It's the Ultimate Family Sport

By Tracy Austin

It’s healthy, engaging, provides countless opportunities to forge friendships, and just as many life lessons. Tennis has everything—and that’s why it’s the ultimate family sport. Whether as children or parents, tennis is a great way for everyone, regardless of age or ability, to be together, have fun, exert yourself and challenge your mind in a setting that can be equally social, competitive and rewarding.

Just think: A 10-year-old boy can be on the court with his 80-year-old grandmother and they both can have a great time together. In how many other activities can you say that? Tennis is special, and that’s why it’s still a huge part of my family’s life—and always will be.

I guess you could say I was virtually born on a tennis court. My father, George, was an active recreational player, while my mother Jeanne played many tournaments and worked six days a week at the pro shop at the Jack Kramer Club in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. My three brothers, Jeff, Doug and John, as well as my sister, Pam, all played, so tennis for the Austins was very much a family affair. When I first started, I was 4 years old and about as tall as the net. My mom and my coach, Vic Braden, made the game all about fun. Vic’s motto was simple: hit, giggle, run.

Hitting tennis balls was so much fun for me that soon I became eager to compete. At the age of 7 I played my first USTA tournament, traveling with my siblings and my parents to junior tournaments all over Southern California. No matter how we did, the emphasis was always on tennis as a healthy, enjoyable activity. Even when I eventually became a pro, competing in US Open finals versus the likes of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, my mother was always extremely positive.

Twenty years after my pro career ended, I still love being on a tennis court. These days, one of my favorite ways to enjoy time on the court is through Cardio Tennis, a high-intensity on-court workout where you hit a ton of balls and virtually never stop moving. My husband, Scott, also plays, so we’ll often go out and hit, play points or rustle up a fun doubles match with some friends.

Just as my parents did when my siblings and I were young, it’s been great for me to be able to pass my love of tennis on to the next generation. Our three sons all play—and I’m very happy that each is choosing to pursue tennis in his own way and that each has been able to balance tennis with lots of other sports.

My oldest, Dylan, is 13 and plays three times a week. He loves the exercise, the friends he’s made from tennis, and since he most enjoys playing with others, programs like USTA Jr. Team Tennis are a perfect fit for him. Brandon, 11, is what you’d call a gung-ho player, taking lots of lessons and competing in tons of USTA sectional and national events. Our youngest, Sean, is 8 and, just like his older brothers did at his age, plays a bunch of sports. Time will tell how much tennis he plays, which is fine with me. It’s wonderful how things have come full circle. Once upon a time I was the child with her mom watching; now I’m the parent, doing what I can to cheer my kids on.

While I certainly had great coaching, that’s not a necessary ingredient for developing a passion for tennis. My mom was really the catalyst, and it’s so easy for parents to get their children into the game. All you need is a racquet, a ball and a wall.

I’m very excited about the QuickStart Tennis play format that’s aimed at children 6 to 10 years old. By using smaller racquets, foam and low-compression balls, shorter courts and lower nets, QuickStart makes it much easier for children to get started in the game. After all, for a child, it can be a little discouraging to try and grab a heavy racquet and play on a court that seems the size of a football field. So shrinking things a bit, QuickStart teaches all the skills it takes to hit the widest range of shots. I recently saw a QuickStart tournament in Chicago. It was great to see kids rallying and playing points. And I’ve seen many times that once kids attain a degree of success, they start smiling—and many get so passionate they become lifelong tennis players.

That lifetime sport aspect of tennis is remarkable. No matter what the player’s age, I love seeing someone’s eyes light up when they’ve learned something new, like a 45-year-old girlfriend of mine just getting the hang of a spin serve, or my 11-year-old improving his volleys, or an 82-year-old mastering the drop shot as she pursues a national title.

Even as an ex-pro, there are things I’m still learning. In the last few years, for example, I’ve changed my forehand grip from an Eastern to a semi-Western and am now hitting the ball with more topspin. Forehands and backhands, volleys and overheads, serves and spins, tactics, drills, doubles—in tennis there are always things you can tinker with and get more enjoyment from.

But what’s truly great about tennis is that it’s got something for everyone. Not every child has to be a tournament player. A boy or girl can have a great tennis life playing a few times a week, taking an occasional lesson and being on the high school team. Adults can play national age group tournaments, local NTRP events, or USTA League tennis. Or you can just hit a few times with a family member or a friend.

Camaraderie is also a wonderful part of our sport. From watching family members play together on league teams to parents coaching Jr. Team Tennis, tennis brings families together. I’m always impressed to see people just getting into the game who join USTA League teams and then use that team experience as a launching pad to make new friends, create new tennis events, take lessons, organize trips to pro tournaments or vacation spots, watch tennis on TV—just immerse themselves in the game at all levels. And those fresh, enthusiastic faces are the lifeblood that keeps our sport growing strong.

Off the court, the lessons that come from the hard work and discipline of tennis are powerful. Time and again, I’ve seen cases of people who, by putting energy into tennis, build the kind of self-reliance, focus and persistence it takes to succeed in a wide range of fields. I think one of the reasons that’s true is that, because it’s an individual sport, tennis teaches personal responsibility. You can’t hide on a tennis court, or blame your losses on your teammates, or bench yourself if you get tired. Those are valuable lessons that apply in life just as much as they do on court.

I’ll admit that when it comes to waving the flag for tennis, I’m biased. Tennis has been very good to me. Not many people get the chance earn a living playing a game. But having been around thousands of players, I’ve also seen how much pleasure it gives to so many of all skill levels and ages. Just think—body and mind, friends and family—a lifetime sport that allows you to be involved with the most important people in your life. That’s as good as it gets.

Two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin won hundreds of titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world. But perhaps the title she most cherishes was the 1980 Wimbledon mixed doubles title she won with her brother, John. She now serves as a USTA Special Consultant for Player Development.
 
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