Every kid who wishes they were taller and every parent who thinks only giants win tennis matches needed to stop by the USTA 12s Spring National Championships in Delray Beach. Small Players with Big Games and Fast Feet were all the Rage of Semifinal Thursday. The days of the 12 and under Pushers have Come and Gone, I am very happy to report. I got there at first ball of the early morning matches featuring 2 South Florida girls playing on Hartru on either side of the Clubhouse. Sophia Kenin was in her usual spot, playing deep into a National Tournament and facing a taller opponent with a more powerful game. I am a big fan of Sophia because she is as good a shot maker as you will see at that age, but, big is never a word that people will use to describe her and sometimes she tends to play passive and not lose. That formula usually dooms her against aforementioned opponent's in previously mentioned situations. Today, if you just watched the ball you never knew who was hitting it. Sophia played first strike tennis, went for her shots and used her feet to frustrate and wear down her slower and of course taller opponent. The girl she played was good, but, got beat by a harder hitting and much faster Kenin.
Awaiting the #1 seed in the Gold Ball Match is dare I say another Small Wonder. On any given day you will see Usue Arconada sliding around the Hartru Courts at the Sunrise Tennis Club under the watchful eye of her Argentine coach Luis Brest. Ask her what Grand Slam she wants to win and she will answer Roland Garros in an accent that sounds like Rafa. Usue and yes her taller opponent from Maryland were locked in a "winner" take all match. They pounded the ball for a tiebreak set that Usue would win before rolling through the second. Short balls led to winners and Usue used superior footspeed, hard groundstokes and variety of shots to wear down a bigger opponent. Does that sound redundant. Kenin vs Arconada. The tale of the tape wont size up the match, but, their new found power games certainly will. Two girls who are a growth spurt away from WTA Stardom. Being small is a blessing because they win with their feet, have learned more shots and now have the pop on the ball that wins them National Titles. Parents and Players takes note!
When I was 12 years old I played a hard hitting lefty from Croatia at the Port Washington Tournament held over Christmas. He was shorter than me, but, boy could he hit the ball, he got to everything and won points at the net. I played great and never had a chance. The loss hurt, we became tennis friends and I smiled 18 years later when Big Goran raised the Wimbledon Trophy. Two years later, I played in the Round of 16 of the Orange Bowl, next to me was a little kid from the Netherlands, who was hitting one handers and serving and volleying. He lost to a giant guy who beat me, but, he grew into another Wimbledon Champion.
I am not saying that the kid who I watched play today, Alex Del Corral will raise the trophy at the All England Club, but, he is 5 foot nothing and strikes the ball with authority. He plays shots with a high margin, opens up angles with his forehand, steps into his backhand, uses a drop shot, finishes at the net and most of all he understands how to use all parts of the tennis court. I remember watching him hit a few years ago and he wasn't worried about his ranking. Well he is on his way to #1 and the curve he is on has him destined to be a Pro. When Alex grows, so will his serve and he will gain natural power. Right now he is fearless, just turned 12 and his best days are still way ahead of him.
Unfortunately I have no idea what it feels like to be Sophia, Usue or Alex. One because I was always very tall and two because I never made it to a USTA National Singles Final. I was slow and relied too much at 12 years old on strength, my feet were slow and I didn't develop enough shots to go to the Pro level. I muscled my second serve and my backhand and it caught up to me when the other guys grew. Height was not a blessing for me because it created a false sense of ability and it didn't force emphasis on speed and technique. It wasn't for a lack of effort, but, my one and only USTA ball was a silver I won in my last 18s National playing doubles with Daniel Nestor, another smaller kid who grew into a Grand Slam Doubles and Olympic Champion.
Big or small, you need to be fast and have weapons. Right now players are moving faster than the ball in Men's tennis and the top Women make you pay every chance they get. My message to every Junior out there especially when you are small is don't hold back, go for your shots and work on your speed. Bigger kids please don't take your size for granted, focus on all the details of your game from head to toe. Your size when you are young can be a curse or a blessing, it is all up to you. It is always a great day for tennis24/7