Young Midwest players get taste of big time: ‘It’s hard to put into words’

Aug 25, 2023
Todd Martin and Michael Venus talk to a group of kids

By Nick McCarvel

While Coco Gauff was on her way to becoming the first teenager to reach the Western & Southern Open final in nearly 20 years, a special group of youngsters was in the stadium looking on.

This year, for the first time, 20 elite USTA Midwest players ages 14 and under participated in a two-day player development Team USA camp on the campus of the Lindner Family Tennis Center.

Among them could be the next Coco Gauff – or more.

“This is a really, really cool experience for these players to play on the same courts that the professionals are playing on,” said Jessica Lange, the director of competitive tennis for USTA Midwest.

“Honestly, the hitting is the least important part,” she added. “It’s really the atmosphere and getting to live life like a pro player. They got credentials and everything.”

There has been a lot of tennis playing, too, including drills, point play and match competition. Troy Hahn, a national coach with the USTA, and a team of four top Midwest coaches oversaw the camp, which included 10 boys and 10 girls.

W&S Open tournament director Todd Martin helped wrangle current pros including Cincinnati native Caty McNally and multi-time Grand Slam champion Jamie Murray – the 2018 doubles champion here – for meet and greets, which were particularly impactful for the group of young players.

“The kids were very engaged for those, asking a lot of questions,” said Lange. “They were pretty excited to be around those kinds of players. They got pretty into it.”

The camp was spread across Friday and Saturday on tournament match courts in the shadow of Center Court, with music vibrating throughout the grounds as the youngsters went about their business.

“Since these players are from all over the Midwest, they don’t get to practice with each other, so they’re hitting with different people, getting coaching from some of the best coaches in the Midwest,” Lange explained.

This isn’t just any group of young tennis enthusiasts.

“All of them have aspirations to play in college or professionally one day,” Lange said. “Seeing the pros up close and personal, even if you’re a top junior like this – watching the pros is just a completely different experience… it’s hard to put into words. The speed, their movement, all of it. It’s very impactful. It refreshes why you’re doing what you’re doing, why you’re out on court for two hours a day and grinding away.”

As the camp wrapped up late Saturday afternoon it did so just in time for the participants to take in another young star: Carlos Alcaraz. Much as they had for Gauff, the camp had a collection of tickets for Center Court.  

Now we wait and see if a Coco or a Carlos emerges from this group. But regardless, it’s an experience unlike any other they’ve had before.