The Tennis Bubble
*Educating Tennis: a few years in the life of an emerging tennis star
– By Richard Bonte
* I have mostly used the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ to refer generally to people even though I spend most of the book talking about my daughter. I see no need to use a female pronoun to speak generally about mankind. I eschew the politically-correct term ‘humankind’.
Hope Reigns Supreme
I can still remember four years ago as if it were yesterday. It was Christmas 2006 and we had come back to Paris from Florida for three weeks. Our daughter Ali was playing two indoor tournaments and she was playing out of her mind. Or rather she was playing very much in her mind and that was the beauty of it. For two weeks, Ali, who was fourteen at the time, had decided that she would be the player she was being groomed to be at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy which was also known as IMG*. For two weeks, Ali played every point in every match in the same concentrated way. There were no histrionics, no throwing of racquets, no giving up while ahead, and no giving up in the third set. With sometimes two matches a day for two weeks, Ali was able to switch from the hard surface of Nanterre to the soft red clay at the Paris Jean Bouin stadium (where the Lagardère group is located) and wreak devastating victories on her underwhelming opponents. It wasn’t that they weren’t good but that Ali made them look bad, inconsistent and weak – just like she had been herself when playing them before. Before we had gone to Florida, that is. Before I had decided to move back to the States on a part-time basis for–almost exclusively–Ali’s tennis.
During that two-week period in 2006, I witnessed a selfish, immature and spoiled girl—with a clear history of tanking, complaining and throwing matches—suddenly transformed into the exciting, consistent left-handed player I knew she was destined to be. My friend, Bud S, who had been staying with us for a few days at Christmas, said
* IMG, the top sports agency in the world at the time, had bought out the Chris Evert and Nick Bollettieri names, putting one Academy on the East coast (in Boca Raton) and the other on the West coast (in Bradenton) of Florida.
to me after the two tournaments: I guess it’s time for you to ease the reins, sit back and enjoy the ride. She’s on her own now and all you have to do is relax and enjoy it!
Here is her story and that of the many tennis families who make the annual trek from wherever in the world to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. This is not the story of an already known quantity—a Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg or Andre Agassi—this is the story of an ordinary budding tennis hopeful and her very supportive family who has always assigned too much importance to tennis. This is the story of—including the hard work involved on what to do, whom to see and whom to avoid, which instructors to retain and which to let go—how to deal with an adolescent girl with all the tools to become a first-class professional tennis player. This is the story of devastating serves, rifle-crack forehands, pin-point passing shots and Andre Agassi–like angles that pull the opponent right off the court; of serenity and courage in the face of cheating and frustration. In brief, this is a story for all you hopefuls out there—both players and their families—and an idea of what it takes from all concerned to try and build a champion.
When a child is first born it is an open slate: its parents haven’t put their stamp on it. Neither has life. It is still an ‘it’. ‘It’, in the good sense of the term. It can do anything, be anybody, become the President, a famous actor, a rocket scientist, brain surgeon, the possibilities are endless. It is cute and loving; it smells good and makes you feel like a million bucks.
It is full of hope, an untouched meadow.
The famous American adage “Name it and Claim it” applies to ‘it’, this as yet unencumbered virgin field. You can name it anything and it will be that; you can claim it will travel to the moon and it will do as you say. It is totally virtual, so are your dreams and it is the vehicle which will fuel your limitless imagination. It is your Id, your Mega-Ego. From the name you’ve bestowed on it to the tiny clothes you’ve chosen for it, it is yours and yours for all to see—‘yours’ as in YOU, you when you were a baby, when you were ‘it’, ‘you’ in the colors it wears now and the ones you probably wore then—or at least one of you might have.
However, as you stand round admiringly, cooing and preening, you are abruptly brought down to earth as your dear friend suddenly pipes up out of nowhere: “she’s so cute, and you haven’t even had time to wreck her yet”.
So the question is who are you to wreck anything and why should you? Weren’t you just as cute and sweet when you were a few days old? Weren’t you full of promise, someone who was perfect?
Well, I don’t know how my mate was nor do I remember how I was at the same age but I do know that after the first few weeks (after my caring mother-in-law left) we were the only ones around to nurture our daughter, let alone ‘wreck’ her. This is therefore the story of how we nurtured and wrecked our daughter in the course of parental duty; it is also the story of unfailing parental love in the pursuit of our daughter’s development.
I first became involved in tennis in Riverdale in the North Bronx. We had just left Montreal at the time because my father had been transferred back to New York. He was a good club player with a terrific forehand. He would later say of me that although I became a better player than he was, I didn’t enjoy it as much as he did. Later on, I said the same thing about my daughter.
I was first taught the forehand while my future wife was being born, in April of 1958, when I was eight years old. At the time, the method of teaching was as easy as 1-2-3: 1) racquet back; 2) step forward and 3) swing straight out towards the target. As for the backhand, it was always hit flat or sliced (never topped) and you only learned once you got your forehand down right.
Our wood racquets were heavy.
The serve was both hands down, both hands up in a continuous loop but I learned that later and really didn’t serve decently until I was twelve. I became a good A player (5.0 USTA and 15/2 French ranking later when I moved to France at age 43), played college tennis for half a year until I was cut (at the University of California, Berkeley) and continued to play local tournament tennis until I was fifty when from one day to the next I couldn’t play properly anymore; my head no longer moved independently from my torso when I turned to hit on my right side.
And I was a right-handed player.
I suspected my ‘head or neck problem’ was due to extensive work done on ‘improving my forehand and serve’ which I undertook from 1998 – 2000 when I was between the ages of 48 – 50, but I could never prove this. I believe the tennis teacher I had at the time – a Frenchman by the name of Alain Manuel who radically changed my strokes on my right side (forehand, serve, smash; I stupidly let him do it because I thought he could change them at age 50!!) – was responsible for my tennis demise, but again, I could never prove this.
Basically, therefore, I lost my own tennis when Ali was eight years old and as a result, I could no longer serve as a reliable instructor/tennis role model for her, even though I wanted to.
As for my own father, he had left France as a young man, was the oldest in his family and apparently the most intelligent—so it seemed—and was a good chess and tennis player. When I was four and five, he taught me chess and although I played, I was not interested enough to become an accomplished chess player and compete in tournaments. (I came to understand that competition is what distinguishes the good from the excellent and is really the only way to go once one has achieved a certain level of play. Whatever the sport. Whatever the activity. Real competitors want to measure their particular level of excellence against that of others of the same level; non-competitors are content to just play well at whatever level they happened to attain).
My father was the latter type of guy.
In tennis, that is.
As for me, I imagined myself to be the former type of guy i.e. a true competitor, but something was missing, something that I needed to ingest to get to the next level: that something was confidence. I can’t itemize the number of matches I lost while ahead (even way ahead like 6-0, 5-0, 30-15). I won’t go into why except to say that I had been traumatized as a kid by several incidents which were mostly sports-related. I remember that my main concern for Ali was that she NOT be traumatized by anything in the way I had been traumatized.
Even so, in bringing Ali up, I believed in the dictum: expect nothing, no excuses, do something (and in that order) as enumerated by an old friend of our family, Al Brennan, who died in 2007. The thing that bothered me the most was that she expected a lot, gave many excuses and didn’t always do something but in all fairness, didn’t I do the same thing growing up? I tried not to think so, but I’m sure I did.
In fact, in analyzing the great competitors, they often expect nothing, give no excuses and do a lot. Naturally, this is only one extreme but day in, day out, the best competitors are close to this extreme.
Tennis is war
But it’s fun war, although not for everyone.
Consider: I was playing a challenge ladder match once; a guy whom I’d never met before came to my place to play (I lived outside Los Angeles in a condo complex with its own tennis court). He looked a little bit like the now-dead Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh (now I think of it), but this was 1990, not 1995. He had a very serious expression on his face and other than ‘Richard, I’m here to play our challenge match’ said absolutely nothing. We walked down to the courts in silence and played the first set. He continued his silence as I made all the calls, called out the score–when both serving and returning–and won 6-0. He took his Wilson profile and, suddenly belting out a primal scream, shattered it on the net post. Then he became very serious and calm. We played the second set and there was the same result. He took his second Wilson profile (about $200 in those days, a huge price) and destroyed it as well. Then he left without a word.
I played a notorious cheater once who qualified his 2-inch hook (that is, my ball was two inches in but he called it out anyway) as only ¼ of an inch out!
I guess he wanted to make me feel better.
This man’s son was also a player and had been so ingrained with cheating (by his father, obviously) that he even took a gun to an opponent who dared describe one of his cheating calls a cheat.
I’ve played matches in the ghetto (New York City and Los Angeles), in the snow and in the rain. One Saturday night at midnight, my partner and I took the subway up to the Harlem armory, navigated around burning cars and played our two hours at bargain basement prices. The next morning at 11 am, we found a public, snow-covered court (it was the middle of February) in downtown Manhattan. Since it was a sunny day, we cleared the snow with brooms and resumed our match.
When we were in high school, we used to buy these fake plastic racquets for young children, go out in the rain (it didn’t rain much in California in those days but when it did, it was a big event), and play hard with them until they broke.
Those days were fun. Why am I telling you these things?
Kids don’t seem to have the same fun today except at Halloween when they all dress up on the court and play. But that’s organized craziness which is not as much fun.
What it’s like to be a tennis parent
The short answer is that it’s not easy. People think that it is natural for a child to become a tennis player.
What is natural is that a child wants to emulate his parents, friends and others and do what they do. It is enjoyable and natural to hit the ball and keep it going over the net; it is learned behavior to complete the ‘tennis player’ profile by learning how to score and advanced learned behavior to want to win. A child wants to win because he wants our approval and we want him to win so we can say he’s exceptional, even ‘better than others’. Because we have our own egos to feed even though we don’t like to admit it.
The problem is when ‘winning’ is confused with ‘being better than others’.
Our parental ego is quite mixed up with a child’s natural desire to please. Paradoxically, a child will really only get better if he focuses on and enjoys hitting the ball correctly, not ‘winning,’ so to speak, against any old opponent. However, ‘winning’ does have its place in further motivating a child to ‘play someone new’ or ‘play again’ because the more you win, the more you play, the more adulation you receive, and the better you get—so winning is important and, let us not forget, the goal of tennis.
The will to win
Or how do we transform a ‘normal’ child into a Tennis Champion?
I must admit that I did have an agenda when our daughter was first born: I wanted her to become a great tennis player, and even a professional one, if she was good enough and had the desire to be one.
I brought her to the tennis courts in her pram so she could hear the sounds of tennis balls going back and forth. When she became a toddler, I observed her closely to see if she was left-handed because left-handedness was an advantage on the court. She turned out to be but I wasn’t sure for awhile, our being right-handed and left-lateralized, with her becoming left-handed and right-lateralized.
Being left-handed was an advantage if one learned how to exploit the geometry of the court, especially on the ad side. She had a good arm, she was left-handed: why shouldn’t she become a ‘champion’? Instead of someone else? Why would I leave it to other parents to ‘develop my child’ when I was more than capable (even though I hadn’t proved myself as a world-class competitor). This is how my reasoning developed.
There were other thoughts that came to mind:
Why is it important to progress in tennis?
How much do you know about what you want to do growing up?
How much is really knowing what you want before others talk to you and shove their ideas down your throat i.e. if you are extremely impressionable, and most young people are, for awhile?
Don’t people absorb snippets of feeling and decision-making by watching others and seeing how these other people work things out?
What keeps us going and keeps our dream for our children alive?
Why is it important to progress in tennis?
I think progression is the natural order of things. Use your talent or lose it and nine times out of ten, the kids who stagnate or regress regularly give up the game more quickly than the others.
Why do anything if there is no goal?
There is a natural order of things in tennis: first you learn your strokes, then tactics, and finally you learn how to play competitive tennis and put it all together and climb the ladder. What is more complicated than that? When people say they don’t want to play competitive tennis as if ‘normal’ tennis were standing in place just hitting balls to each other over the net, is that exercise more normal than running the other guy all over the court and trying to trap him into losing? One guy’s loss is the other guy’s win and most of the time the guy who loses will usually give credit to the guy who beat him because that is the nature of sport.
What’s wrong with this scenario?
Why only use tennis for exercise: competitive tennis combines hard physical exercise as well as mental effort?
Why not just let people do what they want to do? Choice?!
A lot of parents pretend to give their kid choices but they actually choose the path of least resistance so the parent gets to do what he really wants to do.
Is this really a choice of the kid or is it that of the parents? Am I really putting the kid in front of the computer, TV, game player, etc. and letting the kid decide, letting him be whatever he wants to be?
Or am I borrowing a few hours of quiet time?
If I say the kid should read books but I don’t, will the kid choose to read?
Probably not. Sounds good but I think this is just laziness on the part of the parents.
Everyone has an idea of what one wants from one’s offspring. It’s hypocritical to say one doesn’t. So why not try to mold the kid into what one wants right from the start, if, and this is a big if, the glove fits? Most of the time the glove does not fit but what’s the harm in trying at first? Then of course, the parent should have the humility to realize that he is right or wrong and to orient the kid accordingly.
Isn’t the biggest ‘choice’ the kid makes being to follow the sheep at school?
When Little Johnny at school has an I-Pad, my giving my kid one so he can be like Johnny is not a choice but a way of my buying down time for myself. Or is it to stop the screaming? The luxury of choice should be given to those who’ve experienced life a little and learned the consequences of choice i.e. NOT young children. If a child is given nothing to like or hate, what choice can that child have?
What I’m saying is that kids’ choices are formed right from the outset by us. When Agassi’s father moves a tennis ball in front of his infant son’s crib, he’s making a choice for him before he has a say in it. When I realize our daughter is a lefty and give her balloons to hit with her left hand, I am preparing her for a professional tennis career: does she have a choice? If I keep her in a stroller beside the court while I play my match, she automatically registers the sounds and rhythm of tennis—this is experience, not choice. And does my daughter really have a choice when I nag to my wife–a few years later down the line now–about my daughter, who has been watching TV non-stop for a couple of hours?
“She just doesn’t want to pl-a-a-a-yyy”.
And then I add sarcastically, saying it directly to my daughter in question:
“Oh, I see we want to watch more television, yes?”
“But you bought the Sky TV for me, Dad!”
“Yes, but I didn’t think that was all you wanted to do.”
She has made a choice i.e. watch TV rather than play tennis, but I won’t accept this alternative. Because I know that if she practices hard now she’ll be in a much better position later. What will I say to her later IF she says “I could have been a contender but you didn’t push me hard enough…on my volley, my movement, my doubles skills, my composure on the court, the list goes on…?” By being pro-active rather than re-active, I anticipate her future criticisms and I won’t have anything to reproach myself for. The only thing one could criticize me for is not being selfish enough.
I always felt that everything was based on either one’s job/studies and sport (tennis) or physical training related to tennis. And thus, when I bought a Sky transmitter and English Sky service from England to France so that my daughter would always have English as well as French, my thinking was that I was preparing my daughter’s English and future life in places other than France and the hidden expectation was that she would be reasonable and watch just a certain amount of TV.
Was this a sensible assumption to make about an eight-year-old child?
Didn’t I always really want her to choose tennis over TV watching?
And underneath this thinking–especially since I was always available—wasn’t I was just angry about my 24/7 availability and constantly being taken for granted? Wasn’t I furious about never being appreciated or listened to enough?
In my defense, I was very one-track about our daughter and had it not been for my insistence that everything was based on either studies or sport (tennis) or physical training related to tennis, I doubt she would have become as good as she did. In fact, as a father, I was always available, even if it were to only enforce homework, language use, sports or studies.
The fact remained that, had I not been there, Ali probably would never have started tennis.
When I do something, I like to do it right and it bothers me if a job is done half-assed. She might have started something else and maybe she would have been more successful at it. But she probably wouldn’t have become as good a tennis player.
And so I return to how good could Daughter Alex have become had I just let her stay in normal school in France and not moved to the USA? Would she have enjoyed the sport more or less? As a family, we attended two tennis camps at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 2003-4. As a result of these, we decided to move back to the United States in the fall of 2005 for her to attend to tennis and studies during her high school years. Would she have quit the game if we hadn’t moved? Probably not, but would she have been as good?
Our Choice at first, the Kid’s Choice later