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.