Tennis excellence certainly has genetic aspects. Pure athletic gifts like speed, strength, and fast reactions help on the tennis court, as they do in other sports. Most tennis stars aren’t children of star athletes, but some are, and most grew up in tennis-playing homes. Ultimately, family culture, motivation, psychological and character traits, and sound coaching produce more top players than fast-twitch muscle fiber. But what sort of environment makes the best incubator for tennis excellence?
Four superb tennis players whose offspring also excel in the game speak up here. How do those who achieved elite status on court raise their children? Do they follow the stereotypic tennis-parent model of focusing narrowly on tennis at a very early age, working long hours in practice and with coaches, entering tournaments as soon as possible, competing for sectional and national ranking points within age groups, traveling widely to play tourneys and build a high ranking? Or do they go another route? Here are four stories of top players and the choices they made raising their children—kids who have pretty good games themselves.
The South Africa-born Wayne Ferreira
had an outstanding professional tennis career from 1989 until 2005. He won 15 ATP titles and nearly $10 million in prize money, rising as high as #6 in the world rankings in 1995. Ferreira twice reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open. He also collected 11 doubles titles and a silver medal in doubles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Ferreira is one of the few players with a winning record against Roger Federer.
Wayne and his wife, Liesl, have two sons, and the oldest, Marcus Ferreira
, 18, has taken quite a shine to tennis. Currently ranked among the top 35 18-and-under boys in the United States, Marcus has played at the USTA’s national tourney in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the past two years. “My philosophy has been to do something like what happened to me,”
“The most important thing is to be social and have a normal childhood.”
Ferreira says. “As a kid in South Africa, I played a lot of different sports, like cricket and soccer. When I was 13, I got into tennis.” Marcus, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (the Ferreiras now reside in Hilton Head, South Carolina) had a similar multi-sport childhood that involved skiing, swimming, baseball, and soccer. When Marcus developed cold-induced asthma later in childhood, he had to give up his favorite sport, skiing. He took up tennis at 12.
“He was taking it very simply. That made it a lot easier. He didn’t want to go pro,” says his father. “Marcus mainly wanted to go to a good university. The most important thing is to be social and have a normal childhood. He enjoys playing, and is on the court for only one-and-a-half hours a day. Marcus plays for his high-school team Hilton Head Preparatory School>. He’s done exceptionally well, and has a very calm and relaxed personality.”
Having begun the game relatively late, Marcus “has been playing a lot of catch-up,” Ferreira explains, but the family hasn’t tried hasten his development. “We didn’t focus on ITF events, or spend a lot of money on travel,” says his father. “Our section is pretty good—there are a lot of national-level events here. Now it’s getting a little more difficult for him to find junior tournaments that are strong enough.”
Marcus “always did a lot better in the sports he played than most kids,” Ferreira adds. “He’s a very good athlete. Talented athletes can always become good tennis players if they choose to focus on the game and get good coaching. The main thing is that the kids have fun playing and get good instruction. Unfortunately, a lot of coaches talk a big game, but don’t understand the fundamentals all that well. It’s really sad to see kids growing up with poor fundamentals.”
Ferreira also sees “a lot of unhappy kids who hate what they are doing and are not enjoying tennis at all. Some parents will kill to make their kid professionals, and set unrealistic goals. Very few players can make the pro tour. Parents need to chill out a little bit.”
What often happens is that ambitious parents “think you need to compete at age 5 or 6 and be the best in your part of the country by age 12,” Ferreira explains. “But not many kids are good at tennis at a young age. They flourish when the get older, and grow bigger and stronger. Lots of kids ‘win’ when they are young by just pushing more balls back into the court; parents get this expectation of winning all the time. These kids end up losing out in the long run, because they won matches without becoming better tennis players—developing serves, volleys, an all-court game. You need your ‘A game,’ but also a B and C game when the A game isn’t working.”
“UTR is the best thing to come out in tennis in a very long time. It’s extremely helpful in many ways, like playing people at your own level."
Ferreira believes that "UTR is the best thing to come out in tennis in a very long time. It’s extremely helpful in many ways, like playing people at your own level. It helps my brother Bradley a lot in recruiting.”
Bradley Ferreira is head tennis coach at Weber State University in Utah.> Ferreira feels that one major way UTR helps players grow is by facilitating matches between players of different ages. “As a kid, I played against men all the time in adult tournaments and leagues in South Africa,“ he recalls. “It really developed my game. It would help kids here a lot not to be segregated by age but to play older people and different styles—chip and charge, serve and volley. They should do that here.”
“You are a person first, an athlete second, and a tennis player third.”
“You are a person first, an athlete second, and a tennis player third,” says Italian tennis coach Donato Campagnoli, quoting what he tells his sons Gustavo, 14, and Giulio, 11. Campagnoli is a consultant to the Federazione Italiana Tennis (Italian Tennis Federation) in coach education, and works with an institute within the federation giving presentations on technique—footwork in particular. He travels the world as a speaker at tennis and coaching conferences.
“I was an average player, far from a professional,” he says, but Campagnoli’s version of “average” is one that the vast majority of players would love to achieve. Now 47, in his mid teens he played international Tennis Europe events and estimates that his UTR then would have been in the 12-13 range. He held a 6.0 rating in the USTA’s National Tennis Rating Program, but stopped playing a few years ago.
He and his wife Giulia, a lawyer, live outside Modena, Italy, “in the middle of nowhere.” The nearest large city is Bologna. “We didn’t want our kids to just play tennis,” he says, and so from the age of 5 onward, young Gustavo (named for the Brazilian tennis star Gustavo Kuerten) played rugby, soccer, basketball, and tennis, and skied in the winter. Giulio plays basketball two or three times and tennis four times weekly.
“Tennis is a very dangerous sport to get into when you are a parent,” Campagnoli says. “If a kid in the family shows signs of ability, everybody wants success as soon as possible. We tried to avoid that—there are many other sports to play. Tennis might become important around age 13 or 14, but tennis ‘achievements’ are not possible at that age.
“In Italy we do have under-11 tournaments,” he continues. “Parents are looking for predictive signs for their kids. They have them playing with standard tennis balls at ages 7 or 8, and want them to win matches with their peers at 9 or 10. Then everybody is upset when at 13, the kids burn out and don’t want to play any more.
“I ask 10-year-olds, ‘How long do you play?’ ” he says. “And they say, two and a half hours a day, six days a week. That’s 15 hours of tennis a week! It’s not a fun game any more, that’s a job. Maybe you win some tournaments, and that builds up hope. The whole system is built on this illusion. Before you worry about winning, you need to increase your competence and know-how. Then, when you play a tournament, you don’t go there just to win; you go to play matches and convert what you have been doing in a free-play environment to a competitive one.”
"The whole system is built on this illusion. Before you worry about winning, you need to increase your competence and know-how.”
So instead of accelerating the development process, Campagnoli sought to decelerate it. He let his children play only two or three times weekly until they were 10 years old. “And if everybody was playing the green ball, we played the orange or red ball,” he says. When Gustavo’s peers were using a 27-inch racquet, he stayed with a 26-inch stick. “I don’t mind putting him at a disadvantage with his peers,” Campagnoli explains. “I believe in his capacity to adapt.”
In acquiring a new skill, Campagnoli also believes in playing in a smaller court with a lower net. “That creates an environment for teaching and learning,” he says. “All things are slowed down. The ball moves slower, bounces lower, and this allows you to have success learning spins, ball height, angles, variations. You are not overcome by the velocity of a normal ball. You take that experience and adapt it to a faster velocity. What was impossible is now possible.”
The two Campagnoli boys wake at 6:00 A.M. and attend public school until 1:40 P.M. After lunch, they study until 4:30 and then spend a maximum of one and a half hours on the tennis court, coached by their father, followed by an hour of physical training,
“Talent is something you build for yourself every day. It is not something you get from God."
“I never use the word talent with them,” Campagnoli says. “Talent is something you build for yourself every day. It is not something you get from God. When you give 100 percent of yourself every day, one percent of that is talent. And you can add to it daily. The person beside you, your coach, shows you what you need each day. What I put on the table is motivation—and what I know.”
“Our philosophy is to provide opportunities for our children to express their talents and abilities in different ways,” says Bryan Shelton, on how he and his wife, Lisa, have brought up their daughter, Emma, 16, and their 15-year-old son, Benjamin. “This could lead to them becoming passionate about something. As it turns out, they are passionate about tennis.”
The head men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Shelton had an impressive tennis career of his own. He was an all-American at Georgia Tech, then played on the ATP tour from 1988 to 1997, gaining rankings as high as #55 in singles and #52 in doubles. His serve-and-volley game captured two singles titles at the Newport Hall of Fame grass-court event, and in 1994 he reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. Shelton’s biggest singles win came over Andre Agassi at the Lipton Championships. In doubles, he and Patrick Rafter won a 1996 ATP championship at Adelaide, Australia, taking down the dominant doubles team of that era, “the Woodies” (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), in the final. Lisa, too, is a tennis enthusiast who plays in a USTA 4.5 women’s league.
Emma and Benjamin took up a wide variety of sports as youngsters—Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics, basketball, football, swimming, soccer, and yes, tennis. “This gave them a chance to find out where they were talented, and what they wanted to pursue,” Shelton says. “As kids get older, they can narrow their focus, and apply the discipline, the work ethic, and the ability to sacrifice they’ve acquired. Gymnastics helped with balance, soccer with footwork, Tae Kwon Do with discipline.
“You’ve got to be hungry,” he continues. “We’re in a better financial position than our parents were, but we still insist that the kids work for anything they get—there are no free rides. They string racquets to make extra income.”
“You have to be willing to put in the time, and also understand the mental and emotional parts of the game.”
The Shelton children practice tennis from 6:30 to 8:30 in the morning before school. “They get in a workout before many people start their days,” their father notes. “You have to be willing to put in the time, and also understand the mental and emotional parts of the game.” Though now committed to tennis, the kids still play basketball, soccer, guitar, and piano for fun.
Shelton describes Emma as a “late bloomer” who nonetheless played in the USTA National Girls 16-and-under tourney in San Diego last year and has begun to attract the attention of college coaches. Benjamin has already started to make his mark; for example, he reached the finals of the National Hard Courts for under-14 boys in Mobile, Alabama last year. They have developed skills that enable them to enjoy “the fun part—competing by putting patterns and shots together—having a style, having a game,” Shelton explains.
The family doesn’t follow the route that many tennis parents adopt: pushing kids to become pros—“and they want it to happen yesterday,” Shelton says. “They’ll stay with one coach for two or three months, and put the children in online schools. It’s about results, results, results—playing all the tournaments you can to chase points.” The Sheltons would rather give their kids “a chance to go out and play, and not worry about the ranking stuff and points,” their father says. “The results will come. Frankly, no one cares if you won the 12-and-unders or 14-and-unders. We don’t want to end up chasing our own tails.”
Both Shelton offspring play for their high-school teams at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, whose girls’ team got to the Florida state championships last year. They do not enter ITF tourneys, but “there is such great tennis in Florida that we have great opportunities in our own backyard,” Shelton says. “If you have to leave your home area all the time, your area is losing a good player for others to compete with.
“You should start inside your region before you begin working your way out, and not skip any levels,” he continues. “So many parents want to skip steps and jump to the next level before the kid is really ready. That’s one great thing about UTR and level-based play: you progress at the right pace. It teaches you to compete with players of equal ability, as well as those a little below you, which helps build confidence and lets you find out how to win. Level-based play is absolutely critical. If an opponent is much better than you, then you learn where you need to improve. Growth happens when the carrot is put out in front of you.”
“Take your son or daughter to work day” happened almost daily for Sebastian and Arianna Beltrame, the children of tennis coach Lorenzo Beltrame and his wife, Kim. Lorenzo spent 20 years on staff at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida, the company of renowned sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who was “like a second father.” Beltrame worked there with some of the world’s top tennis players. “My kids could come to the workplace and spend time with me and the other kids there,” Beltrame recalls. “We used tennis as a vehicle for spending time together.”
Beltrame (rhymes with “tell mommy”), now heads his own consulting firm, LB Performance Solutions in Orlando, coaching clients for top performance in sports, academics, business, and performance arts.
Growing up in Milan, Beltrame, now 51, became one of Italy’s best junior players and won a national championship in a team event. Later, he played the Italian tournament circuit, competing in money events that were often a notch stronger than today’s Futures tourneys. At 23, he found he enjoyed coaching the game even more, and has never stopped.
Beltrame married his American wife, Kim (who plays club and league tennis) and the family settled in Florida. Their son, Sebastian, “had a lot of interest in tennis since he was little,” his father recalls. “We played a lot of stuff in the driveway with a stick and a soccer ball.” Sebastian played soccer from ages 8 to 11—“He was OK, not a superstar,” says Beltrame. His father chose to avoid entering Sebastian in tennis tournaments before age 11. “I didn’t like what I saw when I watched kids competing at 8, 9, 10 years old. I didn’t think they were ready.”
Sebastian’s game developed nicely in his teens, when he would play four to five times per week, spending two hours a day on tennis and one on fitness. He never travelled abroad to play, but ended his junior career ranked #15 in the United States, and had an ATP ranking at age 17. Top tennis colleges, including the University of Florida, the University of Illinois, and Georgia Tech contacted him, but Sebastian matriculated at Harvard, where he played #1 singles, graduating in 2017.
Daughter Arianna, 20, took a different path, pursuing gymnastics and dancing as a youth. “She wasn’t good at hand-eye coordination as a kid,” Beltrame recalls. “Not technically skilled at anything that involved a ball. But Arianna was determined to be part of those afternoon games with her brother and other kids. She’d play tournaments and lose in the first round. Then, out of the blue, at age 14 or 15, she made a huge jump, and started winning matches and tournaments. Arianna became one of the top 100 girls in the country. It surprised us all; we did not see that coming!” She now plays for the varsity at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
"One of the great things about UTR is that it empowers people to spend their money wisely. The key is playing events that are close to home."
“I grew up in Italy, where tennis clubs supported young players and I was able to earn money playing even at age 16,” Beltrame recalls. “Here in the United States, junior tennis is on the parents’ shoulders, and if you don’t have a lot of disposable income, you cannot play highly competitive tennis. Notice the cars in the parking lot of a junior tournament. You see wealth. One of the great things about UTR is that it empowers people to spend their money wisely. The key is playing events that are close to home. Spending money to travel to other countries for ITF tournaments, hoping to get some cheap ranking points, is not intelligent if you are on a budget.”
Both Beltrame children attended public schools; their dad believes that it is important for children to live a balanced life by having interests and friends outside of tennis. “It is a problem when children’s identity and self-worth are solely based on their tennis results,” he explains. “That’s a lot of pressure. Youngsters who are children first, not tennis players first, feel more at peace. If you lose a match, that hurts, but it’s not the end of the world.
"Youngsters who are children first, not tennis players first, feel more at peace. If you lose a match, that hurts, but it’s not the end of the world."
Maybe the next day you’ll get an A in school. If your self-esteem depends on your tennis results, every match becomes so dramatic. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to play well. Kids should play tennis to develop themselves as human beings, not to return an investment to their parents. We never thought about college until our kids were 16.”
Beltrame says that the way UTR helps players find good matches with others of all ages “is the greatest thing ever. In Italy at age 15, I could play with adults half the time and with juniors half the time. On tour, I was playing men five to seven years older that I was. It’s a great way to learn to solve problems on the court and improve. We don’t have that in the States.”
The Beltrames’ goal has been to see their children enjoying themselves on the court and giving their best effort. “If they won, that was great, but it’s not the objective,” their father says. “I see parents who were great players—and others who were not, but are very cool parents. There should be an advantage to playing at a high level, but not necessarily. A parent who is good at life will be a good tennis parent.”