Junior Drama at ITF Coral Gables

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Kiki Bertens wins Madrid with a sparkling win vs Simona Halep. I remember seeing Bertens for years, she was an introverted player, a journeywoman, who never smiled on the court, there was no joy at all for her playing tennis. She played like she was a machine. Then she played IPTL in Asia three years ago with the team format and she smiled so much there in the team matches that it seemed to have a transforming effect. She and her coach Raemon Sluiter walked by one day and I mentioned her smiling in IPTL seemed to help her play better. This was in Miami in 2017 and she smiled again and agreed it was a lot of fun playing with Kyrgios, Melo and Bagdhatis for the Singapore Slammers. It looked like the IPTL experience changed Bertens in a small way. Now look at her…she’s a top WTA player, ranked 4 in the world…

The importance and power of the smile…

So I went to check out the Coral Gables ITF Grade 4 this week for a couple of days. Of course, being around high level tennis, it’s easy to learn some insider stories and be inspired by the excellent play by all these mini professionals. Like one of the boys players is friends with a friend  of mine who lives in Miami. This junior who will go to Rollins College in the fall, recently had the chance to hit with Adrian Mannarino in South Beach. Both the junior and ATP star were at the public courts and Mannarino’s girlfriend asked him to hit with Adrian. They hit and the kid said he actually felt pretty even and comfortable with his ATP top 50 power but the difference was “he just didn’t miss.”

He had another story about knowing someone who knows Novak Djokovic and they hung out together but the key to the chance to associate with Djokovic was you have to make the decision to be “either a fan or a friend.” If you act like a fan wanting a photo or autograph, you won’t last long in the presence of Djokovic. If you’re cool and not overwhelmed, you can tag along and be a part of the group. Hey readers, the lesson is: Be a “friend” not a “fan” of a pro player. Treat them like a normal person and they will return the favor.

I saw something at this tournament I never saw before. Two matches on adjacent courts, both ended at the exact same moment. And all four players happened to be in the middle of the their courts at the baseline after each match point ended and all four boys on the two courts came forward down the middle and shook hands at exactly the same moment. It was perfect synchronicity. From my side of the courts it looked like double vision. I still can’t believe this happened and never will forget it. Nobody next to me noticed it either, the mom of the girl on the far court was busy focusing on watching her daughter battle an Argentine who was the slowest player in the world. She was ten times slower than Nadal. She stalled on everything, the towel, picking up balls, every point, all match long. She even went to the baseline to return serve then changed her mind to go pick up a ball on her side and send it to the server. She was never ready to return when the server was ready. The slow player ended up losing 76 63. And the winner, from northern California made it to the finals losing in three sets.

The son of the agent of the greatest player of all time played in the boys division with his mom, a TV commentator now and a former top 5 player, watching and quietly cheering him on under a white Laver Cup hat. The kid looks young, maybe 14 or 13, skinny but he has a very nice game and feel for the ball. He reminds me of a young Robin Haase. He surprisingly beat a much bigger stronger and older South American kid in the first round but then lost to another bigger stronger older Thai kid in the second round. But he was competitive and showed very good talent and skills.

I met Dan Cloutier, a coach from Tennis Canada who was here with an armada of Canadian juniors. He told me a good story about Felix and Shapovalov. When Shap had his big run at the Canadian Open Masters two years ago, he had the chance to stay at the tournament hotel in Montreal and be among all the big ATP players but he chose instead to hang out together with his pal Felix in a family apartment of the Auger-Aliassimes and spend time together each day with his good friend.

He also said how Tennis Canada will send groups of juniors to Florida in the winters so they are not just locked in playing primarily indoor tennis.

Two girls who trained together in NJ for years met again at the tournament but they are not friends. They did not greet each other or talk or even play doubles together. The older player by a year and a half is ahead of the other, having won two nationals already in 16s and 18s while the younger is “always in her shadow” but a very fine player herself who is attracting attention with her very good results like finals at a Puerto Rico ITF and recently winning a women’s open USTA money tournament in Miami. The younger moved to Florida to train here full time in January – she’s home schooled. The older one goes to normal school and just started playing ITFs last month in Canada where she got points as a wildcard, losing to a Canadian who is ranked in the top 100, 75 63. She reached the semis in singles and doubles here. She is a very good, smart player who makes tennis look easy despite a slight body frame.

The younger one had a good run also, winning an exciting first round match against the older, stronger girl who just won the ITF Grade 4 in Delray Beach last week in singles and doubles 46 63 62. But she lost her second round 61 64 to a tough girl from Oklahoma who was trained for a year by former ATP top 100 American Bobby Reynolds, who was a college coach in Oklahoma. Reynolds was here scouting players for Auburn where he is now the head coach. What struck me was the girl from NJ played with such low passion and intensity, compared to the last match we played together in late January where she was super intense and tenacious, exhorting herself on all match, Cmon, Let’s go, right here. She played me with a sense of revenge and fury because I beat her the last set we played in November. You wonder and worry if she has the right coach or she is losing her love for the game? Is she enjoying it for the right reasons? There are a lot of speculations about the choice of coach made. Almost all of the top coaches in Florida I ask about this older man who has no record of success, either decline to say anything about him or say he’s not considered a quality coach for a player aiming to go pro but he’s good for beginners and young players about basic techniques. You also wonder and worry if this coach is using guilt and emotional blackmail to trap the family into staying with him because he has no other quality juniors and this girl is maybe his last best hope to achieve renown as a successful academy coach.

The girl did not smile once during her loss, nor did she seem to have any kind of special bond with this coach, nor did the mother who sat ten yards away from him. Also her lack of intensity and missing passion were alarming.

Whenever a girl tells her mom to call and tell another girl’s mom, when they are both at the same tournament, to NOT watch her play and to stay away from her court is a curious sign. A good, tough, confident player should turn that into a positive, and think that everybody who comes over and watches you play is paying respect, they are not a “distraction.” Why turn a friend into an enemy?  Turn the distraction into a positive. Use that as extra motivation and inspiration to show them your best tennis, most of the best players – except for Richard Gasquet, as Gael Monfils once revealed – love to play in front of big crowds and can use the crowd to their advantage. Jan Siemerink once told me something I will never forget, for my Facing McEnroe book: “Tennis is all about tension, tension, tension. It’s about how you deal with it.”

This girl’s coach is a nice man but demonstrated questionable behavior for a senior citizen. He said something at his academy in January to two 16 year old boys on the court that I can’t repeat, with a 14 year old girl on the next court over. If he said it to kids in school I am certain he would have been fired that day or suspended. I even asked the kids later what he said that was so funny and the one kid said, “I can’t say.”

The journey from juniors to pros is a wild, wacky and difficult adventure. There are millions of juniors striving to be the next Federer or Osaka. Many mistakes will be made, there will be many highs and lows and wins and losses. There will be con-artists and bluffs made by big talking coaches who have no record of achievement but boy can they talk a good game about their plans that have never worked in three decades.

Bizarre things have happened in junior tennis, such as Xavier Malisse becoming upset by a chair umpire and pushing the ump chair forward into the court. Marcelo Rios hitting drops shots and then slamming overheads at his opponent. Andre Agassi wearing nail polish and blue jeans in a junior tournament. One of Frank Dancevic’s opponents, who was losing, going to a corner of the court and getting on his knees and praying to try to win the match.

But I didn’t see anything nearly as wacky as those examples. Just about all the kids were well behaved and mature, other than a few line calls and disputed clay marks. I only saw one kid smash a racquet in two days.

I did invite one friend who lives in Miami to come over and see the matches. He didn’t know about this ITF tournament and happened to be free that day and drove over and loved the high quality action so much he came back by himself two days later.

Check out the ITF Junior web site to see an ITF junior tournament in your area…



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  • catherine · May 13, 2019 at 4:16 am

    A topic maybe distantly related to this thread. It all sounds a bit desperate to me. Something thought up on a marketing course no doubt. I wonder how much the whole charade cost ?

    What It Takes to Succeed at the WTA: idiotic ideas.

  • Hartt · May 13, 2019 at 8:31 am

    I don’t even mind the idea, but worry that the WTA will make a hash of it, the way they do with so many things.

  • catherine · May 13, 2019 at 10:57 am

    Well, I think it’s superficial junk. What’s ‘authenticity’ when it’s at home ? The WTA would do much better scrutinising the extremely poor attendance at many women’s events and deciding what can be done about it.

  • catherine · May 13, 2019 at 11:11 am

    ‘Authenticity’ turns out to be only one of the great qualities the WTA is hoping fans will bring to their ‘journey’ through a number of vague and voguish activities promoted by this program. ‘Players wear their hearts on their sleeves’ according to WTA-speak. Well, they don’t actually and the more fans try to find out about them the less they’ll want to tell you. So they’ll make it up. These are public people and public people, unless they want to go insane, keep a lot of their lives to themselves.

    I’m probably alone in my views but I think it’s a terrible idea and I’ll be ignoring it.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    Catherine, Federer practice sessions are never empty. If only WTA could clone Federer 🙂

  • catherine · May 14, 2019 at 2:40 am

    What is Takes to Succeed in Tennis is talent – you don’t have that then there’s not much point in the other stuff. The WTA seems obsessed with the ‘fan experience’ but if the ‘product’ is good enough the fans will take care of themselves. Seems there’s pots of money to throw around on weird marketing ideas so maybe some talent-spotting trips could be funded to places where women’s tennis isn’t strong or doesn’t exist. Take along a few top players and get them out of the WTA comfort zone of photo shoots, self-regarding interviews and IG trivia.

    Clone Federer ? Why not clone Serena ? Her match attracted the best crowds yesterday, as far as I could see.

    And I’m still not sure what ‘authenticity’ has to do with anything, apart from the provenance of art works.

  • Hartt · May 14, 2019 at 7:08 am

    The WTA needs to hope for some young player who have variety and are exciting to watch.

    Speaking of players who are exciting to watch, my “Bianca” plant is blooming again. I hope this is a good sign for her return from injury. 🙂

  • Hartt · May 14, 2019 at 7:09 am

    That was supposed to be players (plural).

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 14, 2019 at 7:59 am

    What it takes to succeed in tennis is good coaching and a player with talent and the right attitude. A coach who makes lewd comments around kids or manipulates his player to break a committment to another doubles player 30 minutes before the deadline after the player and her father waited for two days is not a good coach. A coach who has no proven record of creating any pro players but wants the family to commit their player to him for four years is also showing signs of selfishness. The truly good coach out for the interests of the player and not himself would take it short term and if the results are disappointing, the coach would willingly let the player move on to a better coach. All coaches have to continually prove themselves like the player.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 14, 2019 at 8:02 am

    The Canadian coaches are teaching their juniors variety and slices and going to net. I saw the Canadian juniors play, they seem to be ahead of the American coaches who focus on baseline baseline baseline. Nice to see these Canadian juniors with so much variety already in their games.

  • catherine · May 14, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Hartt – I posted on the Rome thread about some WTA resuts today. Hope Bianca flourishes along with your plant – can’t wait for her to return in good shape.

    The WTA seem to see its role as passive – as if marketing and advertising and making sponsor deals will create good players but I’m not convinced of that. The organization could be more pro-active and stop trying to be a one-stop shop for fans.

  • Hartt · May 14, 2019 at 10:23 am

    Scoop, I am so glad to hear that the Canadian coaches are teaching their juniors to play with variety. That will stand the players in good stead, and will provide more enjoyable tennis in the future.

    Shapo, FAA and Bianca all play an aggressive style, and are pretty good at the net (although they can still improve), so they are good role models for the juniors.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 14, 2019 at 10:35 am

    Hartt yes they are and the Canadian coach I spoke with Dan Cloutier really impressed, Actually believe some of these American development coaches need to copy what the Canadians are doing, and not adhere to things like the prehistoric Hopman methods which aren’t working anymore. There is a lot of disunity and discord with the USTA gameplans, I didn’t get any sense of discord in the Canadian system.

  • Hartt · May 14, 2019 at 10:59 am

    Bianca talked about the training she received through Tennis Canada. She was at the Toronto training centre, rather than the national one in Montreal, but I imagine the situation is the same at both. She said there weren’t a lot of players, so the coaches could give a lot of attention to individual players.

    I also like the attitude of Tennis Canada officials. They acknowledge that they can’t create top players, merely assist them in their development.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 14, 2019 at 11:21 am

    Canada is the undisputed leader in tennis development right now and Andreescu, Felix and Denis are the evidence. I wish I spent more time with Dan at the Coral Gables ITF but he did tell me some of the things they do. He also said Raonic and Bouchard were the players who also helped trigger this tennis explosion.

  • Hartt · May 14, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Yes, Raonic and Bouchard were key. Thanks to them we even get more TV coverage of tennis matches now.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 14, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Pospisil was a good soldier too but Raonic and Bouchard were the generals.

  • catherine · May 15, 2019 at 1:51 am

    Rainer Schuettler used to coach Pospisil. Must have been a while ago.



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