There’s no denying that when you’re an up-and-coming junior tennis player, there’s great delight in winning matches, especially if you’re playing a top-level tournament such as the US Open.
But the truth of the matter is that, during the formative junior years, winning isn’t as important as the process undertaken to prepare to become a future pro player.
While most teenagers are primarily concerned with hanging out with friends, taking trips to the mall and checking out the latest movies, a youngster eyeing a career in tennis needs to be determined, disciplined and blessed with an eye for detail to achieve the end-game goal.
Two talented Americans currently working to make their mark on the international junior scene are the Cincinnati brother-sister combo of 17-year-old John McNally and 14-year-old Caty McNally. The McNally siblings are making all the right sacrifices to make a name for themselves, with John currently having an ITF combined ranking of No. 14 and Caty sitting at No. 47 in the world.
The McNallys benefit from the fact that they train with their mother, Lynn Nabors-McNally, who played on the international circuit and won two career ITF-level doubles titles. One of the doubles trophies she captured came when partnering current USTA President Katrina Adams at a 1990 ITF event in Chicago. Mom McNally is now a highly recognized coach, who was named the 2014 Team USA Developmental Coach of the Year.
Both McNally teens understand that every step of the way is a crucial advancement period requiring an effective physical and mental approach to match preparation, smart on-court practices and off-court routines, how to cool down and how to deal with all match moments, from smooth going to crisis positions.
While John didn’t enjoy a successful US Open trip this year, losing in the junior boys’ singles and doubles first round, he understood he had the right strategy, so there was a positive to be taken from the experience.
“You just try to get yourself in the best state, mentally and physically," he said. "You try to eat right and sleep right and try to get yourself ready to play a good match. You have to have good hits, good warmups out there and, most importantly, give it your all.”
As for Caty, who had an abbreviated first-round singles match when she rolled over on her ankle and had to retire in the match, this is her normal match preparation routine.
“I try to get up a few hours before I practice on a match day just so I can get my body moving,” Caty said. “I try to eat a pretty big breakfast so I’m full of energy – mostly protein, like eggs and bacon and maybe some pancakes. I try to get to the site about 40 minutes before I practice so I can go to the training room and get warmed up and enough time to relax before going out to practice. I do like to have about 45 minutes to an hour between my practice and my match.”
While Caty likes to run a bit as part of her cool-down routine, she also stretches one part of the body to the next, keeping to a ritual designed by her fitness trainer. John’s strategy is stretching, an ice bath when needed, followed by a good meal, which is important as he tends not to eat a big breakfast.
Practicing is very different on a practice day versus a match day for both McNallys. On a purely practice day, there’s likely to be more than one hit a day, with each hit lasting an hour or two. The aim is to take it harder, play some serious points and even break out a good sweat.
In contrast, a before-match practice is about getting a good feel for the ball, getting a rhythm on for the match, but it’s definitely not about playing points or working on a particular shot or strategy.
As would be expected, mom is the main coach for both McNallys, and on many occasions, but not all the time, the siblings keep it all in the family and act as each other's hitting partners.
“Sometimes we’ll take a lesson together for an hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours and will do drilling, and I can handle it, I can handle his balls sometimes,” said Caty, smiling. “When I play with him, I’m really able to play to the best of my ability because I have nothing to lose. I have no pressure, and I’m hitting the ball the way I can hit it.”
If there’s one message that mom has emphasized to both of her children it’s that they really have to want to pursue tennis or else it’s not worth the effort.
“She tells us to go out and have fun because this all is just like a game,” Caty said. “At the end of the day, you should just be enjoying what you’re doing because we’re dedicating our lives to it, and if we’re not having fun, you might as well do something else you like.”