The procession of automobiles, mostly SUVs, begins streaming down a shady drive in Peachtree Corners, GA, just after after sunrise, each depositing at the entrance of the Lifetime Tennis Academy a child toting a colorful duffel bag filled with tennis equipment. The procession continues for upwards of an hour.
By 7:30am, with the heat of a Georgia summer just beginning rear its humid head, these kids are spread across a dozen or so tennis courts, tennis shoes squeeking, grunts and groans echoing through the air. Along the far fence, Academy Manager Greg Amerson pushes a cart filled with hundreds of tennis balls while he directs the next drill, barking out orders, instruction and encouragement in equal amounts.
“The answer (whether a junior should train at this level) is not easy, and it’s not one answer for every situation,” said Sanjay Jayaram, tennis department head at the Academy. “There’s an enormous responsibility. The enormity of the sacrifice on the child’s side, and the parent’s side, to take on tennis with a home-school option.”
That’s easy to see from the intensity of this group’s activity. On the six closest courts, tennis balls whiz back and forth, sometimes off rackets seemingly larger than the child wielding it. On the four upper courts, teen-aged players compete in energetic doubles matches. On yet another court, a coach feeds tennis balls to a handful of players smashing two-hand backhands aimed at a far corner.
“From a coach’s perspective, we’ll tell the parents that when a child hits certain benchmarks that give an indication that the child has a good pathway to either a Division I college or beyond, then we recommend a home-school option,” said Jayaram.
Fulfilling the dreams of playing tennis at the professional or Division I college level drive the Lifetime program, which has 22 full-time juniors, 25 part-time in it, includes: 20 hours a week of on-court training with coaches, tournament planning and match analysis with a personal mentor, worked around custom home-school educational options, according to the Academy site.
Imagine 8-10 years of this kind of on-court commitment coupled with an array of other activities designed for success on a tennis court: including five hours a week of fitness training with certified personal trainers, seminars on mental toughest and nutrition.
“Over that 10-year period, the development cycles are different for different players,” he said. “Some develop faster athletically. Some develop their mental skills faster. Some their tennis skills faster.”
Lifetime Tennis Academy has been set up to offer “the ideal training environment for elite junior player aspiring to play on the Professional Tour and/or Division 1 college tennis,” according to the academy’s website.
Players with ties to the Lifetime Academy, which has produced 58 players who have played at Division I & II universities over the last five years, are Melanie Oudin, a quarterfinals at the U.S. Open; Jamie Hampson, formerly a member of the U.S. Federation Cup team; Austin Smith and Lauren Herring, who both played at the University of Georgia.
Currently at the Academy is Walker Duncan, a highly ranked junior who will play for the University of Georgia next season.
Typically, the home-school recommendation comes when an elite junior is 12 years old, Jayaram said. And it’s not a perfect science, simply a step a young player can take to see if they have what it takes to compete at the game’s highest levels.
“I think sometimes parent don’t quite understand the journey of how long it takes to develop into a complete player, and a lot of times parents push their kids into the home school option thinking they are going to follow a certain pathway, and that’s not going to happen.”
If a family decides a junior player should stay in school, there’s a half-day program that enables him or her to go to school in the morning and train in the afternoon.
No matter which they choose, it will be quite a commitment.