Many parents dream of their children becoming professional tennis players. Tennis is an elegant sport, and the prize money is promising. Everybody likes to watch good looking women and men running on the tennis court. But only a few make it to the top, and it can become very lonely. We spoke to László Fonó, a professional tennis trainer and former tennis player, about the essential information you, as a parent, should know *
At what age can a child start playing tennis?
It depends on the personality. Some children start playing tennis at the age of three or four. Some of the kids might only have the drive to try it later on in life. In my opinion, if you want to develop your game and be a good tennis player, it should be at about five or six. Now we have several stages of development with the Kids evolution program. Three to four-year-old kids already have a complete setup. They offer practices and methods for kids of that age. But I am afraid it is a little bit risky; they can burn out very quickly along the way. I prefer to start at around five or six. But, I have trained a player who began at ten, and he is a solid player. There are no rules around which age you should start if you want to become a good tennis player.
How many times a week do you recommend playing?
If you play once a week, it won’t do much, and you will probably not make any progress. Some of the kids are more talented, follow the practices, and learn faster than others. In most cases, I would recommend a minimum of at least twice a week, that’s the limit. On the other hand, it’s not really the amount that counts but the quality of each session. You have to have a coach who sees the development and who can help you along the way. Start with two or three times a week. If you are doing a good job, if you follow the lessons correctly, you can make excellent progress and become a decent, solid tennis player.
How much does essential tennis equipment cost?
It depends on whether or not you want to buy the latest collection from the top brands or just buy equipment from any sports shop that can do the job. You will need specific shoes. It is vital, because of the unique movement on the tennis court. The tennis shoes have to have a firm grip to hold your feet, especially when you move sideways. Then you need a decent racket. It’s around 50 Euros for shoes and 50 Euros for the tennis racket. It also depends on if you are a child or an adult because then you need a different size racket.
Are there any other fees and if so, how much are they?
Firstly, you need to book a tennis court. That will cost you around 10 – 20 Euros per hour, here in Hungary. It depends on the time of the day and weather it is indoors or outdoors. If you want to play with a coach, that’s another 20 -30 Euros. It will be much more expensive in other countries like the USA, UK or Switzerland. Also, you would need to discuss with the coach if he/she is buying tennis balls or if you would have to pay for it. That’s another 100 Euro for the basket of 70 tennis balls.
Do children start playing in a group or alone?
The best is if children start playing in a group. They get to know the game. They have to be in a group to make progress. With younger children and their lack of concentration, it should be more about the game and having fun. Not heavy training, but more about coordination, playing with others and learning from challenges. Getting to read each other’s body language helps when they are in a group. If they are not following up and need some extra help, then they can start private lessons.
At what point should you recognize that it’s worth putting your resources into the child’s training because they have a future in the sport?
Excellent question. I think it’s very difficult to say who will become a good tennis player and who has a future in this sport. It’s much easier to say, as a coach, when you see that someone is not talented or not enthusiastic enough, or not committed. You can see that it is not their way, and parents should not push this kid and waste their time and money.
What does it mean for the parents? How much do they have to be present and support the child?
The parents play a huge role in tennis training. It’s not just financially. They need to provide a stable base, support the kids, understand the kids and provide a safe home. They also have to ask their child a lot of questions as well as from the coach. It is a crucial role. But as a parent, you have to be aware that if you get too involved in the physical, tactical, technical part or in the strategy of the game, you might do more harm than good. The child will get certain information from the coach, and if as a parent, you give different information, it will come from two different directions, and the child will get confused. You must leave it to the coach, to do his/her job. As a parent ask a lot of questions, if something is not clear, ask the coach, and communicate with each other. Support from the parent should be love and understanding, more than giving advice.
How much money would parents have to spend before their child can start earning money from tournaments?
It depends on what prize money tournaments we are talking about. There are some national tournaments, where you can make a little bit of money, but that will not cover your expenses. If you want to earn money that will cover your costs or at least part of your expenses, you have to reach the international level. At the age of 18, you can get the prize money from these tournaments. So if you start playing at around 5-6 years old, then for another 12 years, you have to cover travelling, the hotel, the training, the court, equipment and so on. Let’s say that’s around 100 thousand Euro, minimum, which you would have to spend to earn good money later. That is, if everything comes together and you are not getting injured, you follow the practices and develop yourself. Also, you need a lot of luck to reach that level. So let’s say it’s around 100 thousand minimum.
At what stage do young tennis players get sponsors, a manager, a coach or money from the tennis association?
It depends on the country. There are countries where tennis is really popular, and the players get support from the government or the federation. Already at the age of 12, they select the talented kids. These kids get sponsors, rackets, equipment, from a very early age. Sometimes they even get coaches and free practices. They can get together at the national tennis center, and they can attend open practices. Sometimes they also take you to international tournaments; they pay the travel cost for you and give you a coach. I am not sure, but I think that if you are part of the association, if they give you a contract, they will help you with all the management, but you probably have to pay it back later when you start making money, or at least part of it.
What are the milestones for the young players? What are the tournaments they have to attend? When do they start competing internationally?
There are a lot of stages. You have a “play and stay” program for the kids of age 3-5: that is blue level. Then you have a red level for age 4-6. Then comes the orange for 6-8 years old. From 8 to 10 years it is a green level. From 10 years old, you play in the regular tennis court with the yellow tennis ball. So you have different stages, where you can compete and check your level. There are also some international tournaments for young players. In my opinion, just play these levels, and when you reach the yellow tennis ball and use the whole court, start to compete in your country. Play national tournaments. You already have rankings at the age of 14. If you are ranking in the top 5 in your country, then you can check yourself and start playing in some international tournaments. I would not recommend starting international competitions if you are around 10 in your ranking. Later on, when you are 16, I strongly advise you to play as many tournaments as you can and with as many different nationalities as you can. Sometimes if you have a small country, you play with the same 10 players all the time, and it’s very difficult to make progress like that.
Why are some countries good at tennis and some not? Is it a question of money or good trainers?
Some nations are famous for tennis, they have role models. Serbia has Djokovic, Spain has Nadal and Switzerland has Federer. In these countries, more kids play tennis, because they look up to these players and they want to be like them. So more kids are playing and so it’s easier to select talented players and make progress with them.
It also depends on the federation, how much money they give to the clubs and trainers. What kind of support they get. In some countries, it is easier to focus on the kids’ programs because they get help. They don’t have to give private lessons to amateurs. Some trainers need to give private lessons for adults because they need the money. In other countries, they get a good salary, and they can focus on working with 5 selected kids and make much better progress.
What makes a successful tennis player? Is it determination and training or mainly talent?
Both are important. If two kids are competing with each other and one is talented, and the other one has the work ethic, later on, if someone is working hard and has the determination and discipline, it is only a matter of time that the work will pay off. A hard-working player would probably be more successful than the player who just relies on talent. But if two very enthusiastic kids play against each other and are both hard workers, but one is more talented than the other, the talented one will adapt easier to the difficult situations during the match. Talent is important, but without hard work, it’s not going to do much.
Also, you have to define what you mean by talent. Is it someone who has a good hand or good movement and is reading his opponent well or has good coordination? Magnus Norman (former number 2, owns a tennis academy called the Good to Great Tennis Academy, among its clients are Stan Wawrinka) says that the biggest talent is someone who is coachable.