolation matches.  Then, they usually have to be back on site before 7am on Sunday to be ready for Day 2 of play.  And we parents wonder why the folks at the tournament desk are sometimes a little grouchy on Sunday!

And, really, what’s the point of that second backdraw?  In no other tournament that I know of are players guaranteed three matches.  Why at this higher level sectional event is that the case?  Wouldn’t the players be better served by having the opportunity to play out the third set and play out the final of the “real” backdraw?  And, if you think the number of defaults is high in regular consolation draws, you should see what happens in that second backdraw.  There are so many defaults and no-shows which indicates to me that even the players don’t see the value in sticking around for that extra match or two on Sunday when they’ve already lost twice.  Why not use the second backdraw idea in lower level local tournaments instead where the participants could really benefit from the additional match play simply to gain experience?  At these higher-level events, the players are looking at the quality of the matches they get to play, and, really if we’re honest here, the quality in the second backdraw just isn’t there.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at this example from this past weekend’s Boys 18s second backdraw:

I would love to see USTA Southern take a good hard look at these Level 3 events and seriously consider tweaking the format going forward.  I would also love to see more Southern Level 4 tournaments offered on the same weekends as the Level 3s for those players who are struggling to get into the smaller draws of the Level 3s.  That way, more juniors would have the opportunity for tournament match play, increasing participation numbers which USTA keeps saying is one of its top goals.  But, you know, this is just my take on things.  How do the rest of you feel???