Tennis is becoming an increasingly international sport every year. Though it is more readily available, there are still many noticeable differences in the background of the junior athletes being developed all over the globe. I took some time to interview three former top junior players from different backgrounds. Matt Belenchia from Atlanta, Ga.; Max Beliankou from Minsk, Belarus; and Mike Haddad from New York City. They are now three of the top teaching instructors at Stadium Tennis Center. I was surprised to find the many similarities and differences in their answers.
How were the facilities in your area?
Matt Belenchia: The facilities were not that nice. Most of the courts were covered with cracks. I never played indoors growing up. The winters were not too extreme, so we would usually play all year-round outdoors.
Max Beliankou: I trained at the National Tennis Center in Minsk. It had four indoor and 25 outdoor courts. The outdoor courts were grass, clay and hard courts. It was the nicest facility in my town.
Mike Haddad: I trained primarily on public courts. I played at Van Cortland and Seton Park. At 11-years-old, I started playing at Stadium Tennis Center. That was the first private club I ever played at.
What was the style of coaching?
Belenchia: Most of my coaches taught me good competitive skills, but not so much on the technical skills. My academy was small, so I usually just worked with one coach for years at a time. We played a lot of games, but never too many drills.
Beliankou: I didn't have a particular coach that I worked with, but all of the coaches stressed limiting unforced errors. However, I don't remember spending much time on my serve.
Haddad: My coaching was mainly in the after-school junior program. I worked on high performance drills, strategy and high-percentage tennis. My practice sessions usually consisted of drilling in the first hour and match play in the second hour.
How was it getting access to court time?
Belenchia: Court access was very easy to come by. Most of the courts were public and I would often hang around after practice to play in pick-up matches with other kids from the academy. My family never had to pay for court time for me to play or train. We also used to climb the fences of public courts just to hit some balls.
Beliankou: It was tough to get on the court during the indoor season. Since there were only four indoor courts, I would often have to practice at 6:00 a.m. or 9:00 p.m.
Haddad: Tennis has a high demand in New York City due to the limited places to play. Whether you are playing at a club or on a public court, it wasn't easy to get on the court when you wanted. If you wanted to play as bad as I did, you could eventually find some time.
Was it difficult to get to and from your practice sessions?
Belenchia: I grew up playing five minutes from my house. If my parents couldn't take me, I would ride my bike to practice. When I got older, it was easy to drive my pick-up truck to the courts.
Beliankou: No, it wasn't easy. I had to take the subway and the bus and it would take me at least an hour to get to the courts.
Haddad: Transportation was not easy. When I was young, my parents played a huge role in getting me to and from practice every day. As I grew older, I would take the subway and buses, which made me feel mentally stronger and more dedicated to the sport.
What is the best quality about your tennis you would attribute to where you grew up?
Belenchia: The ease of traveling to and from tournaments … the readily available courts.
Beliankou: The best part is my dedication. The coaches would play with me at any time of the day. No one would complain about the old facilities. I would often spend an hour each way traveling just to play for one hour.
Haddad: From the ages of about 12 to 17, I would go to Van Cortland Park and play sets with my friends. We would all watch each other play and critique each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This was a great place to practice and socialize.
If you could change one thing about your training as a junior what would it be?
Belenchia: I would have liked more technical training and match play. I would have played more tournaments starting in the 14s in order to gain more valuable experience.
Beliankou: I would have focused more on my serve and volleys. I would like to have worked on a more aggressive style of tennis.
Haddad: There was a few year’s gap where I didn't play. If I could go back, I would not only have played, but I would have given it 100 percent. Practice is everything in tennis or any sport. You'll never know how far you could have gone unless you put the time in.