By Drew Baird
May 27, 2020
Disclaimer: The following piece was written by a guest writer. This writer‘s views do not necessarily align with ours at MyTennisHQ.
Two years ago, I was in Milan playing a lead up tournament to French Open Juniors. It was my last year before heading to college, and by this point I was a seasoned veteran with all of the travel associated with the ITF Junior Tour. Since then, I’ve tackled my first season at UCLA alongside a talented group of guys who have all sacrificed plenty to land at such a historic program.
At the same time that my brother graduated high school and committed to a small Division I program in South Carolina, I received a unique opportunity to train full-time at IMG Academy in Florida. I was only 14 years old and didn’t fully understand what commitment was until I went to IMG. I was confined with international players in shoebox dorm rooms who’d kill to be pros. Over the course of my 4 years there I played 59 ITFs in 16 different countries, played every junior slam, and represented team USA in the Youth Olympics. My brother, Will, had the chance to showcase his talent to college coaches around the country by following the USTA path, and got exactly what he wanted out of the sport. I went a different route due to my dream of playing on the pro tour, and I can say that the ITF route gave me a better opportunity to pursue that dream.
There’s deliberation on whether top American juniors should pursue the USTA or ITF tournament path to reach success in college and pro tennis. Luckily, there are clear advantages to both that can be utilized to reach your specific goal. I competed mostly on the ITF Junior Circuit, while my brother competed in USTA sectional and national events until he went to college. Both systems have their pros and cons, and it is important to know which is the best fit for you. I think that if the USTA could implement some of the things the ITF tour does, it would lead to a better system funneling Americans to college and beyond without having to leave their country.
I believe the main thing that separates ITF players from USTA national players is the overall commitment to the game, which consequently raises the level. You won’t come across a machine from Uzbekistan who will do whatever it takes to beat you, ever, at any USTA event. In my experience playing the ITF Junior Tour, I’ve had my strings cut out by opponents prior to matches, been conspired against by home country players and referees, stayed in subpar hotels in El Salvador, and hand washed countless loads of laundry in bathtubs. These experiences are tough, but they significantly increased my motivation to win. You learn to win the small moments, and beat the guys you’re supposed to beat before you can move up in the world. As a teenager, these events led to a quick maturation. Coaches told me, “you grow in stressful situations,” and that couldn’t be more true about the ladder it takes to climb the ITF rankings, on and off the court.
When it comes to scheduling, the ITF has it down to a science. Every tournament, no matter the level or location, is a week long with no more than 1 singles match a day, as long as weather permits. There’s a select group of supervisors that travel around and administer every ITF event, cutting out the chance for an inexperienced club coach to ruin the week. There’s always a physical trainer on site, transportation/food/hospitality at Grade 3s and higher, and a “followed- by” schedule for the order of play. While USTA’s lower level tournaments are tailored so that it’s participants don’t miss any school, the higher level ones are a week long with zero financial help. If the USTA could create a more professional environment on a week to week basis by including some of these things, there’d be less top American players choosing to play ITFs and more playing nationally. This would consequently create a level of competition that could better prepare players for pros.
Today, I am confident in the fact that I have the competitive edge that will bring my tennis game through this pandemic. I attribute this to the experiences I had on the ITF tour and in college. I’m on a team at UCLA with great players who’ve gone down their respective paths, all with a special opportunity to make it on the ATP Tour after being a Bruin. There’s nothing stopping a national player from becoming the next Federer, but for me, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today without witnessing true brutality on court. I think that if the USTA could adopt some aspects from the ITF Junior Tour, more players would develop to be better in the later stages of their careers.
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Drew Baird had a successful junior career, reaching #12 in the world for the ITF junior tour. Following that, he decided to play at UCLA. He spent his freshman year playing exclusively at the #3 singles and #2 doubles slots. Drew’s ultimate goal after developing his game at school is to play on the professional tour. You can find Drew on Instagram @drewbaird18.