By Matt Barnhart, special to USTA.com
Dedicated young athletes – particularly in tennis – find competition wherever and whenever they can. Tennis teens represent their middle and high school teams and also play on travel squads in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competition. Simultaneously, many young tennis players enjoy USTA Jr. Team Tennis (JTT) as a way to continue competing against the best during and outside of the school year.
At times, they find themselves as opponents one day and then as teammates the next. That was the case one recent weekend for four Virginia boys – 17-year-old Lewis Goode, 15-year-olds Scotty Hunter and Dillon Jacob and 14-year-old Andrew Roberts – all members of the USTA Virginia JTT "The Ace Kickers" 18 and Under Advanced team that plays out of Virginia Beach’s Princess Anne Country Club.
On a sunny spring Saturday, they competed against one another in the 2013 Tidewater Conference of Independent Schools (TCIS) championship match, as the Cape Henry Collegiate School matched up against Norfolk Academy. On one side of the net, Goode, Hunter and Jacob helped Norfolk Academy to a 17-1 record during the season. On the other, the 14-year-old Roberts was part of the Cape Henry squad that earned a 13-1 overall mark. Additionally, Goode, Hunter and Jacob earned All-TCIS first team honors in singles and doubles, with Hunter being named the TCIS Player of the Year.
Roberts and Cape Henry would win, narrowly defeating Norfolk Academy in total points, 68-67. The very next day, the boys united as "The Ace Kickers" to win their JTT match, 39-13 (total games). Each player won in straight sets.
"The friend-foe dynamic is interesting," said Goode. "When our high schools play against each other, we all want our respective teams to win, but the next day it's pretty cool how we can come together as teammates. Any argument or dispute shared with the two teams on the previous day is completely wiped out so we can focus on team tennis and getting our team as far as possible.
"It was a tough transition my first year of JTT, but now that I got to know my JTT team so well, I almost don't even have to think about it."
Roberts agreed with his rival/cohort.
"Every year that I have played JTT, I have always been on a team that is a mix of players from various schools," he said. "Even during the varsity season, all of the varsity Norfolk Academy players were my friends. Yes, we wore different uniforms and were on opposite sides of the net, but at the end of the match we were still great friends."
Dr. Helen Roberts has had the privilege of captaining JTT teams for the past five years, highlighted by two wonderful experiences at JTT Nationals for USTA Mid-Atlantic in 2011 and 2012. While she cheers on Andrew – her son – and Cape Henry, she takes notice of all young players who exhibit good sportsmanship and go out of their way to be supportive of their teammates. In building teams, Roberts strives very hard to form a group of players from many schools in the area.
"The Norfolk Academy tennis players are so talented, and I love having them on our JTT team," said Roberts. "All of them and their parents are my friends, and it has truly been a joy to have them play JTT with Andrew. When I look at our team, I don’t see schools, I just see gifted tennis players that are having fun together while competing to their very best potential."
After earning the right to play at the 2012 Jr. Team Tennis National Championships in Cayce, S.C. last October, The Ace Kickers have their sights on a repeat berth in 2013. Over the summer, they must win their local league, and then advance past their JTT District and Section Championships for a second shot at Cayce.
It’s a tough task made easier when the players’ energies are channeled into team spirit just as much as their forehands and backhands.
"There is plenty to like about tennis, but what is most important to me is having fun and making new friends," said Jacob. "When you are part of a team, it doesn’t matter if you played against the person before – now that you are on a team, everyone’s success helps the team."