A widely circulating news story and USTA post reveals that a teacher once told U.S. Open Women's Singles finalist Leylah Fernandez to quit tennis and focus on school because she would never make it. Fernandez used this teacher’s skepticism as rocket- fueled inspiration to drive herself to succeed. Fernandez clearly is a winner, and winners turn lemons into lemonade.
The meteoric rise of both Fernandez and champion Emma Raducanu is truly inspiring, but is this aspect of Fernandez’s story the healthiest area for the industry to focus on to inspire young players? The superficial take away from this anecdote is that we should rise above those who doubt us and follow our dreams, but when we dig deeper, is there more to this story?
I went to high school with a young man named "Doug" who, to be kind, was not the highest academic achiever. In our High School Yearbook he wrote, "I'm going to win the lottery." Doug didn't go to college, but instead he worked at a local bar. Two years later, to all our amazement, Doug actually won the lottery! His quote in the newspaper after winning was classic: "Two million dollars sure buys a lot of beer and pretzels."
Imagine a New York State Lottery post featuring Doug which reads: "A teacher told me to stop playing the lotto and focus on school. I'm glad they told me this because I used these words to motivate me to buy more tickets to prove them wrong. Lotto: Follow Your Dreams!"
Is Doug's story more unlikely than Leylah's?
Maybe not, and before dismissing this idea consider, as Arthur Ashe pointed out, that the odds of a tennis player getting to a Slam Final are probably greater that the odds of winning the lottery. Ashe famously said, "The world over 50 million children start playing tennis, five million learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5,000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach Wimbledon, four to the semifinal, two to the finals...”
This is not to suggest that Leylah or Emma are lucky to have their success, they earned it through hard work, dedication, self-belief and a great support system. They are very lucky. however, to have the rare talent that could make their efforts pay off in such spectacular fashion. Many try to get to where they have gotten, but very few succeed.
Maybe the teacher advising Leylah should not have been so absolute and said the dream crushing words "quit tennis." Perhaps saying, "enjoy tennis, dream big but focus on school because you never know what can happen" would have been a better way to frame this message. Despite the teachers poor word choices, the USTA's promotion of this story is a little ironic when you consider that Fernandez played her finals in Arthur Ashe Stadium and Ashe was such an outspoken critic on society’s emphasis on sports achievement over classroom achievement .
Arthur Ashe once said, "I have become convinced that we blacks spend too much time on the playing field and too little time in libraries." How many former juniors today, upon reflection, are happy they focused LESS on school and MORE on tennis?
Compare this with the number of former junior players that have regrets that they focused MORE on school and LESS on tennis. It is rare for the cost of focusing on tennis ahead of school to be worth the risk and further, it is clear that tennis and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive. What you learn in the classroom can be taken to the tennis court and what you learn on the tennis court can further you in the classroom. Tennis is the best sport in the world for a young person to use to further themselves off the court, in the classroom, in the workforce and in life.
Indeed, Leylah's and Emma's story is the stuff of dreams and young players should be encouraged to dream big. However, there is a time for dreams to be tempered with a large dose of reality because for 99.99 percent of all players it is education, not dreams, that pay the bills.
Steve Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation, and executive director and founder of Serve &Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally- ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.