My 15 year-old son was a starting outside linebacker in perhaps the most competitive program in the state. But he’s giving up smash-mouth defense to devote his time to his real passion, tennis. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he says. “There’s not enough guys talking smack on the tennis court these days. I’m gonna change all that.”
As if his proclamations about bring the NFL to the USTA weren’t enough, soon my boy was headed to a week of training at the infamous Bollettieri Tennis Academy (conveniently located a few miles from my in-laws where we all spent the holidays). I read enough of Andre Agassi’s memoir to know the pressure-cooker Seamus was headed into. I determined to stay away and let him find his own way, though I sure wanted to hear how he made out.
After the first day he came home exhausted and sunburned. “The very first thing they did,” Seamus explained in the car, “was ask everybody whose nationally ranked to raise their hands. More than half the kids had their hands in the air. As if it couldn’t get any worse some Asian kids asks, ‘Does it count if I’m ranked in Japan?'” At that we were both chuckling. “It looked really, really bad for me.”
But Seamus hung in there. He told me how many parents would videotape their kids as they played 6 hours of tennis, taking them aside to reprimand them for poor performance. The camp also included brutal physical conditioning sessions, something that Seamus was used to from football. “But the worst part was watching parents beat their kids up for not working hard enough at conditioning. I mean really…”
By mid-week Seamus had found his stride in match play and I had begun to get an education. “There’s something called a ‘pusher’ in tennis, dad,” he explained. “A pusher plays defensively pushing the ball back, chasing down everything, and setting up the other player to get too aggressive and make mistakes. Pushers are looked down about as the pariahs of the sport.”
I knew my son played a very mental game often beating players with better skills but I had never understood exactly why. The idea is to set up the other player to attempt low percentage winners. When they fail, start to get inside their head. Once they make a couple mistakes in a row it’s all over.
“When they break a racquet I know I have them beat,” he finally confessed after winning a match against a much higher ranked opponent whose parents were in the stands videotaping. “The kid told me as he shook my hand that I was a pusher and would never go anywhere in the sport. But then he had just lost 6-2, 6-2.”
At the end of the week he was tired but happy. The pusher had worked his magic and made a lot of progress. And as a father I had stayed out of his way. I did ask why he loved tennis so much on the way home from the last session and this is what he said:
You don’t know about it unless your fully immersed in it or until your checking your ranking ever day as part of your daily routine. It is hidden partially out of competitiveness. Why entice others to compete against you and make the pool of players larger? But more so it is hidden because people in the tennis world could not care less if no one sees their victories or glamorizes their rankings, like is done with high school football and basketball players.
No, tennis is driven purely from with in, and that is what makes the sport so special. There is certain definitiveness in tennis unlike so may other sports. If your football team loses, it does not mean that you’re necessarily worse than the person on the other team who plays your position. It just means, as a team, their team was better than yours today.
In tennis there is no team. In tennis there is no barrier that you can keep in the back of your mind to console yourself if you lose, like, hey we lost but at least I scored a touchdown today. In tennis if you lose it is because on that day you were the weaker player. That’s why if you watch professional tennis, the players seem so crazy. How can a person get so mad that they smash four racquets in a match?
And by the way if you want to see for yourself what junior tennis is all about, Seamus has a recommendation for you:
16-Love revolves around competitive teenage tennis, something very close to me. It is like a hidden world. Who cares about tennis anyway?…… Well let me tell you something, junior tennis to some people is like high school football in Alabama to others. Except with tennis, the world isn’t showcased but instead hidden. It’s like a secret society.
16-Love is one of the few tennis movies that is a complete success. Through it’s comedic and romantically mood (what else do you expect with a title “16 Love”) the movie progresses nicely and lets the audience relax and enjoy it for what it really is, a coming of age tale, with enough enduring moments, moral lessons, and tennis fun for any member of the family to enjoy.