How Can We Improve Junior Tennis? Two Officials Weigh In
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In this first episode of 2019, two long-time junior tennis officials share their thoughts on what needs to change in Junior Tennis in order to grow the sport and return it to its former glory. Scott Handback and Gary Link get “real” as they talk about the issues plaguing the game, from a governing body perspective as well as from a parent and coach perspective. As these two experienced officials challenge us to do, we all have work to do to make tennis better for our children!
To contact Scott, email him at Scott@deervalleyracquetclub.com.
To contact Gary, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This entire episode was inspired by the following Facebook post by Scott from November 2018:
Scott Handback’s Facebook Post
I have been a USTA Referee for over 30 years at numerous local, sectional and even national-level tournaments. Looking back, I am willing to bet I have served as the Referee for over 250 tournaments during that time.
My experience over the past year and particularly this past weekend have caused me to decide I will not be officiating going into 2019. I am the Referee for the NC Level 4 Blakeney Fall Junior this weekend and it will be my last event.
We have some serious problems in USTA Junior Tennis. Believe me, I realize nothing is perfect, but it seems that the junior tennis environment has become worse over the past several years.
Please keep in mind I am also a coach. I have had 70+ players go on to receive collegiate scholarships and coached two NCAA Division I Singles Champions. I come at this with a unique perspective of having been on several sides of the issues.
The problem is larger than scoring formats and scheduling. I believe USTA (and particularly USTA/Southern and NC Tennis) has made significant strides over the past 15 years in regards to draw formats, scheduling changes and ranking regulation changes that have improved the process. Is it a perfect system? No, but there is no such thing.
The larger, overreaching problem is that we need to examine the environment of Junior Tennis from all perspectives: the players, the parents, the coaches, the tournament directors, the officials and the USTA. Junior Tennis has become professionalized. And with the investment made by parents into their son/daughter’s tennis, so have come the higher expectations. The expectations of the player by the parents and the expectations of the tournament staff and officials by the parents.
Parents expect junior tournaments to operate as efficiently as professional events they see on television. They expect the courts to be dry, but not one parent steps in to grab a squeegee to assist. Parents want every match to be on time, but they do not encourage their player to go straight to the tournament desk to report the score so the next match can be sent out. It seems one player in every match called to go on court is in the bathroom and not ready for play. If you give the court to the next match, the parent goes off like a bomb and threatens everyone from the volunteer at the tournament desk to the tournament referee and even their opponent.
I witnessed several situations this past weekend:
– Parents cussing at tournament desk volunteers because matches were running behind schedule even though we had wet courts to begin the day which limited the use of some courts at some sites (not all sites)
– Parents jerking their son’s arm, dragging him to the parking lot and causing him to uncontrollably cry because he got the score wrong during a Boys 10 & under match in a NC Level 5 event, yet the player shook hands with his opponent and agreed the match was over
– A dad threatening an official, and vowing to call Katrina Adams with the USTA because his daughter and her opponent were wrong on the score, even though the two players were in complete agreement as to the score and sides of the court they were on
– A mother standing on the baseline right outside the fence to intimidate their daughter’s opponent to ensure that the opponent did not make wrong line calls
– A dad cussing at and threatening a tournament site director because his son did not have a court to warm-up on
– A player’s parents filing a complaint that an official was harassing their son because the official was enforcing the time violation rule because the player continually was taking too much time.
– A parent yelling at an official who was already on the court because the official was not quick enough to overrule an incorrect line call in a 10 & under match
These are the same people who try to gain an advantage by circumventing the rules or bending the rules all the time. Coaching their player to take bathroom breaks when they need to change the flow of the match. Telling their player go ahead and get an official before the match because the opponent has a history of cheating.
As the Referee, I was on the receiving end of numerous phone calls and email complaining about almost every facet of the event: of the fact we went to no-ad scoring for the first round, that we did not finish the doubles draw for Boys’ 10s, that I did not provide an official for an entire Boys 10s match when one of the player’s dad thought his son was on the wrong end of several line calls.
It used to be that we experienced “Crazy Tennis Parent” Syndrome in the 14 & under divisions at the sectional and national level. That was the time that parents and players started to take the game more serious and were more adamant about how their player performed in tournaments and rankings.
Now it seems that we are seeing those situations with 10 & under players and more at the local level, which means it is much more prevalent at tournaments. I believe it is the result of parents specializing their kids into tennis at a much earlier age. They are spending a LOT of money on their player’s development at an early age and are looking for a return, a college scholarship, or a way to a better life. We are also seeing a lot of tennis parents who did not grow up in the tennis world and do not understand the culture of junior tennis tournaments.
Don’t get me wrong. We need better officials as well. I see mistakes made by officials all the time. Many officials do not know the nuances of certain tournaments based on the level of the event. We need to do a better job of stating expectations related to an event. For example, there should be more leniency and education at a local L5 Novice tournament than a USTA/Southern Level 2 event, where rules should be enforced by the letter of the law.
I am not perfect myself. I make mistakes. There are thousands of decisions and details that can be screwed up. I own my mistakes and always work to do my best.
There has been a lot of discussion nationally about cheating in junior tennis. While I agree there are some players who are opportunistic in making a wrong line call, I do not see cheating as the biggest issue today. The larger issue is perceived cheating and unrealistic expectations. Wrong line calls will happen. It is part of the game. Look at the pros, officials watching only one line during the match make mistakes almost every match. How can we expect a 14 & under player to be perfect in making a line call while actually playing the point?
Just because someone makes a wrong line call does not mean they are intentionally cheating. Bad line calls happen. Players need to learn how to deal with the adversity. It does not mean your opponent was intentionally cheating you.
I realize not every parent or every player is like this, but instead of it being a rare occurrence that you see this type of behavior, it is now an occurrence at every local USTA junior tournament.
While I do get paid to Referee junior tennis, I do it to help parents and players learn how to play the game and to hopefully make junior tournaments run better. It is not a financial windfall, I typically break even with expenses.
At this point, I don’t feel I am able to make a difference in making junior tennis better. I do not see where I can improve the player experience by serving as a referee. Maybe there is another capacity I can do so, but until we solve some issues related to junior tournaments, it will not be as a referee.
We must do something to solve this or we will continue to have players who leave junior tennis. The problem is larger than dealing with cheating in junior tennis. The problem is larger than having better officials who are actually trained at running junior tournaments. The problem is larger than actually enforcing the regulations we have governing junior tennis. The problem is larger than doing a better job of educating parents.
We need to do all these things and more. I have opinions on what we need to do, just like everyone else who is a stakeholder in junior tennis. We need to start the process of fixing this or the game we all love and care about will suffer.