A lot of parents want to know what it will take for their children to succeed in tennis. The answer is pretty simple: It’ll take everything they have—all the energy, strength and hours they can commit to the game at the expense of many other fun things like school dances and sleepovers. Even then, the odds are small. So few people are lucky enough to make a career out of tennis because so much has to go right to get there, and much of it is out of your control.
There is one thing that’s in the control of parents, though, and that’s their relationship with their children. And I know from experience that a parent–child relationship does not have to be ruined to make a good tennis player.
For my entire childhood, my life revolved around tennis. I played every day and entered tournaments every weekend. I don’t remember doing much other than homework and hitting tennis balls. That was my life. I missed proms, parties and school functions, and I didn’t see my friends as much as other kids did. It’s a bizarre existence and you have to be a bit of a loner. And believe me, sometimes it’s not that much fun, especially when the sport you’re playing is so emotionally taxing. When you lose in tennis, it’s only your fault, and it hurts.
From a young age, though, this was the life I wanted, not the one my parents wanted. I couldn’t get enough tennis, and I played all the time. My parents were more concerned with school. As long as I kept making the honor roll, I could play as much tennis as I wanted. And my success in tennis wasn’t treated as a big deal. At home, we never talked about my tennis. I have two sisters, both older, and the one closest in age to me was excellent at volleyball. She would get jealous over my tennis results, so we never talked about it at home. I never felt like the success I had as a child was a big deal.
This isn’t to say that I made it as far as I did by myself. I needed my parents. For parents, that’s the tricky part. Children, no matter how motivated or talented, are still children, and they need discipline and direction. There were plenty of days that I decided for one reason or another I didn’t want to go to practice. That’s where my mother was a stickler, and not because she wanted me to become a pro. To her, it was about commitment and responsibility. Her answer was always the same: “We already paid for the lessons, so you’re going.” I had signed up for it, and she wanted me to learn that you have to stick with the things you choose to do.
When I was a junior, I had so many friends who eventually said, “I’m so over this.” You need the right personality to survive. Unfortunately, many of them had parents who wanted them to play tennis—and become great at tennis—more than the kids did. I could have quit tennis at any time; my parents would have said fine, just find another sport to play so you can be part of something and be healthy. Other kids I knew weren’t so lucky, and some had parents who were abusive.
So, what would I tell parents of junior tennis players? No matter how much you watch your child or how many tournaments you travel to, you still might not realize how tough junior tennis is. I got yelled at by other parents. I was very insecure and a bit shy and, as strange as this sounds, I never liked competing, not even as a pro. Competition is brutal, it really messes with your mind. What I loved was hitting the ball.
Without my parents, I wouldn’t have made it, and that’s because they knew me well enough to know I needed space and to be the one who figured out how to survive. Tennis started out as my thing and they didn’t want it to become their thing. I have three kids of my own now, and I can’t imagine making them do something that makes them unhappy. Give your children the tools to succeed in life, and if they succeed in tennis, that’s a bonus.
More Lessons in Parenting:
Thursday, 9/12: Judy Murray, "For the Love of the Game"
Friday, 9/13: Lindsay Davenport, "Making the Right Choices"
Saturday, 9/14: Tracy Austin, "Match Day"
Sunday, 9/15: Allen Fox, "Your Child's Mind"