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Two Athletes, Two Different Futures

Appearances Can Be Deceptive

Today I ran into two of Dan’s opponents from USTA days, both named Jeff, at the local club where I’d gone to test the limits of my strained knee ligament by playing doubles. Both Jeffs come from middle-class families that made steep sacrifices for them to play elite sports through high school. Both have done well in school and on the court, and both are headed for elite universities—Brown and Georgetown—where they will play Division 1 tennis. I suspect scholarship money accompanied the offers of admission.

Jeff and Jeff are pretty happy campers. They are also growing into polite and engaging young men who seem genuinely happy to see me and who have kept in touch with Dan’s fledgling career as a college tennis player. Their fierce battles on the court, with each other and with my son, seem to have forged ties that no other activity, particularly in our culture that discourages emotional closeness among boys, could match.

The Jeffs are also, in significant ways, different, and it will be interesting to see how that difference plays out as they come into their own.

"They're All Our Kids"

Jeff A. is the youngest of four boys whose father runs a college art gallery while his mother works in insurance. His parents were relatively old among the spectators at the matches, and although they took their son’s sport seriously, their acquaintance with the ups and downs of adolescence ran deep, making them also relatively relaxed and genial. We laughed together at our own and our kids’ follies.

Most memorable, for me, will be the generosity Jeff A.'s parents showed one night when, for complicated reasons, Dan was stranded at a tournament on Cape Cod with nowhere to spend the night. They waited two hours after Jeff’s match and then took Dan home with them and brought him back to the tournament (Jeff had lost) early the next morning. When I tried to thank them, Jeff’s father waved me off. “They’re all our kids, in a way,” he said. “We’re very fond of Dan. Call on us any time.”

Fanatical Focus

Jeff B. is the second child and only son of a part-time special-needs teacher and an accountant. The parents’ fanatical focus on their son’s career displayed itself, in the mother, as nonstop commenting on the ways in which Jeff was falling down on the job; and in the father, as a tight-lipped attention to every move on the court. Though this family lived six miles from us, they never accepted my offers to take Jeff along to tournaments 150 miles away, because they didn’t trust another parent to be sure Jeff would eat the right breakfast or take the appropriate warm-up time. Similarly, they were unwilling to the point of hostility to offer Dan any such rides, even though they knew I was a single working parent with another child at home.

Most memorable for me will be the championship match where Dan came from behind to beat Jeff B. Dan’s high-school coach was present and allowed to coach him at changeovers; Jeff’s coach was unable to be there. Though Jeff’s father received permission to coach him instead, he cried out that there was unfair advantage, that the choice of courts had been influenced by Dan’s coach—in essence, that the match was rigged.

At the end of the match, Jeff refused to shake Dan’s hand. His father supported him in that choice, and from that point on also refused to speak to me, though I had done nothing but sit on the bleachers. The boys, of course, made up within days.

Looking to the Future

I suspect that, as the Jeffs move toward independence, it will be not just the logistical support they received, but also their families’ larger response, both to the boys’ ambitions and to others in the world, that will make their paths smoother or steeper. The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports recently completed a study for the USTA demonstrating the difference parental behaviors make to the attitudes of young tennis players, and their conclusions apply to other sports as well.

The cliché about “how you play the game” applies far beyond the game itself. One hopes these young men will go off into the world playing their most generous and open-hearted game, which is where the true wins lie.

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