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.