What Am I Talking About?
This week, the land of Trump signs and Confederate Flags, also known as Birmingham, Alabama played home for the Player’s Choice Open. This was my first Futures event in 10 months, and the 128-man qualifying tournament had my name written all over it. As soon as I got there, legs and back achy from the 8-hour drive, I remembered just how good Futures tournaments are. Like gnats buzzing around the compost pile, players for nearby college teams swarmed the courts. Probably the best four guys from Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and tons of other colleges were all there, and that instant flash back to my days of college tennis startled me. 17 year-old Italians cover the courts, sliding with complete balance and control while the Russians, who speak to no one but them selves, seem to be having negative amounts of fun. Not far behind the players, are the coaches.
They are the worst. Head to toe in regalia of their school, sunglasses on and a little stubble, they are hands down the most annoying people at Futures events. There is a respect players have for each other, and a willingness to share practice courts with another player who’s in the same boat and just needs half a court to warm up on; but the college coaches come on court and try to have the same power with us as they do with their team. It doesn’t work. If you’re a college coach reading this, remember you’re not all powerful out here the way you are on campus. Mutual respect goes both ways; and out here most of us would love to piss you off the way we never could with our own college coaches. Call me small, but it’s the little things in life, right?
This was the first Futures event I’ve played in the States, and my god was it nice to be able to speak with the tournament director, and officials easily. Sometimes, abroad, formalities like scheduling a practice court, or getting new balls, or even just getting a coffee can be a huge battle. Words are lost in translation, body language and tone of voice are misunderstood and before you know it the only court available for you to practice on is at 7am the next day. Having places like Saw’s Soul Food around the corner from the tennis center go a long way in making the tournament more enjoyable. Being able to not only eat well, but have an experience at a restaurant that depicts the culture of the town you’re in is just fun. Saw’s(<- I got the sample platter) has the best BBQ I’ve ever had, and if you’re in Birmingham, I recommend you try it.
Inside the clubhouse, which combines with the golf pro shop, players sit around on their phones and talking, waiting for rides back to the hotel or practice courts, whichever come first. Posters of Federer, Safin and Kim Clijsters from 2002 hang on the wall as an ever so subtle reminder to the players that we’re at the Futures level. I mean, a lot has happened in tennis since 2002, and the club couldn’t get a newer poster? It’s been a long time since Rafa donned the capris. My personal favorite is the green felt bulletin board that has old newspaper clippings, also from the early 2000’s, touting local high school players as favorites to win the state championship that year. Headline articles of local players who have signed letters of intent to play Division 1 tennis; has nothing else happened here since they left? Are they the heroes of the Highland Park Tennis Center? And then there is the lone New York Times article, written by Christopher Clarey, that still hangs, laminated on the bulletin board. Clarey covered this same tournament a couple years ago and wrote about the missing windscreens, and uneven courts that Futures players do battle on. The lack of lines judges, and the high level of players who are spending tons of money and time for the hopes of winning just 1 ATP point, while Djokovic and Federer regularly play for thousands of points. The article is great, but his opinion is a little depressing.
I lost first round of qualies to a good player from UCF; I actually played alright in my first match in 10 months, but my arm was still bothering me. It just gets so tight from serving, I can’t tell if it hurts or if it’s just weak. After I lost, I got in one last practice and gym session, then packed my bags and left for Niceville, Florida the next day. I’m playing a Wildcard event there that starts on Tuesday, winner gets a Wildcard into the Main Draw next week. I’m too wound up to just play with abandon, but I’m really just looking to compete well this week and play the strategies I’ve spent so much time working on.
Futures events are a strange mix of positivity and brutal reality. On the practice courts, guys are working on every aspect of their game, hoping a minor adjustment on their forehand is the thing that’s holding them back. They’re ready to work and focus and get better that day. But then comes match day, and you see guys fighting not only their opponents but also themselves. The inner battle of knowing that improving is the most important thing a player can focus on, but also the desire to win immediately can be hard to balance. Do you want to work on your forehand at the expense of feeling comfortable with it in your match tomorrow? Winning tomorrow is not your ultimate goal, but it does move you on to the next round, and being in the next round is really the goal. Man, it’s a tough balance; I’ll let you know when I figure it out.