The Jensen Zone: The Development of Character in Today’s Juniors

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I cannot wait for summer tennis! I love all of it … from hard courts to clay courts with all the heat and humidity. The entire country has tennis action for all levels and the courts are packed!

There are some really good pro tournament options from coast to coast. The summer season ends at the U.S. Open in New York City, but one of my favorite events is in the A-T-L. Atlanta has an ATP event for the mega fan who wants to see the game up close and personal. Atlanta is one of the best tennis cities in the world and the talent behind the racket is evident in every club and subdivision tennis court.

So when the ATP Tour comes to town with all the global tennis talent, the energy is amazing. Now add one of the coolest venues to play a tournament in Atlantic Station, the BB&T Atlanta Open and should be a stop on your tennis list this summer.

My own summer tennis calendar is filling up from May through September with tennis camp and club appearances, plus some World TeamTennis action on the TV side of the ball.

I'm pumped for tennis this summer, and one thing I really enjoy doing is talking to young players about our great game. I try instilling a passion for what is possible through tennis if you apply yourself. I tell them about my family’s journey in tennis and how all of us are still part of the game in different ways after 50 years involved with the sport. I have found a magic within the game that I want to share with young players.

When I ask young players why they play tennis, I usually get a blank look back in my direction. When I speak to tournament players about their confidence under pressure, they seem to avoid the question. As I have explained to the next generation of our game, tennis needs to be fun. No matter what the outcome, playing happily is paramount. I go to tournaments these days with my nieces and nephews, and am saddened to see so many kids on court who are not having fun. I'm going to really sound old, but way back when I played, there was a buzz in the game. So many of us had a hunger and desire for greatness. Climbing up the rankings and developing new skills to improve was always the theme in practice sessions.

My junior tennis development was always based on a tomorrow's game approach. At the point when I was around 17- or 18-years-old, my physical skills were ready for anyone on the planet, but my tennis skills had to be there as well or I was going to be too far behind. I was blessed with amazing parents who were athletes and understood this approach, gracing both myself and my brother with very talented coaches.

One of those was at the perfect time in my development as I was entering my sophomore year in high school and began working with Brian Marcus. Brian was a standout at the University of Michigan and played on the pro tour before slowing down to raise his family with his amazing wife Donna.

Brian taught me the Jack Kramer “Big Game.” Kramer, a legendary Wimbledon champion, revolutionized the attacking style that dominated the game, the serve and volley on both serves, while returning and attacking on second serve returns. Brian knew my game of tomorrow would be about moving forward. The first four months of training was about the big game every day and in everything I did. By the end of the four months, I had a complete game due to an endless stream of consistent groundstrokes with added tactical punch with the serve and volley.

After just two years with Brian, I was playing in my first U.S. Open. Brian moved his family to be a cornerstone of the Atlanta Athletic Club tennis family. I think it was because of the golf and sand trap right next to his office. I was influenced by other mentors like Dick Leach, my college coach at USC, who was a master in match tactics. Others like Brian Gottfried, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King taught me the work ethic of a professional and the understanding of how to play under pressure better during big points.

All of the coaches like my first tennis coach Don Dickinson taught me the fundamentals, and most importantly, how to have fun through all the ups and downs of development. All of these mentors were tremendously high-character people that had a deep faith in giving back to others. I was honored to work with all of them, and owe everything I have accomplished in tennis to them.

I often wonder when I watch juniors compete and practice today … what values of life and learning are being instilled in them? The USTA has built the National Campus in Orlando, and I call it "The Death Star!" The largest tennis facility on the planet for all levels of play, but mainly to develop American tennis champions. Millions of dollars have been poured into this project, but I wonder how much character is being developed in these approaches to develop a player’s greatness. It doesn't take millions of dollars to teach fundamentals in character building … it just takes coaches and mentors who believe in developing the person first and the player second.

The greatest gift from all my coaches was to treat the two imposters—victory and defeat—one in the same. Once I mastered that, I could lose a match but was never defeated.

Have a wonderful summer of 2017!