When I was 18-years-old, I remember playing a junior tournament in Colts Neck, N.J. My opponent was a fellow high school senior who I played many times throughout my junior career. This was our last year in the juniors and we were both headed to Division 1 colleges the following year. During the match, we battled back and forth like we always did, and I ended up winning. It’s been a while since then, so I don’t remember what the score was or anything that specifically happened during the match, but the thing I do remember is that after the match, my opponent left his bag on the court and ran out of the tennis club. He proceeded to cross a busy highway and went running into the woods as if he was William Wallace running from the English. Nobody saw or knew where this guy was for the next three hours. There were many concerned people in the lobby asking questions if he was okay. But after some time, he came sulking back in. His father was there with his tennis bag and without speaking, they both walked out of the tennis club.
Now, why would this 18-year-old, college-bound tennis player decide to run away? It’s not like he was an immature kid. Under New York State law, he could legally operate a car, buy a pack of cigarettes, vote and go off to war. Why was this man running for the hills after a stupid tennis match? The reason was simple … he was scared of facing his unstable, irrational, unknowledgeable and delusional tennis parent. Now it’s not like his father was some lunatic who shoots squirrels for sport in his free time. He was a respected doctor on Long Island who, on weekends, made tremendous scenes at junior tennis tournaments all over the Northeastern United States.
What makes an extremely educated parent go down this crazy road? What is it about tennis that produces these types of parents? After being involved in this sport for 25 years as a player and now as a coach, I think that it’s not one specific thing, but a combination of things that makes normal, rational people turn to the dark side and become crazy tennis parents.
Okay, let’s start with the thing that makes the world go around … money. If you want your child to be a nationally-ranked junior tennis player, it’s going to cost you. So if you start your kid playing tennis at 8-years-old, you will be paying for about 10 years of a junior tennis career. And in case you were wondering, this is what you are paying for. To be a nationally-ranked player, you need constant lessons. Then, you need to get into a good program to hone your skills. Then, you need to get racquets. Then, you need to get them constantly restrung. Then, you need to play local tournaments every other weekend. Then, you have to travel the country throughout the year and play as many national tournaments you can get into. After this is all said and done, you are looking to spend approximately $20,000-$40,000 annually on your kid’s tennis. So when tennis parents are watching their son or daughter compete, they are not just emotionally involved, but are also financially involved in the outcome of these matches as well. By doing this year after year, do you honestly believe you could handle all of this without losing it every now and then?
Now, I remember playing soccer when I was a kid. My parents paid for my reversible blue and yellow shirt and occasionally had to buy oranges for the team and that was it! Total cost for me to play soccer … $29! Parents would cheer during the game, but nobody’s day was ruined if my team won or lost. The point I’m trying to make here is that if you are not financially invested in something, you aren’t going to fall off the deep end if things go south.
Here’s another example. I love the New York Islanders. When they are playing the Red Wings, I will watch the game and hope the Islanders win. If they win … great! I turn off the TV and I go to bed. If they lose … oh well, then I turn off the TV and go to bed. Now for instance, let’s say I put down $25,000 on the Islanders to beat the Red Wings. Do you think I will be a rational person during the duration of that game? Of course not! I would probably be pacing back and forth, screaming obscenities, talking to myself, twirling my hair, and sweating bullets throughout the whole game. I will think every call made against the Islanders is the wrong call and that the referees were trying to put one over on me. I would be totally irrational and inconsolable if the Islanders end up losing. By the end of the game, I would have looked as if I walked 15 miles through a Costa Rican rainforest. When people are spending big money on a certain thing, everything involving that thing becomes a huge deal.
Okay, let’s move on to what separates tennis from a lot of sports … individuality. When a team of five junior basketball players is playing, the parents of the five kids will pull together and cheer for one another’s kids. The goal is to score the most points in a collective effort. Everyone on the team contributes, and together, they work hard and try to win. They practiced together the whole season, and hopefully in the end, their teamwork will pay off.
Now let’s move to our sport, tennis. When your offspring is competing at junior tournaments, all you care about is how well your son or daughter is doing. There’s no team. There’s no cheering for anyone else. Everyone else is the enemy. Everyone else wants to beat your son or daughter. It’s an individual tournament and you only care about one name in the draw. Sure, you will have the parents who say that they care about how well everyone else is doing and that they are rooting for your kid to win, but realistically, they are all full of garbage! I have seen potential Oscar-winning performances in lobbies of tennis tournaments over the years. Parents asking other parents what the score is with their son or daughter, as if they really hoped that they win. Come on! Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man couldn’t hold a candle to some of the performances that I have witnessed in the past. Ninety-nine percent of all the parents are putting on a show in that tournament lobby. Witnessing this, and doing this for years, eventually has to get to you. It’s a tough environment to always be in and could be one of the pieces that contribute to eventually becoming a crazy tennis parent.
Because of the constant playing of these tournaments, players develop histories with one another over the years. Some players lose to a certain player every time. Another player cheats some players every time. Some parents even start fights in parking lots with other parents. Trust me … it happens! You play many of the same players over the years and problems arise more often than not. And everyone’s parents are aware of it. In the lobby of tennis tournaments, you have parents pulling their kid aside and whispering things to them. It becomes a very sneaky environment to be in. It’s like that large holding cell at Riker’s Island … all you can do is try to keep to yourself and look as tough as possible. Do you think if you were there every weekend throughout the year for 10 years, you would be a rational person? I know I wouldn’t. This just adds to the drama that a tennis parent has to handle.
So by this point, you are investing a ton of money, you think that everyone is secretly out to get your kid, and you just spent five hours in a car to drive to Syracuse, N.Y. in the middle of January. If you haven’t lost it yet, there’s still the match to play. Can you imagine a junior baseball team spending a lot of money to go out to play another team? They show up with all their equipment and report to the head umpire before they go out on the field. The referee tells them the rules and gives them three baseballs. He instructs them to play the game and after it’s done to report back to him what the score was. In his speech, he also informs them that they would be calling their own balls and strikes. Can you imagine how absurd this sounds? Well, junior tennis players do this every time they play, and because of this, tremendous drama ensues on the court and in the lobby. Players make bad calls, mess up the score, and then run up to the referee to get a line judge. The line judge comes down and stays on the court for four minutes, then leaves to finish his pizza. And then all the drama comes right back. Can an observing parent handle this without developing an involuntary twitch over their left eye? I don’t think so! Nobody likes knowing that they are being taken advantage of. That’s why people lose it when they get a parking ticket or get charged for the fried calamari that they never ordered. You have kids calling their own matches and all you can do is hope for the best that things don’t get ugly. Unfortunately, they usually do and the tennis parents’ emotions are helpless watching this.
My cousin used to wrestle in high school. I would occasionally go to his matches and cheer him on. Sometimes, his matches were as quick as 20 seconds; others went as long as three minutes. I also had a friend in high school that was a really good swimmer and I would go to his meets and be very attentive the whole minute and a half his races took. I had a roommate in college who competed in the 50-yard hurdle for track and field, and I would scream my lungs off the whole 11 seconds it would take. These are all other individual sports, and I’m sure you have your nutcases in these sports as well. But the difference is the time of competition. All of these sports have very fast competition times. It’s like your mother pulling off a Band-Aid when you were a kid … one fast swoop and it’s off. That wasn’t nearly as painful as it could have been.
Now let’s get back to tennis. Tennis matches go on and on. At one moment in the match, your kid is winning. At another, they are losing. Then, they are winning again … oops, I take that back, they are still losing. The point I’m making here is that it’s a slow kill for the people watching. These matches go on and on, and maybe after two hours, the match will finally be over and this emotional rollercoaster will finally stop. Wait! Your kid won, so now he has an hour break and he has to play again! It keeps going and going and going … It’s like putting Band-Aids all over your body and slowing peeling them off millimeter by millimeter. Can you imagine your emotions during these long matches? The ball goes back and forth, and back and forth, over and over again, and you are glued to its every movement. It’s like you are staring at one of those piano pendulums for hours. It must be torture. At some point, you must go insane. How can you not?
In fact, the Pentagon should use this tactic to extract information from terrorists. We make the captured terrorist have a kid and start them playing in junior tennis tournaments. After a couple of years of paying tremendous bills, watching their kid get cheated all the time, thinking that everyone they run into is full of it, and forcing him to watch long emotionally draining matches, they would eventually get to their breaking point and tell us to stop. We’d have Bin Laden picked up in about 15 min.! There’s only so much a human being can take.
Now you have a feel why so many tennis parents get the reputation that they do. It’s very hard being so emotionally and financially involved year after year like many of them are. With all of these things combined, you have what Massachusetts fishermen call “a perfect storm.” So you can see why that 18-year-old ran away after losing a tennis match to me. He knew what the deal was. He ran into those woods because he wanted to postpone, for a long as he could, the car ride home with his crazy tennis parent. Wouldn’t you have?