The highs and lows of being a tennis parent

My name is Joe, and I am, amongst other things, the father of a UK-based junior tennis player called Otto Friedlein. I play tennis myself but have never competed at a high level. I do, however, have extensive experience of being a ‘tennis dad.’

Otto broke his elbow in January and was just getting back on the court when the Covid-19 nightmare started, so we have just gone through the most prolonged period of not playing tennis that I can remember. The forced lay off has allowed me to reflect on many incredible years, and I hope that it will be interesting to see the parents’ perspective of elite sport for juniors.

Where did it all start?

Otto has just turned 13. I think he first picked up a racquet at around five years old, so he has amassed many years of playing tennis already. To be honest, we have fallen into the tennis world rather than having any lofty ambitions at the outset. We have two sons (Otto is the elder by 12 months), and they need physical activities to burn off the calories. We live near some public tennis courts, so we tried tennis as one of several different sports.

The first few years were low key. Otto only played once a week, and we didn’t even consider tournaments. He loved it and wanted to do more, so he gradually started to do more court sessions, and we started to look at local competitions to give him something to measure his progress. Otto is hugely competitive and loved the tournaments. I think doing well helped, but he has always enjoyed the fight as much as the spoils of victory.

...the mental resolve that this gives you is invaluable...
It is interesting to compare our two boys. Just 12 months apart in age, but they have a very different attitude to tennis. They are different in life generally, but it does come out on the court! Otto needs to have a winner and a loser. He would rather win but is OK with losing as it gives him something to think about and a target for improvement. Felix, his brother, just loves playing and doesn’t need high-level competition to enjoy himself. That is one of the beauties of tennis - the sport is open to all, and you do not have to choose the competition path if you enjoy social tennis.

I can’t remember when we realized that Otto was pretty good at tennis. The local tournament success led to entries to tougher tournaments where success led to competitions further afield. Fast forward a few years, and he is winning regional championships and playing at national competitions. I consequently spend a lot of time driving him around the country and have watched a LOT of matches.

The Highs

I am a massive believer in sport and am pleased that both our sons enjoy sports as much as they do. The physical benefits are obvious, and I will get behind anything that gets our younger generations away from screen time.

For me, sport offers so much more than getting into shape. Mental wellbeing is fundamental, and there is nothing like a good endorphin hit to make you feel better. This benefit has been especially important during the lockdown period - it has been challenging for everyone, but a tennis workout is an excellent tonic.

I also believe that sport gives you essential life skills. Tennis is brutal - you are out there on your own and have to learn to deal with adversity and frustration. You will learn, very quickly, about failure as even the world’s very best tennis players have a surprisingly low win-loss ratio. The mental resolve that this gives you is invaluable, and our boys are tough mentally. I do not doubt that tennis has been an essential factor in this development.

Perhaps the most apparent high associated with competitive tennis is that of winning a difficult match. It is tough to watch these matches as a parent (I know why Judy Murray looks the way she does when she is watching Andy or Jamie play!), but the delight when Otto comes through is incredible. The curious blend of pride, relief, and excitement becomes addictive. I do, however, believe that it is essential for younger players to avoid setting victory as the primary goal of their matches. We all want to win, but I would genuinely prefer Otto loses a match playing well than coast through an easy game and not get out of second gear. He is only (just) 13, so I want him to learn to be a better player rather than win everything - this requires losing matches. When he loses a tight game to an excellent player, my role is to remind him how lucky he is to be on the same court and asking questions of the other player. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to test yourself and improve with experience. The beauty of tennis is that this can happen at any level. You do not need to be playing at a national level to experience these highs.

I have enjoyed our tennis travels together. Otto and I get on well, which is a relief as we spend quite a bit of time in the car and at hotels etc.. Tennis has allowed us to get to know each other and develop a strong relationship that I know wouldn’t have happened if he was glued to the Xbox. We have also had fun making videos for his YouTube channel together.

Tennis has also given Otto a great social life outside his usual circles. I think it is positive to have friends outside your school/neighborhood and tennis has given him a network of similarly minded, driven friends who are all on a similar journey. Equally, I have made some great friends and laugh with the other parents.

Last but not least is the fact that Otto has something different to discuss. When I am not on ‘tennis taxi duty,’ I run a digital marketing agency and consequently get to interview a lot of people for potential roles at the agency. I am frequently disappointed by how little people have to say for themselves. Frankly, it is a bit depressing to sit in front of individuals who have not done anything other than going to school. Elite sports demand real dedication and commitment, and I am always excited when anyone mentions a sport on their resume. I know that they must have a strong desire to succeed and are not afraid of failure. Who knows where Otto will end up on the tennis journey, but I feel that we, as parents, have helped arm him with some excellent resume points for the future.

The Lows

I would be lying if I said that being a tennis parent is always fun. It can be incredibly challenging, and I sometimes reflect on how much easier life would be if tennis were not such a big part of our lives.

The financial commitment you have to make is massive. While the kit that you require is pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things, the costs mount very quickly when you start to have regular tuition. It is a solo sport, so no shared coaching costs like team sports. Yes, you can use squads to build up court time at a lower price, but you should expect to invest in an outstanding coach to stand any chance of being competitive. This is an area where I feel frustrated in the level of support available to grass-root players. I only know the LTA, being based in the UK, but the financial support for undeniable talent is woeful, and this leads to a very lopsided socio-economic balance in tennis.

This is an area where we feel the pressure. It can feel intimidating competing against players in Otto’s peer group. They have substantially deeper pockets and, in some cases, have already left full-time education to pursue a tennis career. Not only do you feel guilty that you are not matching the number of lessons of his competitors have, but he hasn’t experienced international tennis, nor do we travel in jets to every tournament possible to build up ranking points. To be honest, we have no option on this front, and I am not convinced that such extravagances make that much difference at his age. It also makes the taste of victory so much sweeter when you can be the ‘Rocky’ in the fight rather than the ‘Apollo Creed.’ He is doing it the hard way - he is privileged but not spoilt, and I think that will make him a more robust competitor in the long run.

It is not just a financial commitment. Tennis has a real impact on our family life, and I do worry, at times, that it is all-consuming. As I mentioned, Otto has a younger brother, and I feel that he mustn’t miss out on opportunities as a result of Otto’s tennis. Regularly traveling to tournaments puts pressure on us all, and my wife and I are like ships that occasionally pass at night. It can feel as though months go by without actually spending any time together as one of us is away at tournaments. I am not always sure that this is healthy.

I also worry about the pressure on Otto. He loves the pressure of competing and is happiest when fighting it out on the tennis court, but he also makes sacrifices. He doesn’t play in his local football team with his friends. He would love to, but he can’t commit to making the training and matches due to his tennis. He doesn’t play rugby at school to reduce the risk of injury - quite ironic when he managed to break his elbow running around at school. Yes, he gets a considerable amount from his tennis, but we are continually trying to allow him to have a ‘normal’ childhood, which is fun and stress-free.

I think the last ‘low’ that you should be aware of if you are starting on this journey is the fact that you will always receive advice, but that this advice many times is loaded with bias. Coaching an elite player is lucrative. Not only do you get a lot of court time with the individual, but your reputation grows when you can boast of coaching national level players. You get bombarded with conflicting opinions on how to develop a young player and you have to learn to be confident and make your own decisions based on the evidence that you can see before you.

Why on earth do we do it?

Reading through these lows, you may well question why anyone of sane mind would want to be the parent of a budding tennis player. I hope I have not painted a negative picture, but I also hope that it is helpful to give you an accurate summary. There are several reasons why we are still on the tennis path:
  • Otto wants it. This is the most critical factor as far as we, as parents, are concerned, and we ask him on a (very) regular basis if he still wants to do it. He had a ‘wobble’ when he came out of plaster, but I think that was a reaction to how weak his elbow felt and a worry that he wouldn’t get back to where he was. I think the forced break has made him hungrier than ever, and he is raring to go again.
  • The positives outweigh the negatives. Nothing is perfect, but the highs are excellent, and we are enjoying the ride. Even if he stopped playing tomorrow, I do take comfort in the knowledge that he has learned so much from the sport.
  • Fulfilling potential. Otto is blessed with a natural talent and a hard work ethic. How far that takes him with tennis is unknown, but I want to allow him to see where it ends up. I think it is unrealistic, at the age of 13, to say whether he could ever make it as a professional player. The professional game is aging, and there are plenty of examples of players that blossom late, so I don’t feel the pressure to be an international superstar right now. We have medium-term objectives, one of which would be a US tennis scholarship. This would be another fantastic opportunity which would arm him with all sorts of life skills. It would also be a very ‘healthy’ payback for the current financial burden.
So there you have it - my thoughts on the highs and lows of being a tennis parent. There is no doubt that it is a roller coaster, but if you go in with your eyes open and focus on the now rather than worrying too much about a distant future, you can be sure of an excellent ride. We certainly have no plans of jumping off right now.
We are thrilled to have tennis parent insights from Joe Friedlein as the father of Otto Friedlein, one of our Junior Ambassadors. We hope to publish more blog articles from Joe and Otto over the next few months. Aleks Szymanski, Founder

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