At sixteen years old I was one of the top juniors in the United States. My dream from when I was a young boy was to be a professional tennis player. I had dreams of playing in front of big crowds on television and on the best stages in the world. I was starting to grow and I was getting stronger due to some very intense physical and tennis training that I was doing on a daily basis.
In 1999 I was preparing for an important junior tournament, I booked my airline ticket, a rental car for my mom or coach to drive and a hotel room. In 1999 you signed up for tournaments by sending your entry fee and entry form either by mail or occasionally by fax with a payment to follow. Nowadays, the tournament entry system is simple as you just click a couple of buttons on your computer or phone and you are signed up. When the entry list came out for the tournament my name was not on the list and I started to panic. I called the tournament director and they said they did not receive my entry form. I was devastated. What you must remember is that when I was growing up through USTA tournaments, the children in my generation played a fraction of the tournaments that the children play today. I would spend a couple of months training for one particular big tournament. Some juniors today play as many tournaments as I did when I was a professional player.
I sat down with Pierre Arnold, my coach, my father figure, and my mentor and he said that I’m going to go to Elkin, North Carolina and play a $15,000 professional futures tournament since I could not go to the junior tournament. To save precious funds, I was also going to drive there from South Florida since I had been driving for a couple of months and I had a reliable car. When I was fifteen with my drivers permit I was driving myself and my mother around daily to tennis practices that were thirty minutes from our house or tennis tournaments on the weekends, so I had logged many hours of driving by the time I got my license. I was very mature as a young man due to certain circumstances growing up in my family, so Pierre and my mother trusted me in driving solo for twelve hours to North Carolina.
I had no cell phone, but my mother did and she gave me her cell phone which if you remember probably weighed five pounds and could barely fit in your pocket. Her cell phone only worked in the state of Florida, so the second I got into Georgia the phone no longer worked and I would have to use a calling card at a pay phone to let her know I was all right.
I packed my bags, stringing machine, and a bunch of CD’s that my brother had made for me and the trek in my Volkswagen Jetta five speed manual with crank windows. The only thing electric in this car was a button that you could press that would pop the trunk open. My mom called me every hour while I was in the state of Florida and when I got out of Florida, every time I would stop for gas I would call her on a pay phone to let her know I was ok. At this time, there were no GPS units as I had a TripTik from the AAA. At one point I actually thought I was in North Carolina, but in actuality I was in South Carolina which meant I had another ninety minutes to drive. Finally after twelve hours of driving, I made it to Elkin, North Carolina and met up with some tennis buddies from South Florida. The only two establishments in Elkin at this time were a Cracker Barrel and a movie theater, along with a park that had 20 – 30 hard courts.
It rained for a couple of days straight and my buddies and I were bored out of our minds. We passed the time by doing a bunch of fitness exercises and tried to stay busy during these boring rainy days. It was okay because I was excited to just hang around all these great players and coaches. I was always trying to pick up great tips and better ways to improve my skills. I would warm anyone up and just spend all day at the courts watching matches and trying to learn. I ended up losing in the third round of qualifying to a French guy ranked about 500 in the world in a close competitive match.
As I was planning the drive home, I actually found another player who lost in the same round as me and we drove back to South Florida together. We left the day after we lost at 5am so I could make it back home for dinner. We split the cost of gas which we both thought was fair and we drove the twelve hours back home. I obviously called my mom a lot when I got into Florida but looking back on this trip, it makes you think what kind of parenting and coaching that I had throughout my adolescence.
It was made very clear at a young age that if I wanted to be successful in tennis or in life in general, I was going to have to be very mature for my age and rely on no one to hold my hand throughout my life. It was preached that no one was going to do anything for me, and if someone did do something for me, I was very lucky. I was going to have to take the initiative on many things in my life and learn as I go along because many times I could not have my mom or coach travel with me to tournaments. I hung around the courts all day and hit with anyone that needed to hit whether it was a pro or a kid, and I studied matches at the courts. I knew that one day I would be doing this full time for a living so I needed to be a sponge and be around successful coaches and players. Now I get to share my knowledge with the young people that I train on a daily basis, which I find very rewarding when you start to see improvements in not only their tennis game, but also their maturity and how they carry themselves as a young adult. These life skills that are acquired through tennis and discipline will stick with these young people for the rest of their lives. I know they did for me.
The article above is another wonderful contribution from coach Todd Widom. His story is reminiscent of a post I wrote about my son’s first tournament on his own – click here!