More important values are at stake when you’re tempted to retire from a match
by Yann Auzoux, Tennis Central CEO
Pro players rarely serve as great role models for our kids. But at Indian Wells last year, Taylor Fritz showed the ferocious commitment I’m dying to see in our generation of lesson-taking children and teens.
He was warming up before his final against Rafael Nadal when a searing pain lashed at his ankle. “Possibly the sharpest acute pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” Fritz said.
All day he debated with doctors and coaches whether it was worth the risk to play the match. It could end up only making the damage worse, sidelining him for months when caution would allow it to heal in days. But this final meant more to him. So did these fans, Southern Californians whom Fritz represented as a hometown hero.
He decided to play. As it turned out, he could play all right—he upset Nadal that day to win his first Masters tournament. What a model of fighting spirit when retiring would have been so easy to justify.
Fritz’s courage is needed now more than ever because I see an epidemic of retirement among the ranks of our juniors. We see it in our local tournaments when players pull out because they were admitted to a better one. We see it even at international events when kids think they’re as savvy as the pros. They certainly learned it somewhere.
Players will always act within the rules according to the incentives. Cynically retiring as a pro comes with its own problems—taking a spot from a deserving lower-ranked player, disappointing fans—but at least the opponent gets paid more and a nice rest before the next match.
At the junior level, it’s about more than rankings. It’s about exponential improvement. The problem is that the incentives don’t line up with this. As wonderful as it is to have a rating system that compares players across the world, the Universal Tennis Rating, players have started taking UTR as seriously as death.
Why ever play someone ranked below you? There’s little incentive if UTR is all you care about. It shouldn’t be.
Juniors protect their rankings as fiercely as the pros. This can be commendable in a sense. But they know the rules down to the minutest detail. They know how many games they can play before the match affects their UTR. They’ll retire before that point.
Yes, they’ll quit a match they are losing rather than give the opponent the chance to earn a victory. Quit rather than fight.
Now, I am never going to advocate that any child should go against doctor’s orders or common sense when it comes to an injury. Their safety is paramount. But there is a difference between being hurt and being injured.
No one who trains seriously is ever one-hundred-percent. Little nicks, fatigue, soreness, these are all just temptations, excuses to latch onto when you lose, or worse, to prevent you from putting your pride on the line to win or lose at all.
What they fail to realize is that the opponent relies on them. Without them there can be no match. Remember the feeling when the only baseball you had got lost in the woods? Or when someone took their ball and went home? It is effectively the same thing here. Playtime is over.
That football or baseball game you have, or that social event, will go on without you. Those have enough people to continue. A tennis match can’t, and another kid is going home empty-handed. A kid who wanted to improve his UTR or test her skills against a better player.
I am proud to say I never gave up once on court. Never. Nor do I allow it from my players. Encouraging your children to do the same, to play when it seems toughest, does two things. It will instill in them the fortitude to rise up to any challenge. And, if there can be something more important than that, believe me, there is.
It will also combat the self-centered mindset that an individual sport’s culture seems dead set on indoctrinating in our kids. It honors your opponent, and sportsmanship, to consider their time and desire to play and improve.
To think of another before yourself—before you crush them on the court.
Yann Auzoux is CEO of Tennis Central, the parent company of The Tennis Curator.