Carrying your neighborhood banner into combat
By John Irvin, PTR-US Hot Shotz Tennis Academy
In 1989, when I was a tennis director in Chicago, I read an article proclaiming there was an Atlanta tennis league boasting 60,000 players. “That must be bull crap,” I told my staff. “We have four, in-house leagues, each with 16 players, and we have a hard time leveling those ladies and keeping them happy!” But yes, it was true. So, I eventually decided to make a career move to witness this phenomenon.
It’s truly amazing that there are 28 levels of adult ALTA, and there is so much parity at each level and within so many divisions. But what I really want to share are the things that make ALTA unique. For example, elsewhere, players develop in a club environment where they are taught tennis etiquette. But in Atlanta, most of ALTA is neighborhood-based, so you see a lot of interesting things, such as players high fiving when their opponents double-fault; players walking behind your court during matches; opponents’ teammates cheering when your partner misses an overhead; and family members confirming questionable line calls.
One thing I could not figure out was, why players were so passionate about playing and winning. Up north, we had Interclub leagues, but you could join one club one season and play for another the next season. So frequently in Atlanta, you are fighting for the honor of your neighborhood, or as one player put it, “carrying your neighborhood banner into combat.”
As a coach, I stress the importance of turning your shoulders at the net when hitting volleys. I was watching my first-ever ALTA ladies’ match when, on the fifth point, one of my players hit a volley into the net. She turned to where I was sitting (quiet and motionless) and yelled, “I know! I know! I didn’t turn my shoulders!” They eventually won the match, but I got cited by the other team for coaching! I wondered, is this what it’s like every match? Fortunately, the answer is no!
When I was teaching at Bradshaw Farms, they had a bulletin board with just one scrap of paper — an AJC article that read: “Worst Sporting Event in Town: Any Hawks Game. Best Sporting Event in Town: Any Thursday Women’s City Finals match where the players would gladly give a kidney or worse to get a bag tag and a plate.” LOL!
Speaking of City Finals, I saw a doozy 10 years ago that sums up what makes ALTA great. The A1 Thursday Women team I coached had split the first four lines, but our line 4’s were down 6-1, 5-1. Our players tightened things up and the opponents started to miss. We ended up winning 6-3 in the third to take the title. The ladies who lost that match were tarred and feathered and became neighborhood pariahs (not really).
In Chicago, I never saw alcohol at any match. I noticed immediately that Men’s ALTA was slightly different. Drinking beer was encouraged during and after matches. It lent itself to the social aspect of ALTA, which is partly why the league is so popular. Also, the food at matches is amazing here, and occasionally renowned.
The line call situation also is legendary. Once, I coached a new G10u ALTA team and we spent an entire lesson teaching them how to play a match. One of the girls asked, “Coach John, if the ball hits any part of the white line, is it in?” I replied, “Yes, it is … except on Thursday morning.” I also saw a T-shirt years ago that had a lob bouncing on the baseline and below it in big letters it read “ALTA OUT.” Too funny!
ALTA warm-ups are like no other in the country. First, there is the women’s “short court warm-up,” which late great teaching pro George Amaya called, “an Atlanta phenomenon.” Second, in other parts of the country, if your opponent looks dynamite in the warm-up, they can play poorly during the actual match. In ALTA, it tends to be the opposite. I don’t think this is deliberate, but dang, it might be!
In closing, I have devoted entire lessons to how to beat “old ladies.” They place their shots with unerring accuracy, make the tactical adjustments correctly all the time, and are masters of psychological warfare. After a particularly brutal loss to a bunch of 70-year-old women, one of our opponents exclaimed, “We love beating those ponytails.”
This, my friends, tongue-in-cheek and in a nutshell, is what makes ALTA beautiful.