I don't travel to tournaments as much as I used to earlier in my career, but I decided to journey with a terrific student to Virginia Beach to the Girls’ 16 Clay Court Super Nationals this past July. I was expecting the worst, but was pleasantly surprised at the performances of these top girls. Here are a few observations and comparisons about the Girls’ 16s tournament experience of today with that of years ago …
I'm sure that I’m not the first person to wonder why the hottest places on Earth are selected to host Summer Nationals.
Here's my take on it … it's about economics. You need a large facility to serve as the host, and cooler areas are busy in the summer while warmer areas are busy in the winter and ghost towns in the summer. Enter the bid to host a Nationals while sane people stay in air conditioning. The Board of Health In New York City recently adopted a heat alert policy for scholastic sports for a sound reason. A heat index of over 100 cannot be healthy to exercise in, and Virginia Beach, while not scary hot every day this time around, was very toasty.
The Virginia Beach Tennis and Country Club is the perfect venue (except for location, see above) to host Nationals.
It has more than 25 outdoor clay courts, 10 indoor courts and it's spread out. Wide open areas at Nationals seem to be soothing to the frayed nerves of the parents and coaches watching. It's a nice place, but by no means, toney and stuffy … just good ole’ southern hospitality at a club happy to be given the opportunity to host a Super Nationals.
The on and off court behavior of players was just outstanding. Players at this event were polite, fair and focused. Perhaps cheating is rampant at some junior events, but the girls here let their rackets do the talking.
Sure, a few players could use finishing school and perhaps my experience was unique, but it gives me cause for optimism that athletes’ behavior in the sport has progressed and matured.
Girls hit ground strokes really hard these days. A former student who was top 20 nationally in the Boys’ 18s, 35 years ago swears that National Level 16-year-old girls hit groundstrokes as hard as Jimmy Connors did back in the day with his Wilson T2000.
The athletes are bigger and stronger, and move side to side well, but forward and backward movement is still as much of a problem as ever.
While more girls have a usable slice, fewer girls than ever seem to have a very good slice.
Not many girls had very sound service motions. They get more power because of advancements in technology, but efficient linkage from the ground to contact seems to be as elusive as ever.
While I suspect that girls volley better today, it's difficult to evaluate the singles volleys of the Girls’ 16s in comparison to a generation ago. First, because they don't come to net often, and second, when they do, their opponents have huge power to defend.
When I watch doubles, I am pleased to observe that more girls than before have developed a strong sense of court position and doubles competency.
The fitness world has changed and progressed, but the junior tennis world seemed stuck in the practices of yesterday. I saw a few players perform functional movements for a minute or two, but most did not demonstrate good form. An overwhelming number of players just hit to warm up. It’s better than eating potato chips, but still not a best practice.
The parents and coaches
This was a very low key event. There was surprisingly little cheering, obnoxious clapping, clandestine attempts to communicate and self-talking. It was almost calm … almost.
Over the years, many of the institutions that define a National Summer Tournament experience, i.e. bad hotel breakfast, boring pre-tournament meeting, the sales pitch for extra car rental insurance and that very long walk back to the tournament desk after a loss, have remained the same. The weather is still hot, but tempers have cooled. It was a kinder and gentler tournament scene in Virginia Beach, and if this experience is representative of a wider trend, it is a very large step in the right direction.
Steve Kaplan is the Owner and Managing Director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the Director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and Executive Director and Founder of Serve & Return, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that provides free tennis programs to individuals experiencing adversity and struggle. Over the last 35 years, Steve has coached more than 1,000 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, and 2 NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions.He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.