Mythbusters: How Competitive Tennis Has Changed on Long Island and the Eastern Section Over the Last 30 Years

Photo credit: Luke Abrahams
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Whenever I tell my parents a tennis story about one of my students, a local program or Eastern Section tournaments, I have to throw in a caveat to “This is how they do it now.” As a 42-year-old who played junior tennis out of Long Island 30 years ago, the scene is definitely much different. I’ll let you be the judge of what is better and what is worse.

1. Everything is now online
Like everything else, the Internet makes everything more readily available. Thirty years ago, the tournament director would call the week of the tournament and say what time you played your first match. If you answered your home phone to talk to them, you can find out when your second match was going to be, who your opponent was, who the seeded players were, etc. Sometimes they didn’t even want to tell you because of the fear you wouldn’t show up if you didn’t like your draw! Nobody knew their ranking or standing until the end of the year when you got the year-end rankings in the mail. The only way to get a hint was to see where you were ranked was by what you were seeded in tournaments, as well as who accepted into the main draws of Sectionals (then called “Grand Prix Tournaments.”) Additionally, there were no computer algorithms or points tables. Rankings were determined subjectively by a ranking chairman on what seemed fair.

2. More qualified coaches
Thirty years ago, there were many coaches on Long Island who taught recreational players, but not so many who coached top Eastern players. The top players generally went to about one of four or five guys. Now, there are many coaches on Long Island who are qualified to work with top Eastern players. On the downside, there are more “transient” coaches now from out-of-town who plan on leaving Long Island in the not-so-distant future too.

3. More playing up
It is now common for players to compete in an older division, especially as their age approaches that older age group. Thirty years ago, there were birthday cut-off dates that gave everyone a certain age (similar to the way schools do), so it was rare that people played players who were two years older or younger. Back then, top players probably played up once or twice a year on average. Now, with the rolling age groups, it makes a lot more sense to play up to get a head-start on the standings list so you can hit the ground running when you reach an older age group.

4. More depth
There is unquestionably more depth in junior tennis now than there used to be. Now a child who is ranked in the top 50 in the Eastern Section probably plays five serious days a week. Thirty years ago, a person who was ranked in the top 50 in the Eastern Section probably played two or three days a week, and also played a couple other sports just as seriously. Kids were able to play at top Division III schools without really being a serious junior player. Now, if you want to play tennis at a top Division III school, you have to be “all-in” as a junior tournament player.

5. A lack of rivalries
I had one Long Island player who I played against 35 times in tournaments and high school matches. I probably had another four or five players who I played about 10 times. Due to the fact that there is more depth now, people play up more and the Eastern and National pathways are more complex now. Players don’t run into each other nearly as often.

6. Less kids play high school tennis
Thirty years ago, everyone played high school tennis. After all, you can win a Sectional Tournament and nobody outside of other tennis players would know about it, but still get some publicity by beating an alternate at number one singles in a high school match! There were some good matches for everybody, and most strong players played in Conference I, so they mostly played one another. Now it seems like there are many top players who don’t play on the stronger teams, so a lot of the top players are in different divisions. Over the last 10 years or so, clubs have tried to get many of their top kids not to play high school tennis. I personally think many of the clubs do this because it gives the club logistical problems with makeups and logistical issues when a kid plays high school tennis. However this isn’t the only reason …

7. High school coaches are stricter about top players coming to practices
Thirty years ago, high school coaches understood something important—if their top player was a top Sectional player, he/she was practicing hard outside of school tennis. Their time was too limited to practice on the outside and come to team practices (that really were not beneficial). Most coaches were okay with these players coming to 10 practices (as required by New York state law), signing in and then leaving. Then all the top players would play in the matches, and truthfully, the remaining players understood and were okay with the situation of the very best players not coming to team practices. This was really the only way it was done and was okay with everybody. Now, there is this mentality that if a player does this, they aren’t really part of the team. Sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t judge any of the changes, but this one really does bug me and isn’t a better change in my opinion.

8. More of an international and non-Long Island flavor at tournaments
Contributing to the depth in junior tennis now there are a lot of junior players at the tournaments who have parents who were born and played tennis in other countries. Thirty years ago, there would be the Romanian kid everyone knew or the Russian kid everyone knew, but if you go to a tournament now, there is no doubt you will hear many languages spoken in the lobby. Along these lines, every age group had one or two “good kids from upstate.” Now, there are many good kids from upstate, as well as from Brooklyn, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago. This is very interesting because …

9. Clubs advertise much more aggressively
Thirty years ago, clubs let their programs and results speak for themselves. There really wasn’t much advertising. Now, you can expect phone calls, e-mails and regular mail asking you to come join their programs and clubs. Additionally, giving top kids free group lessons to lure other kids into their programs was pretty much non-existent 30 years ago. Now, it is a fairly common practice. The metamorphosis of this development could be an article in and of itself!

10. The rise in home schooling
This change probably started in most sports with the development of full-time Bollettieri camps. Thirty years ago, it was tennis parent gossip that so-and-so was being home-schooled. Now, it’s almost noteworthy when a top-Eastern player who is also a top-national player goes to a regular high school.