(November 30, 2012) -- Top tour players have undoubtedly spent thousands of hours on the court, repeatedly drilling various shots until each stroke is as familiar to them as their own reflection. But, in addition to fitness training, there is another aspect of player development that the best athletes and their coaches embrace: match play.
USTA Head of Men's Tennis Jay Berger works with rising American star, Jack Sock.
Incorporating practice matches into a junior player’s training regimen may seem like a foregone conclusion (i.e. in order to perform well in a tournament, logic suggests one would play matches in preparation); though often over-scheduling, lack of access to opponents, and fear of losing keep developing juniors from competing in practice.
Jay Berger, the USTA’s head of men’s tennis and the 2012 men’s Olympic coach, has seen the problem firsthand. “I’ve been running player development camps in the nine years that I’ve been a coach at the USTA,” he said. “At every camp that I’ve run, I’ve always asked how many practice sets people play, and I’ve been dumbfounded - and these are top national players - by how few they play.”
Juniors at the USTA’s national training centers average around 12-14 sets per week – numbers Berger says are typical of many pro players during their development years.
With many tennis parents enslaved by their children’s bustling schedule of extracurriculars, promising juniors are often limited to a one-hour private lesson here and a two-hour drill-group there before being whisked away to piano lessons or soccer games. Gone are the days when Mom and Dad dropped little Billy off at the local club or park to let him duke it out with whoever happened to show up that day. As Berger puts it, there’s too much “deliberate stuff” going on at clubs, parks, and academies.
The juniors that do compete regularly outside of tournament play often train with others of the same caliber, making it easy for a good coach to match players up accordingly during practice. Meeting local talent at tournaments is another good way to add to an opponent list. But if the matches aren’t coach or parent-mandated, junior players don’t always take the initiative to compete on their own.
Tennis mom Paula McLure knows this all too well.
When her son Miller, now age 9, began playing competitively, he was uncomfortable with the intimidating world of tournament tennis. In addition, he ended up repeatedly playing the same pool of local boys. Family travel was also an issue, leaving large gaps in his training schedule.
McLure knew these were common problems within the tennis community, leading her to create a website allowing parents to find practice matches for their children anywhere in the country. After a year of planning, the multi-functional (and cleverly-named) www.juniortennismatch.com went live in October. It allows parents to request a match, participate in forum discussions, get progress reports for their child from USPTA certified coaches, rate facilities, and review other players. Most importantly, it’s an organized way to promote healthy competition.
“It’s okay if the kids lose - it’s only practice,” she said. “It’s only going to make your child better, and that’s what I want people to know.”
McLure realizes she’s taking a calculated risk by putting oft-notorious tennis parents in charge of their child’s match-play schedule, but for safety purposes, that’s the way it must be.
Of course, regardless of the tools available, parents, players, and coaches need to function on the same wavelength, buying into the long-term, experience-building goal of practice play. Juniors and their parents must also overcome any fear of losing. Short-sighted as it may be, the thought of dropping a set to a lower-ranked player can be paralyzing for some.
“Look, you’re going to play players that you’re going to beat really badly; you’re going to play players who are going to be the same, and also those that are better than you,” said Berger.
“The coaches all have to be strong in regard to the parents in terms of why we’re doing this,” he continued. “And the kids also have to play on their own time, which is really important.”
Avoiding match play can result in tragically wasted talent; players who look fantastic on the practice court, but struggle to effectively construct a point.
McLure puts it this way:
“You have a pretty forehand, but do you know how to win the game?”