Imagine dedicating your heart and soul to a competitive sport throughout your childhood and adolescence just to give it up at the age of 20 or 30. After you “retire” from your passion, in order for you to play the sport you love, you need to gather a large group of people together in order to play. At that point in their lives, people have jobs, families and countless other obligations that take precedence ahead of the annual game. This dilemma is one of the many reasons kids should begin playing tennis at a young age.
Falling in love with tennis has its advantages. First, unlike team sports, you can play tennis forever. Baseball, softball, football, soccer among others have a much more limited time horizon, mainly because you need to rely on numerous people in order to get a competitive game together. With tennis all you need is you and an opponent. Tennis has countless physical, mental and social benefits as well. If you truly love the sport and dedicate your time and efforts towards it, it is much more rewarding if you are actually good at it. Most professional players, college players, and strong high school players improved their game by playing tournaments and learning how to compete against all different types of opponents.
Deciding when to put your child into tournaments is important to their development and growth. On the one hand, if your child begins playing at six- or seven-years-old, he or she may be discouraged if they lose to other players and might not want to continue. Or at that age, they will play and improve, however potentially become burned out and not want to continue to the next level. You don’t want to begin tournament play too late either because it is exponentially harder to become a great tennis player the later you begin playing. If you start tournaments after 14-years-old, the other kids are most likely already so good that it will be hard for your child to keep up with the more experienced players. It all depends on the child in determining when to begin tournament play.
If your child has all of the basic skills and is willing to develop and improve upon them, then they may be ready to play their first tournament. If they can keep score, serve at an above 50 percent rate, and hit fairly consistent groundstrokes and volleys, theoretically, they should begin match play. There are a few things to consider, however, before entering them into their first USTA tournament. You don’t want your child to enter their first tournament and be so disheartened by the results that they never want to play competitive tennis again.
Prior to signing your child up for their first tournament, it is important to make sure they have some match experience. Most of the kids playing USTA tournaments have participated in other tournaments. Many even know each other and have played with or against one another before. This could be intimidating for a rookie on the scene, especially if the player is under the age of 12-years-old. Having a reasonable amount of match experience could ease the burden when they actually go out and play their matches. Most tennis programs incorporate match play in some form or another in their junior program. However, I suggest to arrange a match at their local club with other students or friends outside of their regular group lesson time. Also, consider a private lesson with a professional coach and have the pro explain the intricate details of match play, for example, when to switch sides, where to stand, how to play a tie-breaker, etc. Another way to learn about tennis is to have your child watch matches before they go out and play their first tournament. If you don’t have cable, many professional matches are streamed somewhere online for free (try ESPN 3 or directly from the tournament’s Web site). You could also take your child to the U.S. Open during qualifiers, as the National Tennis Center is open to everyone and you can see extraordinary tennis up close and personal.
Another aspect to consider is motivation. Does the child really like playing tennis? Is he or she coachable and willing to learn? And how does the child handle defeat? Unfortunately, tennis is extremely competitive. There is always someone better than you on any given day, even if you are the number one player in the world! I suggest sitting down with your child and discussing realistic expectations for their first tournament or series of tournaments. In order to improve, your child needs to be able to both win and lose humbly. The goal should be to compete against as many different players as possible, as well as have fun with the game. You become a better tennis player learning to play against all types of players, the hard hitters, heavy spin players, big servers, lefties, moon ballers and the dreaded pusher.
At the beginning, sign your child up for round-robin tournaments. This means the players play only one set, probably without ad scoring, so the matches finish around the same time. Each player plays against each other in this type of tournament, and they usually will play both singles and doubles. With this format, the player gains tournament experience and potentially makes a few friends. After the player becomes comfortable playing these abbreviated matches, you can sign them up for a double elimination tournament: If they lose in the first round, they move to a consolation bracket.
Playing tournaments is a surefire way to improve your game, although beginning at the right time is important in order for the child to keep on practicing and loving it. Understanding that winning a tennis tournament in the junior local division is not the goal goes a long way in making a successful life-long tennis player. Win, lose or draw, the goal is experience, enjoyment, and developing a passion for the game that will last a lifetime!
Jarett Cascino is currently a Teaching Professional at Midtown Tennis Club. A Minnesota native, he was a standout junior player in the USTA Northern Section, where he won multiple state championships. He played college tennis at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he became an Horizon League All-Conference player before going to on to become an Assistant Coach at his alma mater. He has taught at clubs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, France, Connecticut, New Jersey and now New York, and enjoys teaching a variety of players of all ages and levels.