NTRP Spotlight: Aaron Ogden
In 2018, the USTA launched the NTRP National Championships, a national adult tournament that leverages the NTRP rating system as a way to create level-based competition. After a second successful event earlier this year, USTA.com is highlighting the players who made the event so special.
This month, we followed up with Aaron Ogden of Lincoln, Neb., whose Community Tennis Association (CTA)—the 'Tennis Mafia'—was profiled last September. After his second trip to the NTRP National Championships this spring, Ogden came to a crossroads, but has continued on his path to spread the growth of tennis in Nebraska.
An untimely injury on the tennis court might force many to give up the game.
For Aaron Ogden of Lincoln, Neb., however, it has allowed him to slide into new challenges.
Ogden has been a stalwart at the NTRP National Championships in each of its two years of existence. He competed in the 4.0 singles and doubles draws in 2018, and returned a year later to compete in the 4.5 singles draw—but after leaving Naples, Fla., this spring, the serve-and-volleyer was unsure about his future in the game after his first competitive match play on clay courts.
“[At NTRP Nationals this April], I tore a labrum in my hip. I lost three matches in three-setters, and I won two of them, all after I’d torn my hip. After nationals, I went and got an MRI, and I found out that at 38, I need a hip replacement,” he said.
“I’m having to play less. My struggles are more playing multiple days in a row, because it really hurts more the day after. I’m doing a lot of research about how a hip replacement affects tennis. The first doctor I saw told me to basically stop activity for 10 years, and then get the hip replaced, but that wasn’t going to fly.”
Now at a crossroads with his new physical reality, Ogden—who was also an avid basketball player and golfer previously in his adult life—had to figure out where tennis would fit into his new life.
Back home, the 38-year-old was already active in grass-roots tennis in his community: together with Chris Freeman, he co-founded the Lincoln-based community tennis association (CTA) ‘Tennis Mafia,’ to grow the game in the state of Nebraska by organizing local tournaments, social events, and getting people active—all with the aim of getting them involved in the game.
In the shadow of Big 10 tennis at the University of Nebraska, Ogden and the Tennis Mafia have particularly recognized the need for more tennis programming among post-grads and adults in the Lincoln community.
"The area that we’re really missing, that we’re really trying to promote is getting more college kids involved with adults, so there isn’t that 10-year lapse in players that there tends to be, at least here," he said.
"You go to college., you might have played in college, you might not have, you might have played in high school and dabbled in college, and then you don’t play at all for a long time—I did that. I was a teaching pro all through college and coached high school. I got a job after college and I didn’t play for 13 years, and then I just got back into it. I’m better now than I was in high school and college.
"It's just about evangelizing the idea of getting people out and playing. This is the whole beauty of what we're putting together and what we're trying to do.
"[The tournaments Tennis Mafia organizes], they're not sanctioned, they're just for social purposes to get people out. No matter whether you're women's doubles, men's doubles, mixed—we look at your ability, your rating and we try and put people in the right pool. For the most part, we know most of the people, so we know how to try and make it as fair as possible.
"Everyone just has a really good time. That's what's nice about it. We've seen people who've gone to our stuff, then start talking to captains of [USTA League] teams. Our USTA League teams have almost doubled within the past three years."
In the months since his second trip to the NTRP Championships, and following a second opinion and supervision from another doctor, Ogden has continued to play a limited schedule as he manages his hip injury—and has now found new outlets for his passion and tennis philanthropy.
“A couple of the other guys in our Tennis Mafia group and me decided to go through the training, and officially be officials,” he said. “That’s something to do even if I can’t play, and be involved in the tournaments and things that are around Lincoln and Omaha, primarily.
“I’m just excited. I want to be able to get on a chair to start doing that. That’s what we’re trying to get to. It’s something I thought about doing, and since I can’t play as competitively as I want to in the tournaments, I decided to go that route. I grabbed a couple of friends, and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’
“For me and a couple of others that are in our late 30s and early 40s, to try and get into this, it’s been good. The response that we get when we’re at these tournaments, and we know most of the players throughout the state, when they see us doing it, is ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.’ So now we’re starting to get more interest beyond us.”
Already passionate about growing participation in tennis in his home state despite several logistical challenges—“I’m not ready to move south,” he jokes—Ogden has now also turned an eye towards using the Tennis Mafia CTA to help the sport's physical and tangible growth in the area.
The Tennis Mafia's home club and 2018 USTA Missouri Valley Tennis Facility of the Year, the Woods Tennis Center, recently underwent a renovation—thanks in part to a community funding campaign and the generosity of Jack Sock, himself a Lincoln native.
"When I was a teaching pro at a country club in college, his mom would come out and ask me to hit with him for as I long as I could," Ogden recalled. "His dad actually works with a couple of the guys in our Tennis Mafia group, too. It came full circle in that sense."
Seeking to elevate Tennis Mafia to nonprofit status and increase their social tournament offerings in the coming year, and with the long-term aspiration of the group to open up a 24-hour tennis and fitness center for the community when they retire from their day jobs, Ogden—and his hip—have no plans of slowing down.
“Indoor club space is a huge issue here and in Omaha, and we really struggle with lighted, public courts as well… but despite the fact that we don’t have a lot of courts, the interest in tennis is growing. I feel like, from an adult standpoint, my group is really helping with that, and really promoting more interaction and social play," he said.
"It's really just trying to build that community and that community outreach. [On a recent trip to] USTA Sectionals, we're talking to people from Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Iowa, and they're asking us, 'How do we start a Tennis Mafia in our area?' It gets people asking the question, when they hear about things that we're doing, they're like, 'We really need to do that.'
"Four years ago, I didn't even think about tennis. I liked watching it, I had some friends' kids that I would teach on the side, and that was it. I think the lesson here is that you don't have to be great. There are always ways to get involved and do stuff... and you can just see where it goes from there.
"I've gained a ton of friends for life through the process that I would've never met before. The backgrounds we come from are so diverse, that I would've never run into these people if it wasn't for tennis. There's 10 of us that actually push the Tennis Mafia itself, but in our minds, everyone is a part of the Tennis Mafia."