NEW YORK—When she was a child, Kennan Johnson trailed her teaching pro mother, Natalie, around the court learning to control the frisky yellow ball. On Friday afternoon, 17-year-old Kennan followed her high-hopping kick serve to the net, ceding the smash she set up to mom.
The daughter who followed her mother’s footsteps is now the partner setting the pace in the family pastime.
“When we’re playing out there it’s not a mother-daughter [relationship],” Natalie Johnson said. “It’s more like sisters: We’re supporting each other. I’m there for Kennan and she’s there for me.”
The world’s best players converge on Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open tomorrow. The nation’s top tennis families are already in action in New York City this weekend.
More than 20 of the top family tennis teams from 14 states qualified for the 2013 National Family Tennis Championships, which began on Friday afternoon at Sportime Randall's Island, a site best known to New Yorkers as home to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. Sporting shades, a New York Mets baseball cap, and Nike warm-up with a packed Dunlop racquet bag over his shoulder, Johnny Mac walked in for an afternoon practice on Sportime’s U.S. Open blue hard courts just as the tournament began on the facility’s slate-colored Har-tru courts.
The three-day tournament crowns national champions in six divisions: Mother-Daughter, Mother-Son, Father-Daughter, Father-Son, Husband-Wife and Brother-Sister.
For the Johnsons, the journey to New York City from their Baton Rouge, LA home is a family reunion of sorts. Twenty-four years ago, a then-15-year-old Natalie and her mother, Lynda Johnson, qualified for the tournament, which was then known as The Equitable Family Tennis Challenge, and was contested during the U.S. Open.
“At that time it was held at the National Tennis Center during Labor Day weekend so the U.S. Open was ongoing and we got locker room passes,” Natalie Johnson said. “Mom met Capriati in the locker room and we saw Graf and Navratilova in there too. Sabatini was my idol growing up and I swear to you I almost passed out when she walked right by me. I had a phenomenal time playing with my mom.
“This is my first time back in New York since then and it’s Kennan’s first trip to New York. The fact that we’re able to play together at the nationals years after my mom and I did it—and the fact that my mom, my sister and my niece are all here to watch us play together—is incredibly exciting for all of us. It’s what family tennis is all about.”
Divide and conquer is a standard doubles tactic, but when spouses join forces it can be a unifying experience. The husband-and-wife team of Jack and Kim Bastable of Leawood, KS, are former Division I college athletes—Kim played tennis at Florida and Jack was a baseball and football player at Missouri—who hit together daily on their backyard court before playing the Super Regional tournament in Kansas City to qualify for New York.
“We both know high-level athletics and we both know to compete at that level you have to be intense and you have to be driven,” says Kim Bastable. “We definitely do butt heads sometimes. In any marriage, there’s sometimes conflict on the court and off the court but you’ve just got to get along and work together.
“Doubles is about playing together, learning to move together. So I feel like every time we play together we get a little bit better because we learn more about each other—and that’s what makes it really fun. Ultimately, it’s a great, fun way to do exercise and spend time together.”
Each match is best-of-three sets—a 10-point tie breaker is played in lieu of the third set—with no-ad scoring. When a game reaches deuce, the decisive point is played on matching terms: The father or mother on the serving team must serve to the father or mother on the receiving team.
The generation gap shrinks to the size of the service line as mother and daughter converged on net. Karen Simeone and her 17-year-old daughter Lauren Simeone of Collegeville, PA, qualified for the tournament for a second straight year following a runner-up finish at the 2012 event held in Naples and take the court with clearly-defined roles.
“Lauren's the better player, I'm the better strategist because I've played doubles for many years and she hasn't played as much doubles,” Karen Simeone said. “So I can help with positioning and then she can execute. How many times can you do something with your daughter where you have the same goals, face the same challenges, work together as a team on the court and have so much fun playing? The entire tournament is so well run, we’ve met great people, they treat us first class and it’s just an amazing experience to be here.”
Tournament organizers strive to provide players a complete tennis experience. Competitors and their families stay at the Grand Hyatt next to Grand Central Terminal—one of the official U.S. Open player hotels—ride a charter bus to Randall’s Island for tournament matches (just as the pros take the bus to Flushing Meadows), and receive tickets to both Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day on Saturday and the first round of the Open on Monday.
Shyam Srinivasan and his younger sister Shruti Srinivasan began their journey at their home club in Ashburn, VA unaware they were competing for a trip to New York City.
“My mom was like ‘We signed you up for a brother-sister tournament,’” said Shyam Srinivasan, who hopes to play tennis in college and keeps his younger sister relaxed by sometimes launching into a dead-pan Rafael Nadal impression. “We didn’t know it was a big national event. It was at a local club, we won two matches and then they said, ‘You’re going to regionals.’ Then we won regionals in College Park, Maryland and they said, ‘You’re going to New York for nationals and you’ve got tickets to Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and the first day of the U.S. Open.’ I was so happy. It’s been a very exciting experience and the fact our whole family has been here to do it together is great.”
Sometimes, confronting a shared challenge can create growth for a team and greater depth of the relationship.
“Tennis is one of the few sports where parents can still play with their kids, regardless of age,” tournament director Kathy Francis said. “It’s funny throughout the regionals we’ve heard parents say, ‘My kid settled me down on court.’ We always talk about life lessons you can learn from sport, but when you can learn those lessons together playing tennis—as a parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife—and grow together from it, that’s priceless.
“Certainly to host the National Family Championships here in New York with the best players in the world playing at the U.S. Open is yet another great way to bring families together with tennis. We’re going to sit down and study it and see what’s best for the tournament. Is it best to rotate it all over the country and bring it to different communities? Or is it best to establish one site as the home of the tournament? There are advantages to both, so we’re going to sit down and consider all that.”
Organizers are also considering expanding to include open parent-child divisions (currently, a child must be 18 or under to play with a parent, though there is no age for the brother-sister division). That prospect is already creating a buzz of anticipation among players.
“At some point, your ranking isn’t that important—you realize it’s about being with your family, spending time together,” Kim Bastable said. “My children are both over 18 and my daughter is super-excited to play. We really love this concept. Watching the brother-sister matches made me smile because as a parent that’s what you want to see: Your kids playing together and having fun together. I think it’s an awesome opportunity to learn to work together with your dad or your mom or your sibling or your spouse. That’s the joy of tennis.”
MOTHER/SON - Michele Haggerty & Jackson Cobb (age 14) (Austin, TX - Grey Rock Tennis Club DEF Hallet & Brooks Green Jr (age 14) (Mobile, AL - Orange Beach Tennis Center) - 7-5, 3-6, 1-0 (10-6 tiebreaker)
MOTHER/DAUGHTER: Natalie & Kennan Johnson (age 17) (Baton Rouge, LA - Northwood Club) DEF Karen & Lauren Simeone (age 17) (Collegeville, PA. - Frog Hollow Racquet Club) -- 6-2, 6-1
FATHER/DAUGHTER - Aime Ngounoue & Malkia Menguene (age 13) (Washington, DC - Montgomery TennisPlex); DEF Lance & Sadey St. Amant (age 18) (Ocean Springs, MS -Diamondhead Tennis World) - 6-2, 7-5
FATHER/SON: Jon & Tristan Stitt (age 16) (Dallas, TX - Northwood Club) DEF Scott & Jacob Baehr (age 13) (Pensacola, FL - Orange Beach Tennis Center) - 7-5, 6-0
HUSBAND/WIFE -Jack & Kim Bastable (Leawood, KS - Plaza Tennis Club) DEF Jonathan & Michele Drucker (Coral Gables, FL - Weston Tennis Club) - 6-3, 6-3
BROTHER/SISTER - Ben Ward & Lucy Stevens (Pass Christian, MS - Diamondhead Tennis World) DEF Nick & Amber Cruz (Foley, AL - Orange Beach Tennis Center) - 6-2, 6-4.