What Tennis Tournaments Should My Child Be Playing?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written by coach Brent Mazza for the High Altitude Tennis website (www.highaltitudetennis.com) and is reprinted here with permission. The guidelines below are based on Colorado’s/Intermountain’s junior competition structure but can easily be adapted to other states/sections. For more great articles, visit the HAT blog here. For information on HAT’s Summer Tennis Camp, click here.

Let’s work together to increase participation in this great game of tennis! I came across a few shocking junior tennis stats recently in relation to tournaments. According to the USTA, 38% of junior players drop out of tournaments after playing their very first tournament, 45% of players drop out after playing their second tournament, and 76% drop out after playing their fifth tournament. There are many possible explanations for these numbers. Perhaps the player has only played tennis at that point in their life, and hasn’t developed other all-around athletic skills from other sports, such as soccer and basketball, which in turn, may be hindering their tennis abilities. Or, maybe the player has a very poor technical stroke foundation, and they need to go back to the drawing board to clean up their fundamentals to eliminate unforced errors. Perhaps the player is not very mentally and physically tough, and they haven’t learned how to appropriately deal with adversity and losing, leading them to quit when things get challenging.

In my experience, one of the major reasons that players get discouraged and don’t play another tournament is that the player is registered for the inappropriate level of tournament in the first place, specifically if it is a regular yellow ball tournament. For example, I have seen numerous situations over the years when a new tournament player registers for a Level 5 or 6 tournament for their very first tournament. Unfortunately, they should be playing Level 7 and 8 tournaments at that point in their development. It is the responsibility of the parents and coaches to be correctly informed, and set their junior players up to have the best possible chance of having some success, build confidence, and establish enthusiasm and love for the lifelong game of tennis, especially from a young age.

I am a huge advocate and supporter of the new 2018 Player Progression Pathway, which now requires players ten years of age and younger to start in orange and green dot tournaments before advancing up to yellow ball. However, below I provide a continuation of that pathway, specifically focusing on the regular yellow ball tournaments. Please note that this pathway is simply meant to be a general guideline, and may need to be adjusted on an individual basis when necessary. Also note that a particular player who previously progressed to a higher phase at one age division may need to restart at a lower phase upon aging up into a new age division. Here at HAT, we recommend that players start to age up to the next division 4-6 months prior in order to get a “running head start” in that age group.

A Recommended Regular Yellow Ball Tournament Road Map for Junior Players
  • Phase 1 (Beginner Colorado State Level Player):  L7
    • Rules to Graduate:
      • 66% rule (2/3 win/loss) demonstrates player is in the correct phase.
        • If winning percentage is higher than 66%, the player may move up to Phase 2.
        • If winning percentage is 33% (1/3 win/loss) or lower, the player may need to put in some additional work on strokes and tactics, as well as play some additional practice matches, to improve tournament performance.
      • Winner/Finalist in several L7’s (at least 3-4)
  • Phase 2 (Intermediate/Advanced Colorado State Level Player):  L6
    • Rules to Graduate
      • 66% rule (2/3 win/loss) demonstrates player is in the correct phase.
        • If winning percentage is higher than 66%, the player may move up to Phase 3.
        • If winning percentage is 33% (1/3 win/loss) or lower, the player may need to move back down to Phase 1.
      • Winner/Finalist in several L6’s (at least 3-4)
  • Phase 3 (Intermountain Sectional Level Player): Intermountain L5’s, L4’s, L3’s (and L6’s at both current age group and one age group up on an as need basis)
    • Rules to Graduate
      • 66% rule (2/3 win/loss) demonstrates a player is in the correct phase.
        • If winning percentage is higher than 66%, the player may move up to Phase 4.
        • If winning percentage is 33% (1/3 win/loss) or lower, the player may need to move back down to Phase 2.
      • Winner in a L5, Winner/Finalist in several L3’s and L4’s (at least 3-4)
      • L6’s are played in the current age division in this phase primarily to stay match tough, continue to learn winning habits and work on improvements learned in practice. L6’s may also be played at a higher age division (one age division up) to gain match play experience and points against older players.
  • Phase 4 (National Level Player):  L3’s, L2’s and L1’s (and Intermountain L4’s, L3’s on an as need basis)
    • Rules to Graduate
      • 66% rule (2/3 win/loss) demonstrates you are in the correct phase.
        • If winning percentage is higher than 66%, the player may move up to Phase 5.
        • If winning percentage is 33% (1/3 win/loss) or lower, the player may need to move back down to Phase 3.
      • Winner/Finalist/Semifinalist in several L3’s, L2’s, and L1’s

Upon graduating from Phase 4, players enter Phase 5, and thus become international level players competing against other players from all over the world on the ITF Junior Circuit. In Phase 6, players then transition into becoming a world class professional player competing on the ITF Pro Circuit, while Phase 7 is the ATP/WTA Tour level.

My hope is that if more parents and coaches follow this pathway for the yellow ball tournaments, especially at the beginning of junior players’ tennis careers, the stats provided by the USTA with regards to tournament player retention will improve drastically over time. Please leave your questions and comments below, or you can always contact me directly at brent@highaltitudetennis.com. See you on the court (or at a tournament)!

6 Comments on “What Tennis Tournaments Should My Child Be Playing?”

  1. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! My child has basically stopped playing junior tournaments because too many players are in over their heads. Not sure how a 6-0, 6-1 first round beat down helps the winner or the loser. Hold players to a standard for admission into the tournament, and reduce the size of the draws.

  2. I am shocked this author does not know the #1 reason kids try tournaments and never come back, everyone involved with the situation knows it…cheating and gamesmanship. Junior tennis is the only sport with no adult to keep it fair, the roving ref system is a joke. Kids come to tennis from other sports and realize they have to keep score and call the lines. Within a match or 3 they run into a kid who is good at taking key points or changing the scores. Now kids are trying to win every game for higher UTR so they are cheating more than ever to win 6-0, 6-0 instead of 6-3,6-3. There is zero reason for kids to stay with tennis when they can play other sports. We have talked to dozens of kids who stopped playing tournaments and its always the same reason.

  3. Is the cheating more common now than during the tennis boom? If so why?

    When I was a kid during the tennis boom, we had no referees, except the rare chaired match. When I played college tennis we had no referees, except in the conference tournament. There was some cheating. Always was. Yet the game and tournaments were way more popular. We dealt with the cheaters ourselves for the most part. If the cheating was egregious and ongoing an adult was dispatched to the court (for junior tournaments) and had to stay there the whole match. What an incentive for parents and adults to not tolerate cheating!

    Now a roving official comes by for a few minutes and leaves. The cheating continues. Even in college matches with chair umpires cheating is rampant. Whatever has changed to make cheating more of a problem now needs to be figured out and expunged or tennis will never make a comeback. Umpires for every match is way too expensive. Ask any college coach or tournament director. Referees are expensive.

    With a few exceptions, it looks to me like the culture of tennis has changed for the worse. When my generation played tournaments as kids we traveled without parents and coaches to most local and regional events. As we got older we traveled to national tournaments without parents and coaches, too. We were housed by local families or we stayed in hotels or dorms like at Kalamazoo.. It made for a lot of great times and great friends. Do you know who you’re not going to cheat? Your friends. If you travel to tournaments with your parents and don’t hang out with the other kids, nobody develops close friendships with their competitors. Opponents remain just roadblocks to the points and notoriety the kids and parents crave. So why not cheat them? They are just roadblocks, not friends.

    Do you know what else making friends does for kids (besides a million other good things)? It develops practice partners that don’t cost $100 or $300 per hour. Down go those “development costs” that everyone complains about. Few kids in my area play and practice on their own, without the meter running in some fashion (coaching fees, court fees, etc). The weather is good enough to play tennis nearly year ’round, the courts are everywhere and free, tennis balls still cost $2.00 a can like they did during the 1970s, yet everyone says the game is expensive. It sure is if you’re always paying someone to play with you. The best way, the only way really, to become better at competitive tennis is to compete a lot in tennis. That means some tournaments, but it also means simply playing a lot against friends of roughly equal skill, friends of various ages and of the opposite sex, too. Supplement that play with lessons if necessary (it wasn’t necessary for many of us forty years ago). We have that formula backwards now. Kids take tons of lessons, live at academies, drill and work on mechanics all the time. They even play a lot of tournaments (the kids who haven’t quit). But gone are the free practice matches that were the staple of great players in the past. We’ve substituted expensive lessons and expensive tournaments for free matches with friends. The costs have obviously exploded.

    Among the many reasons kids quit tournament tennis, I’d say the lack of friendships is huge. It leads to more cheating and higher cost. I know I wouldn’t have kept playing tennis if it weren’t for the fabulous, lifelong friends I found through the game.

  4. First to Bob-encourage kids to play high school tennis-they develop deep friendships, the costs are low, and in many states, the level of play is high with HS team singles players going on to play at D1 or D3 colleges.

    Now comments to the original article:
    This article focuses on USTA tournaments. Tourneys outside USTA are only mentioned for Phase 5 and higher. There are so many more options now from UTR events that could even be geared to young Phase I and 2 players. For Phase 3 and above high school players options include ITA summer circuit (maybe ones hosted by D3 schools, Phase 4 for rest), USTA men’s events, prize $, and high school varsity tennis and tournaments geared to HS team players. Future Qualis are options for Phase 4 (maybe 128 draws) or Phase 5 (32/64 draws). Junior ITF could be appropriate as early as Phase 3 (grade 5 qualis) and Grade 4 (grade 4 qualis).

    I think for 12s/14s the focus should be on local and/or regional events. In large sections like ours with 9 states, a parent might choose a level 2 sectional or even a national 3 if it was local vs driving 6 hours for a level 3 sectional. With so many new options in recent years, hopefully young players can find competitive opportunities close to home. Some local areas may have challenge ladder or matchplay between academies. Some academies now have matchplay events open to outsiders that count for UTR. These options might serve as a gradual transition to tournaments for lower Phase levels. Save the $ for 16s/18s when college coaches will be watching.

    Most of the time our kids should play tournaments that provide a bit of a challenge but where they have a good chance of winning at least one match. However, tough losses can provide inspiration if a kid really loves the sport. There are gaps between tournaments, e.g. between a local/state tournament and a sectional tourney, and players may struggle as they bridge those gaps. My son played his first sectional after placing at least 3rd in local 12s tourneys that counted as sectional 5s. Most of the next step up tourneys were sectional 3s. His first sectional 3 he lost both his matches with one 0,0. If he had said he wanted to quit the sport after that weekend, I would have agreed because he seemed so miserable. However, the next sectional 3 he played 2-3 months later he beat the 2 seed in the 2nd round-a kid ranked 30 in our large section. Every kid is different-some are devastated by losses and some are inspired to look for what they need to do to play better, Some are not ready to play tournaments at 10-12 but may be ready by 13 or 14. It is a myth that kids needs to be playing tourneys at 8 to play college. Better to play multiple sports and get more serious about tennis at 12 or higher but still keep it local or state.

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