| By Lonnie Mitchel

The article in the May/June 2009 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine entitled, “College Tennis Advice” by Clark D. Ruiz II, was terrific advice for a young tennis enthusiast who wants to play in college and us crazy tennis parents who have high aspirations for our sons and daughters. I recently traveled on a similar journey with my own son who now plays on a Division 3 college team (Muhlenberg College). My younger son also participates in the Long Island Junior Tennis Tournaments, however, we do not have the means to travel all over the United States and stay in hotels and pay for all those junior tournaments, not to mention the prohibitive costs of training. As a USPTA-certified tennis instructor, I am acutely aware of the sacrifices needed to maybe just maybe get a tennis scholarship to a Division I college. Forget about getting a sniff at the professional tennis circuit, it was out of reach for my son as it is for many highly ranked juniors.

In our case, we found the ticket for our son was to stress academics with a tennis minor so to speak. “Good grades, a well-rounded education and tennis for a lifetime,” was the message. We used tennis as simply a means to perhaps put him over the edge at a highly academically ranked college. He plays on a tennis team, travels and gets the experience of being involved in NCAA college athletics. The lesson here is an underlying one … I believe, as tennis parents, we need to give our children the gift that never stops giving, “The Joy of Playing Tennis,” and the ripple effect that comes with it.
I see firsthand what a “tennis education” gives to our younger generation. Here on Long Island, there are many tennis clubs and public courts to help develop the skills for the young tennis player for both in tennis and life. Let’s not forget .. for us adults who still want to advance our game, the choices here on Long Island are endless. But let’s stick with the juniors for a moment and I will get back to us big kids in a bit. I ask you; for those parents who love tennis or just being introduced to the game; where would you want your son or daughter to be hanging out on a Friday Night or Saturday afternoon? Yes, the local tennis center!
I teach tennis part-time at Carefree Racquet Club in North Merrick, and when a child enrolls in the program, in addition to the weekly group lesson, he or she is entitled to come to weekend practice sessions with other juniors. They are not staying home sitting on the couch playing XBOX or in front of a computer doing the Facebook thing. They are out socializing with good kids from good families and running around hitting tennis balls in a supervised environment. Many of these kids do not play on the USTA Junior Circuit, but find much joy in challenging each other to be the club junior champion. Maybe they just aspire to make their local junior high or high school team. Perhaps they are using tennis to just be in a wholesome surrounding with kids of similar interest. To this, I say “wow” and a great job by the parents for introducing tennis as the sport for a lifetime!
My son was so involved with the tennis program as a junior, that every now and then, he was even able to fill in as a fourth in an adult doubles tennis game. During those times, he was out on the tennis court in a healthy environment, the light bulb finally went off in my head. We read every day as active Long Island tennis participants about the many highly ranked juniors we have here giving them the accolades they so richly deserve. We forget about the kids who play tennis more for recreation with lower aspirations and do not give them the credit they deserve. Many of these kids will be the tennis playing adults and instructors of the future. They are the ones who will frequent our clubs and parks, and keep tennis alive in the long-term. These are the ones who will captain and play on our 2.5 and 3.0 teams. These are the kids who will grow up and develop business and social networks through tennis and grow our game. These are the kids who will marry and have children who will also play tennis in the years ahead.
To our schools throughout Long Island where, in most places, the tennis team operates under the radar screen behind the glory, tradition, notoriety and accolades of the football, baseball and basketball teams … I say embrace the boys and girls tennis team and let the student body know that education doesn’t only take place in the classroom. Tennis is truly a sport that will help you prepare you for life after the classroom. I love football and baseball and certainly do not want to undermine these great team sports. But let’s be honest, when high school is over, most of the student’s careers in those sports are coming to an end. As for tennis, well, it is just the beginning. The gym teachers can help to promote our great game and its importance on the popularity scale. Not just because it is a physical activity and gym teachers do promote physical education, but because tennis can enrich a child’s life in ways that even us parents sometimes do not realize.
Like many of my esteemed colleagues who teach tennis throughout Long Island and help to enhance a forehand, backhand, serve and volley which serves as a livelihood … remember, we could be building a young person’s self esteem, the roots of a social network which leads to endless paths and adventures in their lives. They could very well benefit from this in business, education and in social environments. We can remember that tennis teaches many of the skills we want our children to learn in life, including perseverance, determination and concentration, as well as having to deal with adversity. These are all life skills … are they not?
The gifts will come back in a way that cannot be measured by just dollars. My father, who was in education for over 20 years, once said to me when I took up teaching tennis, “You will learn more from your students and they will challenge you in many ways. If you were up to the challenge you will be equally rewarded.”
So, I close by sharing two different firsthand teacher/student stories and those same students who “I” owe some gratitude to. To a teenage tennis student who did not have the talent or the skill set to play collegiate tennis, but opened up a social network by starting a college tennis club and is reaping many rewards. An adult student and a big kid who was, shall we say, not a typical tennis player (he was an amateur boxer for many years). He got “talked into” the sport of tennis by his girlfriend and thought it was a sissy sport. After a few lessons, he realized that concentration, footwork, perseverance goes hand-in-hand with boxing and that tennis was just like boxing only he did not have to get hit in the face. He said, “What a wonderful thing, I should have taken tennis up as a kid.” I am reminded by these and other discoveries every day, and I know tennis parents and tennis pros can offer more than just a tennis lesson.

Finally, I thank my father and mother who, on a chilly spring Sunday morning in the 1960s, made me get out of bed early and go to the park and hit tennis balls. I hid with my head under the blanket and said, “Tennis is a sissy game and I’m not going.” Thank God they did not take no for answer. Stamping and screaming, I went. They gave me the gift of a lifetime. Parents … don’t take “no” for an answer, get them away from the XBOX and out onto the tennis court.

Lonnie Mitchel

Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail lonniemitchel@yahoo.com.