Junior Tennis Is Driving Me Crazy

My son, Callum, who is 11, just won his first 14’s tournament yesterday winning the finals 10-7 in the Super Breaker that substitutes for the third set in 14’s tournaments. He was up 6-0, 3-0, love-30 on his opponent’s serve, a 13-year-old who is one of the top players for his age at the McEnroe Academy in New York City (Callum is the top kid for his age at the McEnroe Academy in Eastchester, NY), when Callum started to get tired or just lost it mentally and his opponent proceeded to come back and win the second set 6-4 and force the breaker. What drove me crazy is that Callum instead of slowing down his pace and taking time on the changeover’s (in fact, he refuses to take changeover’s; he just walks to the other side without sitting down or taking a sip of water); making his opponent think about how he was coming back and maybe derailing him, actually speeded up his pace of play. When I asked him after the match why he was rushing, he told me, “I wanted to finish the match quicker.”

“You know, by rushing and not sitting down on your changeover you’re making the match longer because you’re not evaluating what’s going on with the match changing,” I said.

It didn’t seem to have an impact on him.

But what really drove me crazy was the semifinals match. I had started the day getting Cal to do his core exercises and band work at 10 am. Then we went to McEnroe’s to hit and warm up at 11 am. Cal is starting to say that I don’t warm him up well because I don’t hit the nice topspin balls that most of his opponents hit, but I tell him to deal with it and work on not only getting warmed up, but dealing with the slices, my flat shots and my net rushes and work on his touch shots and passing shots.

Then we drove to Nyack, NY to the West Rock Tennis Academy there (I’ve noticed that most clubs call themselves “tennis academies” like they’re doing more than just giving junior lessons and programs. I also noticed Cal beat the No. 1 seed in the quarters, a West Rock Tennis Academy student, 6-0, 6-1) in Rockland County. We had to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge to get there, but thankfully the ride was only 26 minutes long (next week a big Super 6 tournament where only the top 32 kids in the 12’s Eastern Section compete and there’s more ranking points, including national points at stake, is out at Port Washington on Long Island; another bridge to cross, but also then having to drive on the dreaded Long Island Expressway), but as my friend and noted tennis pro, Jeff Greene, told Callum before the match, “Whenever you have to drive over a bridge to get to a tournament, it’s a good investment of time and you should take the match seriously.” (Callum was telling Jeff before the tournament that since it was a 14’s and he’s in the 12’s, currently ranked no. 15 in the East and the top 11 kids in the East get to go to Nationals this summer in Fort Lauderdale–clay–and hard courts in Alabama, this tournament he was playing was just a warmup for next week). Cal won his quarters match in love and 1 and then we had a four-hour wait till the semis match at 5:30 pm. We went to the big mall in Nyack and had some Thai food and then went to the Barnes & Noble where Cal picked out George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to buy and read.

Then it was back to the club for the 5:30 match. The boy he was playing was a Chinese boy from Upper Saddle, New Jersey. He had easily won his first two matches, dropping only 5 games in the two encounters, and I could see in the warmups he hit a big Western-grip forehand and had a pretty good backhand too and moved well. Cal shot out 4-1 in like 15 minutes whereupon his opponent started hitting nothing but moonballs. I kid you not, he hit nothing but moonballs, even on his return of serve. The only time he’d take a big swing at the ball was when he got a very short reply. Cal started to self-destruct. He won the first set 6-4, but then lost the second 6-4, and was crying on the court, moping around gesturing about his bad luck that his opponent was playing in this boring and annoying fashion.

I also responded rashly. I was watching the match from a video screen in the clubhouse because there was no on-court seating. And when I saw this bigger and older kid start to do nothing but moonball, I go up and said out loud in the clubhouse where Callum’s opponent’s father was sitting too, “This is bullshit!” When the father objected saying his son was playing to win and obviously had turned the table on the match and fully psyched out my son (he said he was a table tennis player and that was what you did in table tennis too), I said, “This is the 14’s. You’re son should learn to play the right way and not just throw up moonballs all the time. I was a tennis pro and I guarantee you your son will never be become a top player playing the way he is now.” Then the father said something I heard was: “Fuck you” to me (it was definitely “fuck” something and it was directed at me), and I got up out of my seat and walked up to him. He got out of his chair and stood up to me (he was about six inches shorter, but probably 15 years younger than me) and I said, “Don’t swear at me” and he said, “You swore at me.” And I said, “I did not. I said the way your son is playing is bull shit, but I didn’t swear at you.”

A woman who’s daughter was in the tournament kind of separated us, telling the other father that he shouldn’t waste his time and energy on me that I was obviously a low-life. I shook my head, said a few choice words to her and sat back down in my seat. I wanted to leave and go outside and just wait for the match to end, but I couldn’t do that to Cal, I reasoned, and to be honest, I can’t take my eyes off a single point he plays in these matches and he’s playing now like three tournaments a month. The Chinese boy (well, my son is half-Chinese too) came out smugly (at least this is how I interpreted his attitude and his swagger) to announce to the tournament director (a teenage boy it seemed) that they were going to play the third-set Super Breaker. The tournament director who hadn’t said a thing when the boy’s father and I almost came to blows in the clubhouse, walked out on the court and the Super Breaker to 10 began.

Cal went down 4-1 and I thought the end was near, but then he started to serve and volley and the other boy, particularly on his backhand, started missing.(Callum after the match told me he didn’t care if he was going to lose and that’s why he played so uncharacteristically aggressive). Callum put away a backhand volley, an overhead and went up 8-6, but then the other boy passed him and Cal netted a volley and he was down 8-9, match point. A long moon ball rally ensued, and then Cal short-hopped a moon ball and rushed the net and when the boy tried to lob him, Cal backed up and while lurching backwards, hit an inside-out swinging volley for an outright winner. The ball landed like two inches inside the sideline. The other boy had the wind taken out of his sails, at 11-10, Cal served and volleyed again and the boy hit a backhand long. I didn’t say a word to the other boy’s father when Callum closed out the 2-hour+ match, but when Cal came off the court I gave him a high-five and ignored looking at his opponent. (I usually will tell Cal’s opponents they played a good match and congratulate them; not this time.) Afterward, as always, Cal and I went over the match, I stretched him and rolled him out, and we went home to get some food, some sleep and get ready for the finals. We didn’t get home until after 10 pm.

I’m not proud of how I acted, but I can’t stand kids who moon ball, especially when they’re older and bigger than their opponent. As Cal said when he first came off the court, “I want to quit tennis. In no other sport (and he got this from me) can you moon ball your opponent for an entire match.” I vow to not have any more confrontations with my son’s opponents’ fathers…well, unless their kid starts to moon ball my kid again.IMG_0323

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  • jg · February 12, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    Especially moon balling on an indoor court, I mean you are backed up against the wall and half the time can’t even get a full swing in. I was at Sutton East a few weeks ago and there is no way you can get a good moon ball back on those courts without bumping into the bubble, it’s almost like mini golf.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 12, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Very true, Jon. Cal is only like 5-feet tall and this boy hit very accurate deep moon balls that if Cal didn’t short hop at the baseline, he had to drift back to the back wall to return. A number of times he hit his racquet against the wall as he started his back swing. Sutton East has no room behind the baseline, but I think Midtown Tennis on 28th and 8th where I used to teach, might have even less room behind the baselines.

    Look, people say to me that he has to learn how to play against these type of players and until he can beat them, they’re better than him. I’ve just never seen a lesson where the pro instructs a junior player on how to hit moon balls.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 12, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    Great win for Callum again. Moonballing is part of tennis and Callum must adapt to it and be able to dissect it. He MUST. He cannot have the flaw of not liking moonballs. He has to enjoy it, enjoy the challenge, the change of pace, it will make him a more complete player. Enjoy the challenge of beating a kid at his own game. It’s a thrill to do that. Callum is very good but his chances of making it as a top player will be higher if he can handle and conquer ALL different styles. Not just playing the same way always which is one dimensional. To be a more complete player, to beat moonballing with patience will make Callum better. I like his move of skipping changeovers and going straight to the other side. I remember a player told me Marcelo Rios also did that as a junior and sometimes in ATP. It shows Callum thinks out of the box and does it his way, instead of just following the norm. That is to be encouraged. I remember Fabrice Santoro said when he was a kid he played a lot on a court that had a short back court and he had to stand on the baseline to avoid hitting the ball wall on his backswing and it helped his game. Callum should practice that too, stand on the baseline and get comfortable doing that, to take precious time away from the opponent. But that is a fantastic win from being down in the third set deathbreaker and to win it with bold offense.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 12, 2018 at 6:51 pm

    Callum has to learn to enjoy moonballs. Take it as a challenge and an insult, that the opponents thinks you’re too impatient and too dumb to deal with excessive moonballs. The opponent is basically saying you’re a big dummy and I can beat you with stupid slow moonballs. Enjoy that challenge. And it will very much aggravate the moonballer to see his big idea fail.

  • Thomas Tung · February 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    After finishing this article, I have to admit, I smiled a bit — I often find tennis to be a great metaphor to life in general, and there is plenty of “moonballing” in real life; I feel you just have to deal with it, and take the positives out of it (forces you to read the ball better, take the ball earlier, improve your footwork). Otherwise, the opponent gets in your head: in tennis, just as in real life.

    I’m no great shakes in tennis as a “weekend warrior”, but I’m happy to play with just about anyone (moonballer or not), as long as they have a halfway decent demeanor/attitude on court (somewhat well behaved) and can hit three tennis balls consecutively over the net. That’s my criteria. If I can hit a few nice shots during a rally, or a match, I’m pretty happy.

    I “learned” to have this approach to tennis playing on both public and private tennis courts, with the public ones having more variety in terms of folks to play with (not always a positive aspect, but still great to grow from).

  • chris · February 13, 2018 at 4:47 pm

    Hey, checked out Cal’s record on UTR (making great progress!) It’s a long road…
    I watch a LOT of junior tennis, over a 120 of my daughter’s USTA matches last year (these are only the official matches) and have “seen it all.”

    Moonballers, cheaters, bathroom breaks where the kid refuses to come out of the bathroom (for 15 minutes!), fake “lets,” arguing about the score, intimadation, crying as a tactic, coaching with complex hand signals…whenever you think you have seen it all, something new comes up.

    To deal with moonballers, a top junior from CA told me he set the ball machine on “moonball” hit a few hoppers of moonballs on the rise and thus became comfortable with moonballs, just have to practice the shot.

    The best match I saw all year: Winter Nationals Boys 12s Doubles Final, these kids were unbelievable!

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 13, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for your comments Chris. Welcome to the site. Sounds like junior gamesmanship needs a special handbook!

  • Dan Markowitz · February 14, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Thanks Chris. I like the feedback. I don’t know if my club’s ball machine has a Moon Ball option, but I think that’s a great suggestion.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 14, 2018 at 10:51 am

    I will moonball Cal till he cries in Delray next week :)

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