When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Movie Review: "Unstrung" Shines A Light on Seven U.S. Juniors By Joel Drucker
Tennis aficionados and armchair psychologists will find much to ponder while watching "Unstrung," a new documentary about junior tennis that debuts Saturday, May 3 at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN Classic. The 97-minute film raises a great many questions about tennis and its role in everything from ambition and money to child development, parenting, choices and tennis' ethos of self-reliance.
Shot during the buildup to the 2005 USTA National Boys Championships in Kalamazoo, "Unstrung" spends focuses on the journeys of seven skilled American juniors. Two of them you'll likely know: 2008 Tennis Channel Open winner Sam Querrey and current top 100 player Donald Young. The other five are less familiar but have gone on to various levels of tennis success, including Holden Seguso, now playing at UCLA; and Greg Hirshman, currently a freshman at Stanford.
Jim Courier took time out from his work at Inside Out Sports & Entertainment to serve as executive producer. Says Courier, "This is a story about seven families trying to get to the same place without a road map. These are high stakes. The risk that these families take by putting all their eggs in one basket - financial risks - are significant. But who doesn't want the best for their kids?"
Courier's question gets to the core of the film's subtext: What's best for a child? Seguso is one intriguing example. The lanky blonde is a rarity, the son of former pros Carling Bassett and Robert Seguso. He notes that he never chose to play tennis, that the sport was more or less handed to him. His parents, quite successful, have never had to vacate the precious tennis bubble that envelops good players very early in their development - a cocoon far more solitary than those in team sports. It's protective, seductive and downright narrow. But also, at heart, Holden has put in the work and emerged as a fine player. Whether he becomes a pro or not is less important than the fact that he has immersed himself in a craft - a life lesson that could indeed be worthwhile should he never play again.
But for others, tennis is even more. It's an aspirational sport, a vehicle for upward mobility and, you better believe it, revenue. "Unstrung" shows Tim Neilly, born in the Bahamas, living in a small Florida apartment with his mother. He soon strikes up a relationship with Andy Roddick's former coach, Tarik Benhabiles, and in December 2004 notches an upset win over Young to become the first African-American to win the prestigious Orange Bowl. But most telling is a scene when Neilly is on the phone talking with Nike and on the verge of receiving a contract. Says his mother, "Money talks, everything else walks." (The deal falls through but Neilly strikes another with Lacoste.)
Dare we fault her for articulating what's always lurking around the world of junior tennis? "Unstrung" oozes the smell not just of tennis as a pastime, but as a business, most evident through an interview with a Nike rep, the omnipresent logos and the recurring presence of longstanding coach Nick Bollettieri - whose academy is, after all, owned by sports management firm IMG. How would you feel if your child's dance or music school was owned by Hollywood agencies ICM or CAA?
Candor is at the core of this film. "Unstrung" delivers a raw, sensitive look at what it takes to be a junior good enough to possibly be a pro. Clancy Shields of Boise, Idaho - the tennis equivalent of the Jamaica and its bobsled team - treks across America's highways with his father in a van that houses their sleeping quarters and stringing machine. Hirshman confesses that during the summer he's not only playing tennis but independently writing 617 pages of math problems. Just because Donald Young has an IMG agent and lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike and Head doesn't stop his thoughtful mother from demanding he squeegee a court by himself. Sam Querrey's mother reveals that her son likes tennis because there's no physical contact. It's all good stuff.
What I'd like to have seen more - and this is always my quibble with what I see as the frequently passive, subject-driven approach of narrator-free documentaries - is more digging into these families' motivations. As Courier says, "Often the kids aren't so much living their dreams as their parents."
Indeed, there's a paradox to the rise of a tennis player. The game itself teaches a rough and tumble form of self-reliance, in everything from scheduling and directing practice time to the lack of on-court coaching. On the court, these seven players have all entered a realm of independence rare not just among teenagers.
Off the court, though, the constant presence and engagement of parents - a necessary part of the tennis world given its lack of teams - is a continuous reminder that these young adults are, yes, still children, in large part constantly reporting to their elders in ways other 17-year-olds do not. And child-parent dependence may always stay that way, forking off in two directions. If the child becomes good enough to go pro, he emerges as a precocious revenue stream who for good reason requires adult supervision lest he be taken advantage of. If he doesn't make it, well, then, he might lack some of the intellectual and coping skills other children honed during their allegedly normal teen years, leaving him perpetually stillborn. If I had a dollar for every highly immature, unfocused former junior tennis player I've ever met I'd have a thick wallet.
Permit full disclosure: I'm not a parent and while I've been around tennis for 35 years, my own five-year junior career was so meager that I really don't know in a kinesthetic sense the extensive intensity that goes on between a parent and a child once he reaches this stage of proficiency. It's thin air up there, and the mix of love and fight and desire is a very complicated brew. "Unstrung" addresses this quite nicely - and if that means many a parent will brood their way through a child's match, so be it.
So many times I've heard critiques that hot-to-trot junior tennis players and their families live unbalanced lives. As ESPN analyst Mary Carillo once told me, "Tennis is a sport where it takes considerable sacrifice just to not stink." This I can say I know, for even I discovered as a teen that pursuing tennis just a bit requires choice, commitment and ditching some things in favor of others.
What always cracks me up is to hear the critique that these prodigies miss out on so much. And oddly enough, the event cited most often is not the diligence of working on a term paper, or a trip to a museum, or an in-class visit from a prominent cultural figure. Off all activities, it's the prom. "Unstrung" continues this by showing Seguso literally being coached on how to ask someone to the prom.
But here I'll make another confession: The prom wasn't that great. If could do it all over again, I'd have spent more time working on my serve. While "Unstrung" certainly left me wondering if some families pursue tennis as a passion or a revenue stream, it also left me appreciative of what makes tennis such a distinctive sport. To thine own self be true.
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review