Sept. 4, 2003
Pete Sampras, winner of 14 Grand Slam titles, retired from tennis following the opening ceremony of the 122nd U.S. Open Tennis Tournament at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., last week. The first thing he said was, "I'd like to thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to play." To an average fan, that sounds like a simple statement, but "the opportunity to play" has an enormous interpretation. "When you watch a Venus, Serena or an Andre play today, know they all spent a minimum of five hours a day, every day on the court," said Walker Sahag, a tennis instructor in Jackson.
Sahag, a former instructor at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where most of the top tennis players have played, said that the commitment conflicts with a traditional school setting. A typical student gets out of school around 3 p.m. To put in the minimum five hours, he or she would be on the courts until around 9 p.m.
So, what about dinner and homework? Sahag says that today a large number of players are home-schooling. "The Europeans finish high school at 16, and typically in the U.S., we finish at 18. Our kids are sophomores in high school when their European counterparts are starting the 'tour.' Home-school gets right to the point. It allows them to complete their schoolwork and also put in those five required hours of court-work necessary to stay up with the Europeans," she said.
Having coached such players as Monica Seles and David Wheaton on the professional tour, Sahag recognizes young talent when she sees it, and she sees it in 12-year-old Devin Britton. Sahag describes tennis as "a chess game played at a sprinter's pace." In addition to being athletic, dedicated and focused, tennis players need to be extremely intelligent. "Devin fits that bill," she said.
At age 4, Devin began tennis with group lessons at Colonial Country Club. Elizabeth Lyle, his instructor there, said he was the youngest and smallest in the group, but by far the best. His mother, Cindy Britton, explained that by age 7 Devin was hooked. "He would not go to birthday parties or social events if it interfered with tennis." At age 9 he started setting goals, pretty unheard of for 9-year-olds. At that time he was more concerned with his ranking or beating certain players. Now, ranking is not as important. His goal, he says, is to improve every day. Not many 12-year-olds out there are mature enough to set goals and be focused. Devin is.
For the last three years, he begged his mother to home-school him. She gave in this year. Trying to juggle school, practice and travel to all the tournaments was too difficult. With 14 tournaments behind him this year and about six more yet to play before the end of December, Devin and his mother have already traveled to Chicago; Tucson, Ariz.; Sea Island, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; and Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, Fla.
Currently Devin is ranked No. 1 in Mississippi boys 12 and 14 Singles, No. 5 and No. 36, respectively, in Southern boys 12 and 14 Singles and No. 16 in USTA September boys 12 Singles. Devin appears to be the complete package, winning the Sportsmanship Award at the 14s Southern USTA Open Championship in Pelham, Ala., while also placing second in doubles. He has also been invited, along with Keri Wong of Jackson, to represent Mississippi in the 14-and-under Junior Davis Cup Tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn., in September.
Devin seems willing to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed at a higher level. Everyone wants to win on game day, but not all have the drive for the necessary preparation between games. Devin is willing. He said, "Kids do not realize how much there is to learn about tennis. You just can't do it in an hour a day." After giving up baseball for tennis, he said, "[Now] I don't have to worry about if coach puts me in; if I lose it's my own fault, and I'm always in the action."
Devin's parents are giving him the opportunity to play. But that opportunity comes with a huge financial and time commitment. They pay for his equipment, $50 to $90 for tournament entry fees and $900 a year for home-schooling plus about $500 a month for private lessons,
On top of that, add car rental, hotel accommodations and flight expenses. Is it worth it? His mother said she would not give anything for the time she has been able to spend with her son. As for the game, "Tennis is a lifetime sport," she said. "He has that to take with him already." She and her husband, Scott, see this as allowing Devin the opportunity to follow his dream and say they are not pushing him toward this at all. It is what he wants to do.
"If he ever says, "'I don't want to go to practice,' we won't go," Cindy Britton said. For now, at least, that seems unlikely.
Judy Jacobs is the JFP sports columnist. Twenty-seven years ago, she was Cindy Britton's basketball coach.