One day at a slow group lesson/drill group I said to Nikki, "Nikki, I want you to go to court four and play a set against Julia." Nikki rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of she didn't want to play a match. she just wants to groove her strokes and play baseline games. Nikki (not her real name) is a level 2/1B 12's player and when I asked her how many practice matches does she play, she answered, "I don't play any. Because I play matches in tournaments." The practice set was supervised, so she wasn't being sent to Siberia. I have heard this from other kids and have talked to other pros who have heard this negativity towards practice matches.
When I hear a kid, say they don't want to play practice matches, I think there is one of two things going on. Either the kid is not confident in his/her tennis and doesn't want their vulnerability exposed in a result. Or, the child is not feeling motivated that day and he/she doesn't want their lack of motivation exposed. A pro sees through a child who says they don't want to play a match.
There are no open courts to play a match? This isn't true. Most clubs have match play programs on Sunday with all different levels of play. A good program will evaluate your child first and put them in the right match play program. If you don't trust match play programs, most clubs have open courts on Sunday, you could set up your own practice match.
If you think that "unsupervised" match play is a waste. I strongly disagree. To state the obvious, tennis is one of the few sports that does not allow coaching during the match. Being unsupervised is realistic and helps kids problem-solve on their own. Have you ever seen a player who looks great but just can't win? Good chance that person has been "overcoached" and hasn't had enough practice matches. Jay Berger, a well-respected coach and former top-ten player attributes his incredible anticipation skills to the amount of practice matches he played as a kid. Too much of a controlled enviornment definitely inhibits ones' natural instincts on the court. As an aside, I can't stand the drill game, approach down-the-line and play it out. This is sooooo unrealistic. You basically have somebody waiting with their racquet back ready to pass you. There is no movement involved and so much about passing shots is movement and balance. Anyway, I'm definitely digressing.
If you are considering playing tournaments, sign up for a weekend match play program. It is a great segue into tournaments. There is more pressure in tournaments but it is probably the best preparation. If you are a tournament player, practice matches have tons of value as well. A big feature of serving is managing your service games. By this, I don't just mean mixing up where you serve but also, taking your second serve effectiveness/ineffectiveness into consideration when hitting your first serve. When you just hit serves, you really do not need to think about how the points are going or what is working vs. what is not working.
Now I do think that there is a drop-off in how many practice matches can help. If you play 6 sets a week, they may become dull and you may get flat. Also, if you are drastically changing your stroke (grip change) you are better off spending some time working on that stroke rather than hitting balls into the ceiling with your new grip or subconciously sliding the hand back to your wrong original grip, where you are more comfortable.
So look into some matchplay. It should be your friend, not the ugly step-child.
Ricky Becker is The Director of Tennis at the prestigious Pine Hollow Country Club and independently coaches high-performance juniors year-round predominantly at Bethpage Park Tennis Center. As a player, Becker was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis Team and 1989-1992 Roslyn High School Teams. He was ranked number one in the Eastern Section and fourth in the United States in the 18-and-unders. He can be reached at email@example.com, 516-359-4843 or via JuniorTennisConsulting.com.