college tennis

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Lauren Smyczek: Growing up with ATP tennis player and brother, Tim

Alec, Lauren and Tim Smyczek (L to R)

Lauren Smyczek is the newest contributor to Tennis Grandstand, and the younger sister of current ATP pro, Tim Smyczek who is playing at the Australian Open this week. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenSmyczek where she talks tennis, fashion and life.

By Lauren Smyczek

For years, the Smyczek children, Alec, Tim and I, left the house at five in the morning for my older brothers’ tennis practice before school. I usually ate a donut on the couch while they hustled, but on a good day I would serve a bucket of balls or hit against the wall.

Growing up in Wisconsin, we didn’t take family vacations because most weekends were spent training or road-tripping to various USTA tournaments. Consequently, most of my earliest memories take place on or near a tennis court.

Tim, now 25 and three years my elder, excelled through the junior circuit and currently plays on the ATP Tour, reaching his career-high ranking of 125 just this week. He is in Melbourne for the Australian Open and just defeated Ivo Karlovic to reach the second round – a feat our entire family is very proud of.

So, what was it like growing up with a brother who would go on to play professional tennis on the ATP tour?

The training and travel were grueling, intense and challenging, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Jealousy never entered the picture in our family. If you knew Tim at all or had ever seen him pick up a racquet, you saw how much he loved tennis. Seeing how he literally never wanted to put his racquet down as a kid, you couldn’t help but want him to succeed.

I, however, had a very different experience with the sport from my brother. Early on, I just never felt the love and commitment Tim felt for tennis, so it began to be more of a burden than anything. It wasn’t until my college years that I realized just how much tennis meant to me.

By the time I was in middle school, Tim had already started traveling to tournaments and training with his coach almost every weekend. By that point, it was pretty clear to me that I couldn’t force the tennis thing anymore — my heart was elsewhere.

Around age 11 or 12, I realized that I enjoyed wearing the tennis skirts and cool shoes more than actually competing. Unlike Tim, I didn’t have that fight in me once I stepped on the court. He had won the state championship as a freshman and thus decided to begin playing tournaments rather than participating on the school team. As a result and due to my own work ethic, I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel as well, but this made tennis difficult for me to enjoy at times.

Then one day, I finally realized that I didn’t have to do absolutely everything that my older brothers did — so I ventured into doing theater to explore other activities. My tennis-driven family was not into theater much so their initial failure to understand why I would choose acting and singing over working harder at tennis for a shot at a college scholarship didn’t surprise me. However, being a close-knit family, they quickly supported my decision.

Rather than running away from a sport I had been surrounded with all my life, I decided to keep up with it in high school in order to be a better-rounded student. It may not have been my favorite high school experience but I believe I got through those years of playing and training thanks in part to my wonderful teammates, fantastic coaches, and other diversions in the form of multiple high school musical performances.

When I headed off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a transformation I wasn’t expecting occurred.

Once I left high school, a huge weight had been lifted in regards to tennis. The sport became something I now chose to pursue. Whether it was growing up in a tennis family, or playing alongside someone as successful as my brother, I was always my own worst enemy growing up when I didn’t perform how I wanted to on court. All of a sudden in college, my desire to play was rekindled when the pressures drifted away and I began enjoying it more than I ever anticipated.

I arranged hitting time with friends because I wanted to get better and to have fun with it. For me, finally being able to enjoy playing tennis was all about perspective. I got involved with the club tennis team at UW and loved it so much that I started running it my sophomore year. I had such a great experience my freshman year that I almost felt it a responsibility to give back and try to provide the same caliber of experience for the new players. I met so many wonderful people and have such fond memories from the club team.

Tennis now means more to me than my 12-year-old self could ever comprehend. And here’s the cliché, though very true: it is a healthy pastime I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

From all those years on court as a kid, to my involvement during my early adulthood, I can firmly say that playing tennis has helped form me into the person I am. And what’s more, the sport allows us to create an instant, universal bond with others.

And what can be more enjoyable than stepping on court with your family and friends for a fun hit? Nothing, I say.

Get to Know Jack Sock: Jack vs. the “Beasts”

Jack Sock at 2011 U.S. Open

by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Get to know the newest American tennis player on the professional scene, 18-year-old Nebraskan Jack Sock. I caught up with him during the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs last week and got his views about turning pro and the necessary expectations, his time training and getting to know Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, his most memorable match at this year’s US Open (it’s not what you might expect!), and his upcoming schedule for 2012.

The 18-year-old was vying for a main draw spot in next month’s Australian Open as he was treated like a local hero at the event and a heavy crowd favorite. Unfortunately, Sock’s plan was cut short as he had to retire in the third set of his match versus Denis Kudla due to cramping.  Sock returned the following day, however, in good spirits and buoyed by the local support surrounding him to watch the rest of the event. For all of his junior accomplishments, he’d already won the love of the Atlanta tennis community for a singular achievement: teaming up with Racquet Club of the South doyenne Melanie Oudin to win the 2011 US Open Mixed Doubles title.

I asked Sock what it was like to make the most important decision of his life thus far: turning pro straight out of high school, foregoing the college route players like John Isner have chosen to pursue.

Sock said it was “obviously a very difficult decision when you’re 17-18 years old.  You don’t really grasp the concept of turning professional in a sport. For me, growing up, I played lots of team sports, and really loved the team atmosphere. Still do. So, for me,  I really would have looked forward to playing on a college team, being on a team with some friends, and competing as a team and representing a school. In the end, I’m also someone who, when I start something, I like to finish it.  I thought if I’d gone to school, I would want to stay, get a degree and finish what I start, but I felt ready to take the next step and turn pro.”

When asked about comments from fans and others expressing disappointment that Sock did not follow the route of pursuing a university education, Sock said that it was the first he had heard of any comments, and that he doesn’t delve into the internet looking for editorial comments about him.

Sock recalled his most vivid memory of this year’s US Open as being the Andy Roddick match on Arthur Ashe in which he lost in straight sets, but learned a great deal.  ”Andy’s a good friend. Both being from Nebraska is crazy. It’s crazy to be playing another guy from Nebraska in a Grand Slam. The whole build-up, seeing your name for a night match on Arthur Ashe is pretty crazy. The whole introduction, the interview before the match starts, walking out on the court, seeing the lights on, how many people, 18,000, cheering for you, especially an All-American match is pretty crazy.” I reminded him that there were even more people both inside and outside of Arthur Ashe watching him that night.

2012 will be the first full year of Sock’s professional career. It will also be his first full year of tennis at any level. “I think this next year will be the first time I will play a full schedule. Obviously, I went to a public high school for four years so I wasn’t able to play the full ATP  Challenger/Future circuit like some other guys who turned pro a little younger. So far, I’m loving it.”

Regarding the new expectations and burdens that turning pro entails, he indicates that “you usually don’t want to think of it as a job. The decision to turn pro is not so much different than when you’re an amateur. The only difference is you’re taking responsibility for yourself now. You’re not having people make decisions for you. Going into this new year, I have to start making decisions on my own, being a lot more professional about the approach to the tournaments and getting better at tennis and more physical in order to hang with these guys, especially in five set matches.”

But the biggest difference, Sock added, is that “these guys are so physical. They’re beasts on the court. If you want to hang with them and compete with the best in the world, you ‘ve obviously got to be in incredible shape and you’ve got to have an incredible mind, so I think that’s the thing that hits you when you see these guys play.”

You would think it would be difficult to play at the US Open and a Masters series event like Miami, as Sock has, and then wind up in a Challenger event the next week. But he seemed to dismiss the notion that there are extreme highs and lows. “It’s a different atmosphere, but every one’s still good at tennis, everyone can still hit the ball. Maybe less people are watching, but you have to try to get some points, and you have to get some matches in. Hopefully, I’ll get through it sooner than later.”

Sock follows College Football closely, most notably his Nebraska Cornhuskers. “I went to the (Nebraska-) Washington game, earlier this season when I was up there visiting my brother and my dad. I think they’re on the right track, and their first impression as far as the Big Ten is that the other teams obviously respect them. The defense was a little weaker this year than previous seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how next year goes. We just let go of our Defensive Coordinator and I think next  year they’ll do really well.”

Sock is currently managed by CAA, a sports management firm which represents Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Fernando Verdasco. Sock’s interactions with the firm’s other clients preceded his relationship with CAA. ”Even before I was with them, at the Open last year, I got to warm up with Novak for a week. He liked the consistency of warming up with the same person, so I was either warming up with him or practicing with him when he was off. This year, at the Open, I got to know Murray. I mean, I got to talk with him and spend a little time with him.

His immediate plans are to return to Florida to compete in futures for the first two weeks of January and then resume training in preparation for San Jose and Memphis, where he was awarded wild cards to compete. The USTA announced on Monday that he will also be awarded a wild card to the 2012 Atlanta Tennis Championships next summer. “The next couple of months are basically based on how the the beginning of the year goes. The better you do, the better tournaments you’ll play. If not, it’s back to playing some Futures and Challenger and see how that goes.”

Steve Fogleman covered the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Georgia. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.

Ryan Harrison on Andy Roddick’s influence, deciding to turn pro, and becoming a top 50 player

Harrison BH

On a day filled with American men dominating in their respective matches, rising teenager Ryan Harrison defeated Mischa Zverev in 3 lop-sided sets, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1. In his post-match press conference, he pinpointed specific times in the match where momentum changed and even talked about the role Andy Roddick has played in the development of his mental game.

Harrison has had a breakthrough summer plowing to a career-high #82 in the world after becoming pro as a 15-year-old and signing with the prestigious IMG management group. With his semifinal runs in Los Angeles and Atlanta recently, his confidence is soaring. And he expected nothing less, recalling that he always “wanted to be a pro so badly. I wanted that to be my profession. Everyone talked to me about the college experience, the college life, and my answer was: ‘Why do I need that when I want to be a professional tennis player?’ It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He touches on discussing the decision with his parents but came to a conclusion very quickly and “it was a no-brainer. I said ‘I want this. I’m going to make it happen.’ That’s just the way I am. If I want something, I’m either going to get it or die trying.”

And get it he did on Tuesday evening, but not without a set-long drop in play. “At the beginning of the match I thought I was actually doing good. I started off well, I was serving well. It was frustrating at the beginning as I was returning really good … I felt it was opportunity after opportunity to get on top, and he was just hanging around.  I never really got that break that I was looking for. Then, finally I snuck out a break at 5-4 in the in the first set. I was relieved to get it. At the same time you’re happy to break, but you’re disappointed that you couldn’t close it out sooner. At the beginning of the second set, he started swinging out. Once he broke, he just loosened up… He started swinging out on a couple of balls and he connected. It just got away from me really quickly. I just started getting physically drained because of a lot of traveling, just getting used to the new time zones. But I got a second wind. At the beginning of the third set, I picked my energy level up and was able to get back on top.”

Zverev attacked the ball, rushing to the net any opportunity that he got, and that proved to be the difference in the second set. However, as Zverev’s mis-hits increased, his play decreased, and with it Harrison got the momentum back. When reflecting on how his year has been so far, he responded “I’ve been having some of the most exciting moments of my career, and it’s exciting to be playing.”

His goals going into the U.S. Open is to become a top 50 player and he thinks that it’s definitely possible. “ I’m 25 to 30 spots away right now … with a deep run here, good showing in Cincinnati, and in Winston-Salem , they could all do that for me. At the US Open I know I can play well; I played well last year but lost a heartbreaker in the second round. I don’t want to say any round goal I want to get to. I honestly believe that no matter who I draw, at the end of the day, I have a shot to win. It’s about putting it together and making consecutive match wins is going to be the trick.”

And speaking of tricks, Harrison admitted to be a very coordinated tennis-loving kid, having started playing tennis at the age of 2. “I don’t really have any memory not involving tennis. I had good coordination from a young age, I was able to hit the ball over the net by the time I was 3; we have it on video… Tennis was just something I was passionate about and I was really motivated to be good at it.”

He speaks respectfully of Andy Roddick and the role he has played in the young Harrison’s life during his climb up the ranks. “I’ve gotten a lot of advice from Roddick, especially, because we’re similarly wired and the fact that we’re both high-strung and very intense. So he’s talked to me about how he learned to channel his energy and it’s been very helpful to me to the start of my career.” Roddick is surely an interesting character to be receiving mental advice from, but perhaps this gives Harrison a head-start to develop his character in a positive light to fans – something that has taken Roddick years to achieve.

Harrison even went so far as to add that in two to three years he sees himself as a “grand slam champion. Multiple grand slam champion.” Watch out, Federer, there’s a new king on the rise.

Follow me on twitter as I cover the Legg Mason Tennis Classic all week! @TennisRomi

USTA Becomes Title Sponsor And Host Of USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships In 2010

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., September 5, 2009 – The USTA announced today a three-year sponsorship agreement with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association to become title sponsor of the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships, the USTA/ITA National Small College Championships and 88 USTA/ITA Regional Tournaments starting next year. Additionally, the USTA will host the 2010-12 USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

“This partnership with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association reinforces our commitment to college tennis and our efforts to create a complete competitive pathway for the USTA and American tennis,” said Patrick McEnroe, General Manager, USTA Player Development. “College varsity tennis is an integral part of the development process for the vast majority of American players.”

The ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships features a 32-player singles field and 16-team doubles field for men and women, including: champions from the 24 Division I ITA Regional Championships, the ITA National Small College champions, the winners of the ITA Men’s All-American Tennis Championships and ITA Women’s All-American Championships, and at-large and wild card selections made by the ITA National Tournament Committee.

“The ITA is delighted that our USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Singles and Doubles Championships will be sponsored by the USTA and hosted at the fabulous new indoor tennis facility at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center,” said David A. Benjamin, Executive Director, Intercollegiate Tennis Association. “The original Intercollegiate Tennis Championships were administered by the USTA at the turn of the 20th century, and it is wonderful to have this extraordinary event return to its historic roots in the first decade of the 21st century. We’re also excited to be the first national collegiate championship that will take place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and we know that all of our outstanding men and women varsity student-athletes will be thrilled to be competing on the same grounds as the past and current legends of the game.”

This USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Tennis Championships was inaugurated in 1978 for the men and 1984 for the women. Past champions and finalists include current professionals Benjamin Becker (Baylor), James Blake (Harvard), Bob and Mike Bryan (Stanford), Laura Granville (Stanford), John Isner (Georgia),Kevin Kim (UCLA), and Lisa Raymond (Florida). Big Ten legends and Grand Slam finalists Todd Martin (Northwestern) and MaliVai Washington (Michigan) are also among the past champions.

“This is an exciting and important step in the right direction for the USTA,” said 1999 US Open finalist Todd Martin, who won the 1990 ITA Intercollegiate Indoor singles title as a sophomore at Northwestern University. “College tennis was a critical step in my development as a player. When I won the ITA Indoors, it was the first sign that maybe I had what it took to make it on the pro tour.” and the USTA is smart to recognize that 99% of our juniors should be going to college not only to get a great education, but as part of the player development path to the pros.”

The USTA/ITA Regional Championships include varsity college tennis players from all NCAA Divisions as well as small colleges and junior colleges from across the country. In all, close to 10,000 players from nearly 600 schools participate annually in the ITA Regional Championships. A total of 88 host sites include 24 from the Division I level and 64 from the small college divisions nationwide.

The new USTA Player Development unit has been created to identify and develop the next generation of American champions by surrounding the top junior players and young pros with the resources, facilities and coaching they need to reach their maximum potential. The Player Development program is based at the USTA Training Facility in Boca Raton, Fla., and also utilizes the USTA West Coast Training Center in Carson, Calif. Last year, the USTA announced its first two Certified Regional Training Centers, in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as part of its expanded efforts to develop future American tennis champions. The USTA expects to name approximately ten more Regional Training Centers over the next five years.

An Answer To The Olympic Team Competition Dilemma

When the Olympic tennis competition begins on Sunday, August 9 at Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Centre, there will be one element missing to what is a magical and unique experience in the sport. While players face much different pressures than they have ever felt in the sport (i.e., lose this match and your medal chances are gone forever, or at least for another four years, if you are even still playing top-level pro tennis by then), players never face the pressure – and excitement – of a TEAM competition.

I was fortunate to be the press officer for the last three U.S. Olympic tennis teams for the USTA (1996, 2000, and 2004) and I particularly remember my stint in 2000 in Sydney when the U.S. women’s team of Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles, captained by Billie Jean King, was dubbed the tennis version of the “Dream Team.” However, outside of Venus pairing with Serena in winning the doubles gold that year, the “team” concept was nothing more than a “dream.” All four standout future Hall of Famers were playing as individuals. They all wore the same USA sweat jackets, traded the same USA Tennis Olympic pins and appeared together a pre-event “team” press conference, but they were not a “team” competing for the same goal – sharing the thrill of victory and suffering the agony of defeat. Anyone who has played team tennis – whether it be Davis Cup, Fed Cup, World Team Tennis, college tennis, high school tennis or USTA League Tennis, knows that you are not just playing for yourself, but for your teammates and your country, college, school or friends. There’s that additional pressure, the intangible element that causes for a different level of excitement and makes a player dig deeper or feel the heat even more.

Observers have suggested that a separate team competition be added to the Olympic program in addition to the men’s and women’s singles and doubles competition. However, there are two issues that will make this difficult, it not impossible. For starters, the tennis calendar is messed up already as it is (even without the Olympics being thrust into the schedule every four years), so wedging in another, separate team competition and extending the Olympic tennis competition beyond an eight or nine-day event would not be feasible. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, had a motto for the Games which is “not winning but taking part.” With this in mind, it is a high priority for the International Olympic Committee and the International Tennis Federation that as much of the tennis globe as possible is represented in the Games, including players in 2008 field, including Komlavi Loglo from Togo and Rafael Arevalo from El Salvador in the men’s field. It’s an important element to increasing the popularity of the game worldwide to have players from as many nooks and crannies be represented – as appropriate – to provide for role models and goal-setting in developing tennis nations. Tennis needs to have its “Jamaican bobsled team” so to speak.

My idea to bring a team element into the Olympic competition – without jeopardizing the tennis schedule and the opportunities for as many nations as possible to compete – is to implement a “points” system to determine the winner of the gold, silver and bronze winners of a team competition. For every singles or doubles match that a player or team wins at the Games, his or her nation would be awarded one point. The nation with the most points at the end of the Olympic singles and doubles competition will be declared the winner of the gold medal in the team competition. The second place team wins the silver and the third place wins the bronze.

This is not a novel concept. Until the NCAA team tournament was implemented in 1979 in American college tennis, this format was used to determine the NCAA team champions. Certain college conference championships, for example the Southeastern Conference (SEC), also used the formula to a degree in determining the team champion up until the early 1990s. High school state competitions also have used the formula. My high school team, New Canaan High School, was declared the Connecticut State High School “Class LL” State Champions with a similar format in 1987.

Here’s how the competition would have turned out in the last three Olympic tennis competitions;

2004 Olympics – Athens, Greece

Men                                                      Women

Gold – Chile (15 points)                         Gold – France (10 points)

Silver – U.S. (14 points)                         Silver – Russia (9 points)

Bronze – Spain (8 points)                                   Australia (9 points)

- Croatia (8 points)

2000 Olympics – Sydney, Australia

Men                                                      Women

Gold – Spain (10 points)                        Gold – U.S. (16 points)

Silver – France (9 points)                       Silver – Belgium (10 points)

Bronze  – Canada (8 points)                    Bronze – Russia (7 points)

1996 Olympics – Atlanta, Ga. USA

Men                                                      Women

Gold – U.S. (10 points)                          Gold – U.S. (17 points)

Australia (10 points)                   Silver – Spain (13 points)

Bronze – Spain (8 points)                       Bronze – Czech Republic (9 points)

An issue that comes up is a case of “ties” in point totals – which would not be unprecedented in Olympic competition. Perhaps there are appropriate “tie-breakers” that can be used, such as how the nations have fared in head-to-head competitions against each other in the singles and doubles draws or the least number of sets lost (tie-breakers used to break ties in the round-robin competitions in the ATP and WTA Tour year-end championships).

This “points” concept would a singular concept in the sport. No other tennis event (team or individual) would feature this format which would further enhance the “unique-ness” of the Olympic tennis competition. Let’s keep track of how this format works in Beijing and see what nations would win a theoretical “Team Gold.” Perhaps the ITF and IOC will take notice and when the tennis competition for the London Games in 2012 is held at Wimbledon, tennis can feature an added element of excitement that could further increase the sport’s visibility on the Olympic landscape.

Feedback and ideas on the message board below are encouraged!

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