Tennis’ latest sensation, 17 year old, Frances Tiafoe, has made the decision to hit the professional circuit. Believe me, as a huge supporter of American tennis, I’m rooting for this fine young man to be a total success. He has signed with Wajid Syed of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation agency; a savvy move for this rising star.
Not too long ago, my son was training with three of the top juniors in the land: Bjorn Fratangelo, Brett Clark and Gordie Watson. Clearly, Matt Browne hit far more balls with Bjorn and Brett but he was blessed to practice, on occasion, with teenage phenom Gordon Watson of Naples.
Bjorn separated from the pack when he won the prestigious Easter Bowl and then shocked the tennis world winning the Junior French Open! Any time an American wins a Grand Slam on red clay, it is a clear sign that he is a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
But, I worry about our old friend Bjorn because he has had to sacrifice so much to obtain his lofty goals. Due to his demanding traveling schedule, he only went to Barron Collier High School for one year. So, if he sustains a serious injury or finally suffers ‘burnout’, he may be a gigantic challenge to go back to school.
In 2016, Brett, Gordie and Matt will earn college degrees and will be prepared to conquer the business world and beyond.
Additionally, Brett, Gordie and Matt will be able to reminisce about their collegiate careers, which undoubtedly will include some big wins on court, but they will also share their fine moments hanging out with their buddies.
In the new tennis generation, there have been some negative trends happening in the junior game. For example, the game of doubles has been de-emphasized. As kids travel on their respective junior circuits, their first priority is singles. Once the player loses, he/she moves into various consolation rounds to help the player earn precious ranking points. Too often, weather delays and other occurrences doom the plight of the doubles competition.
The other huge change is that far too many outstanding junior tennis players skip playing on their high school teams. Back in the day, it was a badge of honor to represent your school and the competition in many areas is outstanding.
Growing up in Milwaukee and attending Nicolet High in Glendale, Wisconsin, this proud bunch won 9 straight State Championships and did not lose a conference match for almost a decade. College coaches recruited kids from these big programs and it was a ticket to the next level. And without a doubt, these winning tennis teams brought much positive attention to each player and thus more school spirit.
Ironically, a month before the Nicolet try-outs, our family moved to Portland, Oregon and Iwas lucky to play number one for my new school, Lake Oswego High. Even though my new team was not a powerhouse like the Nicolet tennis team, I was so proud to represent the Lakers. (NBA basketball star Kevin Love graduated from Lake Oswego and played tennis as a kid). Every outstanding junior in the greater Portland area played high school tennis and the competition was solid in other areas like Corvallis, Eugene and Medford.
Most participants who excel in team sports have memories that last a lifetime. During my collegiate career, we traveled throughout the country experiencing far more highs than lows. Ironically, we accumulated more tales off-court and I’m sure many of them have been embellished.
To this day, we have had at least three outstanding college tennis reunions and one can’t put a price tag on these special commemorations. Heck, during our last reunion, we were honored on the football field before the first game in front of 73 thousand fans! Due to the richness of our relationships, we have been able to cherish just about every moment of our collegiate careers.
With the recent success on the ATP Tour, collegiate standouts John Isner (University of Georgia) and Stevie Johnson (USC), are prime examples why turning pro too early is not necessary. Or is it?
Like me, Isner and Johnson adored their time playing for their favorite universities. Both Isner and Johnson steadily improved and then achieved so many of their goals. Instead of languishing on the Challenger Pro Circuit, going from place to place in countless obscure locations, Isner and Johnson traveled to numerous high profile universities with their teammates and won a lot of matches along the way.
When a college tennis player is rising to the top, he is winning and gaining confidence and will bring this attitude to the next level. Conversely, young new pro tennis players lose week in and week out and often doubt their decision. Tennis Channel did an outstanding piece on Stevie Johnson and he alluded to the difficulties of playing on the professional level because he began to lose at each venue.
As we fast forward to present day, both Isner and Johnson are tearing up the courts with big wins in Indian Wells and the Miami Open.
I’m completely aware that all athletes have a limited shelf life but one or two years of college tennis might be the way to go. So, whether it is my friend Bjorn Fratangelo or newcomer Frances Tiafoe, good luck playing against the ‘big boys.’
Since 2000, Doug Browne was the Collier County Pro of the Year three times, and has been a USPTA pro in the area for 28 years. Doug was also honored in the International Hall of Fame (Newport, Rhode Island) as Tennis Director during the 2010 summer season. Doug has been writing about tennis for the last 19 years.