Boy’s 14’s Clay Court Nationals in Fort Lauderdale

“Your goal shouldn’t be to be a great junior player,” said Francisco Montana, 49, who held No. 1 USTA rankings in the juniors from ages 12-18, “it should be to become a great player.”

Montana is a teaching pro now at the Royal Palms Tennis Club in Miami and I met up with him in the week before the boy’s 14’s Clay Court Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida started last week. My son, Callum, 13, played in the event as did Montana’s 14-year-old son, Francisco III, and Callum and Francisco practiced together before the event.

Montana, who was coached by his father, Francisco Sr., who ran a tennis academy in Miami, won the 14’s Clay Court Nationals, but he told his son the goal of a successful junior career is to develop weapons, a big serve and a big forehand preferably. I went down with my son to Miami five days before the event began to get used to the pervasive heat that is a South Florida summer. It gets hot in New York in the summer, but for the most part, there aren’t scorching days like we encountered last week in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale where for me, just hitting balls with my son one afternoon, after ten minutes my grip was so slick I couldn’t hold onto my racquet.

In the five years since my son started playing junior tennis competitively, I’ve met a number of former pros like Montana (not many as good because along with his doubles partner, Don Johnson, Montana won a couple of Masters Series events), who also have sons or daughters pursuing high-level junior tennis. I often think they have a tougher job than me in that their progeny often feel that they have to live up to the expectations and careers their fathers or mothers have set. When Callum started taking lessons after I had taught him the fundamentals of the sport from ages 2-7, all I wanted was for him to be a competent player and to enjoy the game. It all seemed to change when Chris Mayotte, a former no. 84 player who reached the third-round of the US Open, proclaimed soon after he hit with Callum that he thought the boy could play at Wimbledon one day.

Six years later, Cal is ranked no. 34 in the United States and no. 1 in New York for Rising 8th graders, but Wimbledon still seems very far away. Callum is not being home-schooled as almost all the top 14-and-under elite boys are and when I asked Montana Jr. how often he feels a boy Callum’s age should be taking a private lesson, Montana said, “I took one every day, but my father was a tennis pro.” Callum takes a private lesson once a week and less than that in the summer.

Even so, we went into the 14’s Clay Court Nationals feeling positive. Cal’s UTR is 9.94, pretty high for a 13-year-old as the Fordham University coach told me that that average UTR on his Division I team is 10.25. Cal is also starting to hit his serves bigger and while his game is moored by his solid baseline play, he’s also starting to play better inside the service line. It is so important to be able to finish at the net by the time you’re playing a 14’s Super Nationals because especially on clay, there are a lot of human backboards in the 196-player draw and with the heat of a Florida summer, you have to try to minimize the length of points and matches.

Callum got a tough draw. In his first match, he was playing a 10.25 UTR who is the No. 1 Rising 8th grader in Florida. The tournament was being held at Holiday Park at the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center where such tennis luminaries as Chris and Jeanne Evert, Brian and Larry Gottfried, Harold Solomon and Jennifer Capriati all developed their games. Their black-and-white photos along with many other famous local tennis pros were up on the very-modest tennis clubhouse walls.

Now I know the Clay Court Nationals are staged in Florida and the Hard Courts in two weeks are in Mobile, Alabama because apparently it’s easier to secure cheap courts than one’s back East, but weather-wise, it’s absurd that they stage these summer events in the torpid heat of the deep South. In my mind, they should be held in the Northeast where every day is not near 100-degrees. One boy had to exit his match and go to the hospital to get an IV. Callum ended up getting heat stroke in his last match and retiring after one set.

The seating was also compromised greatly at Holiday Park and for Callum’s first match I sat with my wife and her mother and the mother and father of Callum’s opponent in bleachers behind the fence with a windscreen covering it. Callum quickly went down 0-2, but then fought back to go up 3-2, love-30 with the other boy serving. The boy had been using uncanny drop shots and then booming passing shots to keep Callum off-balance, but Callum started hitting deeper and his coach from the John McEnroe Academy who was also watching the match, said in the first five games, Callum made only two unforced errors.

Callum’s opponent’s father departed soon after the match began, apparently too queasy to watch the match from up close. But the boy’s mother kept her seat (although she got up twice to run and get the boy Gatorades) and trumpeted out, “C’mon, Ben’s,” whenever she thought her son was flagging. I usually don’t like sitting close to the parents of Callum’s opponents–and I did get up to pace–but there weren’t too many other vantage points from which to see the court.

Two points from going up the break, Callum faltered and really had problems keeping the ball in the court. His opponent picked up his play and polished Callum off 3 and 2. As I walked away, I encountered the boy’s father who asked me, “Who won?” And when I said his son, he then asked me what the score was. I heard later that this family had uprooted their lives moving from Florida to California so their son could attend a certain academy. I guess this father had more riding on this match than me.

But I feel a sinking feeling every time Callum loses a match, particularly in a Super National. I knew this was only his third Super National and many of his 13-year-old peers have played twice or more than twice as many Super Nationals than Callum has. As I walked away and waited for Callum to come off the court, I evaluated what I had done wrong. Maybe I took us down to Florida too early and he had soaked up too much heat by arriving five days before the tournament started.

Maybe he had done too much drilling and not enough match play at Royal Palms. Maybe his opponents in the sets he played weren’t strong enough. Maybe he didn’t get a proper warmup that morning before his match. It’s a tennis match, a freaking tennis match, and I know he’ll lose many more of these before he plays at Wimbledon (I figure it’s better that I think it’s a guarantee he’ll play at Wimbledon so it’s something we’re building toward, that we’re planning on), but it’s amazing how bad it feels to lose a single match, particularly at a Super Nationals.

“Why didn’t you hit your drop shots cross-court instead of down-the-line all the time?” I asked Callum when he came off the court. “You’re hitting the ball to his forehand going down-the-line. Make him come up with something with you at the net using two hands on his backhand.”

“Were you nervous?

“Did he hit the ball bigger than you expected?”

I know it’s not good to grill Callum after a match, win or lose, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I feel like I need to know the answers right away. The anticipation is too much. We go over the match. I take him to a local fitness club and buy each of us a one-week membership for $45 apiece so I can stretch him out. There’s a Versa-Climber there and I have Callum do a few climbs on it, telling him that this is the machine Ivan Lendl said changed his game from also-ran to Grand Slam winner. I go buy him a turkey sandwich. The kid loves turkey sandwiches. After losing, Callum is always more motivated to work harder doing things he dislikes, like stretching and fitness.

The next day, playing in the Consolations at a different location, The Lauderdale Tennis club, Callum recovers. He beats the no. 1 Rising 8th grader in Washington D.C. 6-2, 7-5. I stand in the searing sun of parking lot for the whole match cheering him on, upset when people, mostly who I don’t know, come up and talk to me while the match is going on. One very old gentleman tells me how he and his son won many father-and-son competitions and I am polite, but I try not to make too much eye contact so as to hurry this interloper along on his way.

The next match is two hours after the first one ends. I have my wife drop Callum and me off at the fitness club to stretch after the match and tell her to pick us up in ten minutes while she goes out and gets him a turkey sandwich. But when she doesn’t return after 30 minutes and doesn’t answer her phone, I have Callum and I walk back to the Air B N B we’re all staying at, a 20-minute walk in stifling heat. I am beyond mad at my wife.

The next match is against the no. 4 Rising 9th grader in Illinois. He has beaten the no. 1 Rising 9th grader in Connecticut in the prior round. Everything in junior tennis is rankings and UTR’s. The match is back at the Holiday Tennis Center. Callum absolutely rips the boy in the first set, belting him 6-0. The boy comes out and starts moon-balling in the second set and this breaks Callum’s rhythm. His coach says later Callum started to rush, but he gets his mojo back and closes him off 6-4. Two hours later, Callum has to play his doubles match. At 8:30 pm he’s finally finished for the day after losing in the doubles, mostly because he’s not fully comfortable with poaching particularly on the backhand side.

We have to move out of our apartment the next day. The match he’s supposed to play against the no. 6 Rising 8th grader in Florida gets postponed because of rain and starts in the greatest depth of the heat at noon. The boy from Florida only has his mother rooting for him and she speaks Russian as did the parents of Callum’s main draw opponent. There are so many foreign languages being spoken and Asian, Indian boys and boys with European parents and my rationale for this is that tennis just takes so much time, money and commitment that mostly only successful immigrant parents or immigrant parents with tennis pedigrees are willing to put up with it.

“What am I doing here?” It’s a question I often ask myself. How did Callum and I and my wife get on this wild crazy tennis roller coaster ride? How have we devoted so much time, energy and money towards it? Is it healthy? Is it worth it? Why can’t I imagine ever stopping? I sometimes wish Callum would just say to me one day, “Dad, I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore.”

But then I get jazzed over seeing how well he hits a tennis ball. He’s like this normal just-turned-teen to me until he gets a racquet in his hands and steps on a tennis court and then at times I can’t believe my eyes over how good he is at this age? It’s silly, but I look at him a bit like he’s a Super Hero then and I get to wondering just how good he can be if he just keeps going and we make the right coaching, training and competing decisions. I could never fathom being this good and sometimes I say to Callum, “It must feel really good to be as good at tennis as you are.” Maybe trying to convince both of us that all the tennis-playing he’s doing, the tournaments he’s playing in, is all worth it.

About to go up 3-1, blistering short balls into corners with his bazooka forehand, Callum can’t win any of four game points on his serve and the long game and the unrelenting sun (he didn’t drink enough Pedialyte before the match and I stupidly bought him a frappccino at the Barnes & Noble we hunkered down in before the match), do him in. After losing the first set, my wife and I tell him he can retire and with nothing left in his tank (but to my surprise since he has never retired in a tournament match before), he does.

We drive to the West Palm Beach Airport. Callum after a couple of hours and much water is revived. When we come home, he immediately starts training on hard courts and working on certain parts of his game his coach and I felt were lacking at the Clay Courts (winning some easy points on his serve; working on taking drop shots to his backhand and drop-shotting cross-court; hitting high backhand volleys with a standard volley instead of a swinging volley). We leave for the Boy’s 14 Hard Court Nationals in one week, just Cal and I. Cal’s feeling confident. I’m holding my breath.

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  • catherine · July 30, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    Dan – I used to teach ‘inner city’ college students too once upon a time and almost all of them, from different racial backgrounds, wanted to speak what we call RP – received pronunciation, because, as you say it’s what employers generally want. You could describe it as accentless. At home, or with friends, the same students would become bi-lingual, sometimes tri-lingual – their parents’ language, a patois and RP. Most took this switching for granted. But I don’t think I ever described RP as ‘white’ and I would have got into trouble if I had.
    Not sure what this has got to do with tennis except I’ve heard Serena speaking in a slightly different accent when she’s with people outside her own circle in formal situations.

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 30, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    Dan please be careful, the political correctness police have instructed all of us not to see skin colors or hear racial differences in voices or speaking patterns. We are all equal. We can’t talk about differences, we must obey the equality myth. 🙂

  • Harold · July 30, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    Stephens with the conscious or unconscious tank to avoid Coco Jr….ha ha

  • Scoop Malinowski · July 30, 2019 at 4:43 pm

    Very possible Harold. So is coco beating sturdy veteran Diyas.

  • Dan Markowitz · July 30, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    True Catherine, you wouldn’t call this “job” language white, but we all knew it was. I don’t feel it’s racist either. Look, I once tried to write a book with Charles Oakley who was originally from Alabama, but he grew up in Cleveland and then became a New Yorker with his long stint with the New York Knicks. There was a real problem with me understanding what he said. Now I was not alone because he talked in a language many called “Oak-speak” and not only was it a slurred Southern accent, but it also had words in it that I don’t think were in the dictionary. When I used to interview him, it took me three times as long as a regular interview to transcribe what he said from the recorder to the computer screen.

    Sock is really in a funk. It’s one thing to lose to the two guys he’s lost to since coming back, but not win a set is pretty bad. Now he’s getting shellacked with Leander Paes in doubles by Peers and de Minaur. There are a lot of questions in American tennis right now:

    Will Sock ever be a top 20 player again to say nothing of top 10?
    Will Serena win another slam?
    Who has a better chance of returning to the top of the women’s game: Keys, Stephens or Vandeweghe?
    Do Fritz, Opelka and Tiafoe have what it takes to be top 20 players. Top 10?
    Who will win more slams: Anismova or Gauff?

  • Vijay · July 31, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    Scoop, since you ask, for those who choose to say AXE instead of ASK, it is usually because the word has developed in their community. It has nothing to do with race. Go to Eastern North Carolina and you’ll hear old fishing communities using unintelligible words. Similar story in the Appalachian mountains. Dialects develop over time. There’s a reason James Joyce’s Ulysses is unintelligible. He transitions, without warning, from English to some obscure dialects spoken in and around Dublin and something else, if memory serves me well. I lived in Edinburgh for a couple of years, and it was hard to understand strong Scottish accents, and rural dialects with their own expressions. None of this has anything to do with race.

    In the interests of fairness, I think you should object to all those (white) NFL commentators who use ‘defense’ as a verb, as in ‘to defense’. They also say ‘break contain’ [sic], which I think it’s supposed to mean ‘break containment’. A particularly American affliction, transcending race, is to say ‘lay down’ instead of ‘lie down’. Lay what down, one might ask. Although The Who and Eric Clapton are also guilty of this offense. Of course, I could go on.

    The (white) principal at my kid’s school had a t-shirt printed for the school, which says ‘Choose Kind — It Matters’. To which one might ask, choose what kind? Perhaps it should have been Choose Kindness, but they ran out of space? Who knows.

    As Dan can surely attest, it is the rare school in the US that teaches kids to conjugate their verbs, or how to build sentence diagrams. These are definitely not taught in poorer school districts.

    All of this is about socio-economic status, and not about race, which is usually and unfortunately used as an obvious but imperfect proxy.

  • Vijay · July 31, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    Dan, I think Opelka and Fritz have the best shot at top 20. They both have complet games. On the women’s side, I’m watching Hailey Baptiste, who looks very good. I think she’ll do better than Gauff or Anisimova. Again, because she has a complete game.

    It is the rare teenage pro who goes on to further develop their game, man or woman. Gauff has so many issues with her game, and I don’t see her developing her game and fixing the holes while still maintaining a tour schedule.

    Let me go further. It is the rare pro whose game is significantly different from what he or she had at 15. For that reason alone, I don’t see Gauff being a consistent Grand Slam winner.

  • Jon King · August 1, 2019 at 3:56 am

    The problem is none of these girls have anything special. They will all be in the pack with 50 other players. Anisimova seems on social media to want to be shiny like Kournikova rather than pay her dues, and her legs are so skinny its unlikely she will hold up to the tour grind year after year. Gauff is solid but again nothing that jumps off the page at you. Hailey Baptiste, no, just a steady 5 feet behind the baseline and hit up the middle 2/3rds of the court player, a dime a dozen with nothing special. Any of these girls can have a run and get into the top 10-15 for a bit, but none have any weapons or physical superiority that makes you think next superstar.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 5:27 am

    No confidence in Mouratoglu to develop and evolve Cocos game base? She is just 15 and not the finished product.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 5:37 am

    Or the single minded drive and dedication to be the best.

  • catherine · August 1, 2019 at 9:02 am

    I agree with Vijay, the way a girl (particularly) plays when she’s 15 or 16 is the way she’s going to go on playing. It’ll grow with physical maturity but it’ll stay the same.

    Graf is a good example of that. You could see it at 15. That she had what it took to be great. Her game needed polishing etc but it was there.

    And now, far too much social media. These cheesecake poses are really getting a bit ridiculous.

  • Vijay · August 1, 2019 at 9:03 am

    Scoop, you claimed a few weeks ago that PM was poaching finished products like Gauff, and now you want him to develop her game. So which is it?

    But more seriously, how many multi GS winners can you think of who weren’t close to the finished product, game wise, by the time they were 16 or 17? Think of Sampras, Becker, Capriati, Fed, Rafa, Williams sisters, Graf, and I can keep going on. Their game at 16-17 was close to the final product.

    Tennis players don’t change their games that much over their careers. Most of the improvement seems to be in physical and mental conditioning, and in tightening up some strokes. If Gauff spends the next year or two playing tournaments, I don’t think she will have enough to be a consistent champion. As for her drive and dedication, it’s kind of insulting to the other pros to suggest that they don’t have it as much as she does. Maybe she does. But it’s not apparent or clear. Only time will tell. But she’s not a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 9:25 am

    Well I guess the pressure is on Mouratoglou to fine tune Gauff into a top player and to get her through these still developing years. He has not done it yet with a pro or top junior player. Serena was already a finished product. Let’s see if he can do it with Gauff, Stefanos, Ngounoue and Fruhvirtova.

  • catherine · August 1, 2019 at 9:42 am

    My word Patick’s going to have his work cut out, what with all those developing players and the travelling, not to mention his new family – he married an African girl who looks a lot like a young Serena 🙂

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 10:40 am

    If Stefanos and Gauff do not continue to rise and improve it will raise more questions and doubts.

  • Jon King · August 1, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Patrick is more of a strategy guy rather than a technical guy. The issue with Gauff is she and her dad have been saying for several years she was going to be better than Serena. But Serena has 25 lbs of muscle over most ladies while also being just as fast. Serena in her prime had a huge physical advantage every time sge took the court which Gauff does not. Gauff is no stronger nor faster than other top 30-50 players. Also, like someone else said, the Gauff team wants to play more pro matches, as many as possible, so development is not a priority. The age is not that big a deal because Gauff matured so early. By 13 she was the size she is now. Gauff’s age 15 is not like most girls because she matured so early. And folks are correct, most girls play he same way at age 25 as they do at 14. Richard Ashby who has worked with many top girls has said this several times, girls do not change all that much after age 14.

  • Hartt · August 1, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    I think Stefanos will do very well. He is still young, so can make improvements, but he already has a well-rounded game, plus the drive to get to the top.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    But they can change Jon, Nadal always says he’s still trying to improve, that’s one of the biggest cliches in tennis, about trying to improve each day. I believe Gauff can change, what if she works on her serve and volley for 30 minutes a day for three months, surely that will broaden her game and also her athleticism. Where did you hear or read Gauff and her dad say Coco will be better than Serena? Gauff will play Barty in an exo later this month. Another good experience for Gauff.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    What strategic changes did he add to Serena’s arsenal? Looked like in January Tsitsipas was trying/experimenting to get to net a lot more but he lost that first match to Norrie in Hopman Cup and it seemed to discourage his forward aggression ideas ever since.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    Hartt, I agree, Tsitsipas has everything to be the best, just one thing is missing – how to figure out how to beat Felix, his arch nemesis (0-5).

  • Hartt · August 1, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    Scoop, I love “arch nemesis.” Poor Stefanos was so deflated after his last match with FAA. Fortunately he won’t have to play the youngster all that often, unless he is very unlucky.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 1, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    Hartt, FAA is the only player Tsitsipas can’t beat, he’s beaten all the other top players but he can’t solve FAA. To be honest, not sure if he will any time soon, FAA just does everything better and he has the mental edge.

  • catherine · August 2, 2019 at 10:51 am

    Gauff at 15 is already playing exhibitions ? What are her parents thinking of ?

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 2, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Catherine, it’s a smart career move. Nadal played Cash in an exo when he was 15. Arias played Laver as a teen. It’s an excellent experience opportunity for Gauff to play Barty in a live pro setting. Priceless experience. Though they do seem to be in a rush to the top and to get to stardom which is a debatable topic.

  • Jon King · August 2, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Scoop, we got to watch two of Patrick’s and Serena’s sessions when she was making her comeback from having her baby. He was pushing her then to be more aggressive on her returns and also attack the net. My point was that Patrick, even at his academy, leaves the technical changes to others. Thus he would not be the guy to help Gauff with her spotty forehand on deep balls or her 2nd serve.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 2, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Jon, very basic advice. Like a boxing trainer telling his fighter to use the jab more. And to be busier.

  • Jon King · August 2, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    Scoop, very true. Patrick also would jog around the courts and do his own workout during the sessions. Basically Serena hit with the hitting partners for the most part with minimal intervention from Patrick. She was extremely nice and came over to take a photo with my 12 year old daughter who was training a few courts over.

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