Note: I posted this article a little over two months ago on my blog.
Three years ago, Seguso was an elite junior tennis player. These days, he plays singles and doubles for college tennis powerhouse, UCLA and is one of the subjects of Rob Klug 's new tennis documentary, Unstrung.
About two thirds of the way through, Seguso is shown holding his racket under his legs such that its grip protrudes out from his groin area, mimicking an erect penis. Later, he's shown making an unforced error and then "punishing" himself by pretending to ram his racket grip into his buttocks, simulating "homosexual" intercourse with his racket.
Obviously, such activity is pretty juvenile. It's also a temporary comedic escape from a stressful lifestyle that's marked by intensity.
Part of the reason I like tennis so much is that it's a one-on-one competition. You step on the court and it's you against the other guy; that's it.
He hits harder than you? Oh well. He runs faster than you? Do something about it. He plays net better than you? Shrug -- find a way to counter what he has to offer or you're going down.
A serious tennis match is an intimate battle of physicality, adjusting, and the ability to maintain sanity, and if you ask me, its nature is such that it stresses this stuff to a greater extent than baseball, basketball, football, and hockey because it deprives participants of the gift of teammates.
The documentary -- brainchild of four-time Grand Slam champion, Jim Courier -- follows seven male tennis players around the junior circuit for a year in an attempt to provide insight into each of their lifestyles. It culminates at Kalamazoo, Michigan, host of the USTA 's annual championships for boys in the 18 year-old and 16 year-old divisions. "The Zoo's" 18-and-under tournament is the most prestigious junior tennis competition in the United States. It offers the winner a spot in the main draw of the U.S. Open and the finalist a spot in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. To some extent, it's a springboard into a career in professional tennis ( here 's a link to draws from the past).
If you're a tennis fan, you're familiar with Young and with Querrey. The rest were blue chip recruiting prospects, which more or less means that because of tennis, they could've attended any U.S.-based college they wanted.
It matters little which players were featured. It could've been Michael Venus instead of Shields. It could've been Jamie Hunt instead of Hirshman. None of the chosen players have interesting enough personalities, in my opinion, to have been vastly superior viewing subjects to the other blue chip juniors of 2005/2006.
The format provided solid perspective about what it takes to be an elite tennis player. In order to excel at tennis, you have little choice but to live tennis. Rarely does a top junior player live a "normal" lifestyle. These guys are on tennis courts for most of the day -- every day -- and are sometimes based at specialized camps like Bradenton, Florida's Bollettieri Academy, where their daily routine consists of a few hours of schooling and then seven, eight, or nine hours of striking tennis balls and doing conditioning drills.
And even then, maybe three or four U.S. juniors out of thousands produced each year will ever sniff the top 100 in the ATP rankings.
I often joke around with tennis fan friends about certain contemporary professional American tennis players, usually guys who are ranked in the range of 100 to 150 in the world. "Scrubs," we call them. Guys like this are good enough to make it into the main draw of a big tournament once in a while, but rarely do they make it out of the first round after doing so. Robert Kendrick (ranked 122 in the world as of today), for example, is a "scrub." Bobby Reynolds, currently 104 and on the verge of going up two sets to one in a rain-delayed first round match at the French Open, is a "scrub."
What's interesting is that guys like this aren't really "scrubs" at all. In fact, they're among the best of the best at what they've chosen to do. They have sick work ethic and physical gifts the likes of which "normal" people can't even imagine. They suffer from the unique nature of tennis (a sport that at a given time is very lucrative only for about 100 men on the planet), which can sometimes make them seem unspectacular.
A guy like Kendrick would beat the living crap out of a guy like Tim Neilly. A guy like Reynolds would wipe the floor with a guy like Shields. I mean, it's not even close. Might as well not play the match.
The 250th best baseball player in the world+++ has a comfortable spot on a major league roster ([30 teams][25+ players per team] = 750-800 total players) and is guaranteed something like two or three million dollars per year.
There are no contracts in tennis. Professional tennis players play tournaments to eat. That's why I think it's so awesome to attend the types of matches that allow you to see the players who are just scraping by, such as the U.S. Open Qualies. I plan to be there every day this year.
If I have to guess, there's something like a few thousand people in the world who are superior to me at shorthanded NLHE cash games. Regardless, I enjoy the ability to make good money playing these games. If there are a few thousand people who are better than you are at tennis, you can't make a living by playing tennis tournaments. In fairness, you can make a living from teaching the game to others. At the risk of generalizing, though, that's a redundant lifestyle that offers a pretty modest income.
I remember when I first arrived on my school campus a little over four years ago. There was another freshman there that had grown up in St. Louis and was well-known for his tennis ability (here 's his recruiting profile). "Charlie Tennis," people were calling him (some respectfully, others jokingly). The dude was a three-star recruiting prospect. He was ranked 752 in the nation in the 18s. Guys like this have nice athletic "careers" at college and then go on their ways, more or less vanishing from the world of tennis forever. Some of them are well-known withinin the small bubbles in which they grew up, but by no means are they elite tennis players. Playing tennis at a world-class level takes a special something that very few individuals have.
Marcus Fugate is a physical specimen in the vein of a James Blake. He was declared ineligible to play college tennis because of sponsorship issues and seems to have chosen not to pursue further schooling. He's currently ranked 632 in the world and has produced fairly unimpressive results in small tournaments so far as he attempts to succeed on the ATP tour. At 20, he's only two or three years from being "middle-aged" for a professional tennis player. Rafael Nadal was not yet 19 when he won his first Grand Slam in 2005. Lleyton Hewitt was 20 when he won his first in 2001. Stranger things have happened, but I'd be surprised if Fugate were to "make it."
Similar story for Tim Neilly, who's playing out of the Bahamas and whose best ranking to date is 933 ( here are his results so far in 2008). Neilly will be 21 this August. You don't support yourself by playing tennis tournaments when your ranking is north of 500 in the world.
Sam Querrey and Donald Young are going to have lucrative careers in professional tennis. Three of the other five players in the documentary are currently in college. As for Fugate and Neilly, I'm sure they'll both be fine. They'll probably become teaching pros at country clubs or something. That being said, professional tennis is serious, serious business.
Quick anecdote. I played high school tennis. I was a decent player. I was never nationally ranked and probably should've been more serious about both tennis and fitness, but the truth of the matter is that I just didn't care very much, and it's impossible to achieve notable success in a popular activity if you're not passionate about being one of the best. Despite this, I was reasonably successful and did manage some wins over players who were nationally ranked at the time.
My high school had a good team, but there was a neighboring high school that used to beat the shit out of us (and out of every other team in our conference). Their roster included, among other players, a kid named James Wan (no, not the guy who wrote Saw), who's actually Michael Chang 's cousin, and a kid named Bryan Koniecko, who played in last year's U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament. Both were ranked in the top 20 nationally in their respective age groups and this team would wax us every time.
Koniecko plays college tennis at Ohio State these days and will probably try his hand on the professional tour following graduation. I was running on my high school track last summer and noticed him doing sprints on a straightaway with his coach. I said to my friend, "Dude, that guy over there is an elite college athlete." My friend just shrugged.
Anyway, Koniecko shows up towards the end of Unstrung beating Greg Hirshman 2 and 2 in the second round of the 2005 18s tournament at Kalamazoo. He's a smallish guy (about 5'9") with awkward-looking groundstrokes and a serve that's probably not much bigger than 100 miles per hour. But he hits angles like a motherfucker.
I mentioned that Koniecko played the U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament last year. He went down in the first round to a British journeyman named Richard Bloomfield. Bloomfield lost in the next round to a young Argentinean player named Eduardo Schwank. Schwank has been ripping up challengers, has his ranking up to 75 in the world, and is built like a horse. Three days ago, he upset Grand Slam winner, Carlos Moya in a five-setter at the first round of the French Open.
Unrelated tennis links:
- Article discussing the fact that Ashley Harkleroad will be appearing in Playboy
- French Open live video feed
- Pretty solid blog that I found while poking around the Internet for facts about tennis
Note: Go here for the most recent college tennis rankings. I should note that very rarely do the best college players make a mark on the professional tour. Ben Becker and John Isner come to mind, but neither has been able to penetrate the world's top 30 (Becker turns 27 in a couple of weeks; Isner recently turned 23). James Blake was an excellent college player, but he played only two years of college tennis.