YLC Blog: Many quit junior tennis before the 18s. What makes others keep playing? - USTA Southern California




Mika Ikemori



JUNE 25, 2023

Mika Ikemori

Youth Leadership Council member Mika Ikemori shakes hands with Kristina Nordikyan after their semifinal match at Junior Sectionals.
(Photo – Jon Mulvey/USTA SoCal)


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In the girls’ class of 2026, the class of current high school freshmen, there are 1,586 ranked competitors in United States junior tennis, according to the Tennis Recruiting Network. In the class of 2023, composed of current seniors, that number drops to 696. These figures demonstrate a decrease of over 50% in players from the freshmen to senior classes.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the boys’ ranks. The class of 2023 is made up of only 1229 ranked competitors, while the class of 2026 has as many as 2279, almost twice as many as the 2023 value.

Of course, these statistics make sense. As players get older, more and more begin to stop competing in tournaments. Faced with the pressures of high school academics, looming college decisions, increased opportunities for spending time with friends, and general expanding independence, teenagers often quit organized athletics in favor of spending their time in other ways. It is also uncommon for players to start athletics for the first time once they reach their high school years. As such, the number of people competing only drops over time.

Though it is important to note that a large number of players stop competing as they age, it is also significant to consider that those who continue to play — and there are many who keep competing — do so for specific reasons. It is a commitment to be a competitive athlete, and those who continue to do so do not take their efforts lightly.

I decided to take a look at why athletes playing tennis in the 18s division are still competing. The Annual Southern California Junior Sectional Championships, or Sectionals, is one of the biggest tournaments of the year in SoCal, providing me with an opportunity to interview a range of competitors in the 18s and 16s. For each gender division of these ages, I interviewed ten people over the first weekend of Sectionals at various sites.

In the girls 18s division, eight out of ten girls are competing with the goal of playing college tennis. One out of ten wants to someday play professional tennis, and one of ten simply plays because she loves it.

Shifali Dinesh is a current rising junior, in the class of 2025, who competed in the 18s division. Her goal in tennis is to attend a really good academic college. As for how she’ll achieve that through Sectionals, she said, “I want to do really well in Sectionals so I can increase my national ranking.”

For Dinesh, tennis is not merely about doing what it takes to achieve her goals. “At first it was a means to an end, but recently, I started to love it,” she said.

Nicole Weng, currently a rising sophomore, also competed in the 18s division. She said, “I play because I like [tennis]. I’m not really using it to get into college but I would like to play in college if I can.”

Looking at the boys 18s division, the data was a bit more polarized. Ten out of ten boys asked cited a goal of playing college tennis as their reason for competing.

David Adamson and Ian Layton are both rising seniors who competed in the boys 18s. They are each respectively trying to play division one tennis. For Sectionals, Layton is playing for “Match experience, just to try and play better players,” he said.

Simply looking at the acceptance lists for the tournament, it is clear that Sectionals aligns with larger trends as seen on the Tennis Recruiting Network. In both the boys’ and girls’ divisions, there was a difference of more than twenty people in the 16s versus the 18s; the 16s had many more competitors.

For the 16s divisions, I asked a couple players what their goal or motivation is for playing tennis and if they would still play Sectionals in the future even if they did not achieve this goal.

In the girls 16s division, six out of ten girls have the goal of playing in college, while four out of ten want to play professionally.

Grace Balasian, a rising junior who played in the 16s, said, “I’m hoping to get into a D1 school or even D2 or D3 with a scholarship.” She said that even if she does not achieve her goal, she will still play Sectionals next year.

Out of the ten interviewed in the boys 16s division, eight want to play tennis in college, while two said their goal is to play high school tennis.

One unnamed competitor in the 16s division said, “I want to make my high school team.” When asked if he would play in Sectionals next year if he did not make the team, his response was, “Maybe not.”

As for why so many players drop off competition lists in the 18s, there are a couple possible explanations. Dianne Matias, the Director of Junior Tennis at USTA Southern California and the tournament director of Sectionals, said, “I think a lot of the players, by the time they hit second year of 16s, they have either committed and they’re focusing more on having a strong senior year or they’re playing more of the open events or the USTA Pro Circuit.”

She added, “We have the SoCal Pro Series at the same time so I know a lot of the junior players are choosing to play that.”

There was also a significant difference in the number of competitors by gender: 31 more boys than girls competed in the 16s, while 27 more boys than girls competed in the 18s.

Matias attributed much of this difference to the fact that top girls tend to “play up” a lot more than the boys, meaning that they compete in divisions above their age group when they’re younger. As such, less girls in the 18s are actually 17 or 18 years old.

“And then, once they win it or do well, they tend to stop playing [Sectionals],” Matias said. She mentioned Iva Jovic, who won the tournament in the girls 18s at merely 13 years old in 2021, and Alyssa Ahn, who won the tournament in the 18s at a young age in 2022. These girls would not return to play Sectionals again after winning it, instead choosing to move on to other tournaments (such as open events or the Pro Circuit, as mentioned above).

This indicates that less girls play in the 16s because they are playing up in the 18s instead, and that even less older girls are competing than originally apparent, because their spots are filled by younger girls. It is difficult to know the true number of current juniors or seniors in high school who are actually competing in tournaments.

Generally, it’s fair to say that most players start to play because they like to compete, and they keep training as they realize that they can use their skills in college. It’s hard to say whether players will quit as they move up into the 18s, but all who continue in competitive junior tennis over the years must be applauded for their commitment and perseverance.


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