Watching my kids play tennis can sometimes be gut-wrenching. My 11-year-old daughter Kathy and nine-year-old son Joseph were about to compete in their first USTA-sanctioned event. We’d made it to Central Park early to play in the Battle of the Boroughs, ready to compete for points as my kids were taking the first baby steps that lead to a ranking in the Northeast Section. My kids were ready, but I was not.
Brandishing new $200 racquets (sent to them for free by the generous folks at Babolat), my kids stepped onto the clay courts with all the confidence in the world, but on this hot day in Central Park, they lost. I was crushed.
But the journey to potential greatness starts with these losses. We’ve studied the careers of professional tennis players, and there was always that period where they just didn’t win. We’ve seen Novak Djokovic at the age of six yelling in anguish at missed practice shots. We have seen Serena looking dejected as she dropped a point at the age of 12. And we have all heard the stories of Roger Federer sobbing unceasingly at each loss as a junior.
Despite setbacks and lack of skill, these athletes never gave up, and they fell back on the support of their parents and the incremental confidence that comes from practice, and my kids know this key to their improvement. But achieving superior tennis at their ages is nearly impossible due to the astronomical costs associated with this sport. Yet, we continue because tennis has my kids fully invested.
My kids started playing tennis four years ago with the free community programs of the NYJTL. They had a blast that first day, holding their racquets too close to the head, swinging wildly at tennis balls as if they were trying to swat giant flies. Watching them just a few years ago on that day, I couldn’t stop laughing … it was fun. In that one hour, the love of the sport hooked them into something serious that I didn’t recognize right away. For me, tennis was just something extracurricular for them to do—so there was more than six months between ongoing lessons. I eventually bought cheap red balls and, without knowing how to play or even owning my own racquet, I’d throw tennis balls over the net for them to hit back. Afterwards, they played hour after hour on the handball courts, smacking tennis balls every which way when courts weren't available in the winter. They wore out their first $15 junior racquets fairly quickly.
Eleven-year-old Kathy Soto and nine-year-old Joseph Soto
In their third year, my kids played their hearts out. My daughter won or placed in eight round-robin events, and my son placed second or third in his age group. These were exciting, fulfilling moments, but then there’s the next step—money. USTA tournaments can be expensive when you have two kids, so I hunted for ways to get my kids exposure. Both of my kids tried out for the Lacoste Junior Tennis Academy and made it into their free program. Another organization, the Washington Heights Tennis Association, gave them a spot so they can train at Columbia University on Saturday nights for free. But these programs, though amazing, and worthwhile, are not enough. Dad had to learn how to feed balls and run drills for them when there was no professional training.
I taught myself tennis so I could teach my kids due to necessity. Buying the cheapest stringing machine I could find to defray the costs of stringing every time they pop strings, I’ve become a good enough stringer to make the tight 16 X 19 configurations my kids prefer. I’ve reached out to tennis companies, and both Babolat and Wilson have sent my kids free racquets and gear. Prince offered them a half-sponsorship for a year, which I jumped at faster than Andy Murray can run down a drop shot. I feel badly that I cannot give them more right now, but within my and my wife’s capabilities, we’re doing enough to keep them progressing. And in a few years, I expect to offer proof of how perseverance and sacrifice can turn kids with little to no advantages into champions.
I offer this advice to parents in my same proverbial boat: Don’t give up, move on; be innovative and keep humble and be accepting, but then also be aggressive and certain. Everything valuable takes effort and time, and giving up on something that seems impossible will guarantee that it will never happen. Keep at it. Love of the sport will win the day in ways you won’t even expect and your kids will always be the better for it, no matter what happens … tennis is for life.