Spawned from dreams formed at the conclusion of a sharp, chill winter, the march to the USTA Jr. Team Tennis National Championships in sunny Surprise, Ariz., dominated the year for over 68,000 teenage players across America in 2010.
The very best -- out of 11,178 competing teams each season, only 60 make it to nationals -- arrived in the Valley of the Sun in late October after boundless practice sessions between the lines, along with hard-fought matches at the local, regional and sectional levels. Considering that 2011 qualifying has already begun, it all adds up to almost 18 months of tireless work, on top of the typical stresses of the adolescent years.
A famous American expression often espoused to traveling is: "Focus on the journey, not the destination."
Yet when the destination is 80 degrees and sunny each and every day in the middle of autumn, both halves hold equal weight.
"Taking this event out west to Arizona was awesome," said Marikate Murren, USTA Jr. Team Tennis National Manager, who also serves as Tournament Director each year. "We loved that we could take our showcase tournament to a facility like the Surprise Racquet & Tennis Complex. This place has held Fed Cup, USTA League events and professional matches. And, of course, the weather was fantastic."
Indeed, it was a two-week extravaganza for the USTA, which hosted the 14-and-Under National Championships from Oct. 21-24, followed by the 18-and-under version from Oct. 28-31. USTA Northern (Advanced Division) and Caribbean (Intermediate Division) took home 14U titles, while Eastern (Advanced) and Florida (Intermediate) captured 18U crowns.
Local television, radio and business outlets lined up tents around the courts and around the pro shop, camping out for two consecutive weekends. Mayor Lyn Truitt stopped by to take in some matches, as well, and was no doubt pleased to hear that the USTA plans on being back in Surprise in the fall of 2011.
Murren echoed that sentiment.
"The way the community of Surprise accommodated us exceeded our expectations. We felt the same way about (previous tournament sites like) San Diego and Birmingham in years past and the way they made us feel welcome. We've always been fortunate in that regard and thankful for the support.
"People might not realize that we're at this for six to seven months, pretty much non-stop to make sure everything performs to plan, and if one child comes up to me and says that they had a great time, it's all worth it."
2010 Nationals were particularly exciting because of the chance to meet up and interact with bona fide tennis legends. Concurrent with the 14 & Under Championships, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships at Surprise, featuring the stars of the Champions Series, also held court at the complex and drew large crowds to the Phoenix suburb, which included all of the Jr. Team Tennis attendees.
As part of the festivities, Jr. Team Tennis participants attended a night of matches and were recognized with the likes of tennis legends, such as new U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Michael Chang and Anna Kournikova. In addition, Mark Philippoussis and Aaron Krickstein attended Thursday's Jr. Team Tennis player party, greeting the arriving players and their families and signing autographs.
"Some of these kids had never seen a pro match before," said Adrienne DiMenna, USTA Jr. Team Tennis Event Coordinator. "I know from the feedback that we received that it was special for them to see former stars still playing live in front of them at a high level. It was a blast for us organizers and the volunteers, too."
The National Championships represent the apex of the season, but on the whole it has been a successful 2010 campaign both on and off the court for USTA Jr. Team Tennis.
Utilizing social media to spread the word about Jr. Team Tennis initiatives was an all-important goal, thus a brand-new Facebook fan page was born that housed frequent updates and tournament results, along with a mobile alert system for cell phones. By 2011, according to Murren and DiMenna, a USTA Jr. Team Tennis Twitter feed and a brand-new mobile application for TennisLink -- akin to what is currently in the works for USTA Leagues -- should further enhance the web experience of players, parents and coaches.
Overall, participation is up by 13 percent over 2009 -- almost 9,000 unique players new to the fold in 2010 -- which is a number that Murren and staff hope to increase with the newfound rule change for 10 & Under Tennis.
The rule change signifies the emergence of the QuickStart Tennis play format as an integral part of the development of young players. The scaled-down equipment and smaller playing court will allow kids to rally and play the game early on, increasing the likelihood that kids will continue to improve and, most importantly, keep coming back to the court during their earliest formative years and graduate to Jr. Team Tennis play.
"If parents and coaches are jazzed about one thing, it’s the rule change," said Murren. "We've had the resources and the know-how to promote QuickStart at the national level, but any effort in getting the resistant folks on board with a new concept could only go so far with suggestion. Now, we are changing the game.
"For the first time in many places around the country, kids and parents are getting their real first taste of the modified courts and equipment, and consequently, it’s the first time younger kids are having success at tennis and having fun."
Charlotte Ott, who coached her 18U Intermediate "Team Tennessee" to Surprise and the 2010 Jr. Team Tennis National Championships as the representative for USTA Southern, was sad that 2010 would mark the last chance for many of her players to team up. Most members of her squad will be graduating from high school and spreading out to different colleges in different states. In 2011, Team Tennessee will be primarily composed of a new generation of players -- some who may have never experienced the lessons and triumphs USTA Jr. Team Tennis can provide.
Ott summed up the meaning of team spirit in tennis eloquently when she said: "Jr. Team Tennis takes a great sport that is sometimes just you and your racquet and makes it a team sport where collectively you rally together. The friendships made, the relationships developed and the team camaraderie, whether we are winning or losing, make the champion."
As each year is unique, so is the Jr. Team Tennis experience, where an individual sport at its core is blended with the concepts of cohesive team play and sportsmanship. One component really can't hope to survive without the other, and neither is more important than its counterpart. In parallel, a series of individuals can plan out a national tournament or Facebook page, but it takes a community to take it and create a happening.
Kind of like the journey and the destination -- the best teams enjoy both equally.