IMG_0962I went yesterday afternoon out to Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York with my 6-year-old son (soon to turn 7 on May 9) and my (she wouldn't like it if I say her age so I won't) mother. I had just taught two hot yoga classes, the first one with 50 students in it, the next with 27, so I was a bit tuckered. But we drove over the Whitestone Bridge with no traffic tie-ups and then parked (as you or I never can when the US Open is in session, right outside the back entrance to the National Tennis Center) and walked into the indoor facility where they were holding a tennis fair with a lot of camps, clothing and racquet designers there. I wasn't particularly interested in looking at any of these booths. But as I walked in with my mother and son--always having to look back for my mother because at her advanced age, she lags behind--I bumped into a few people I know in the tennis business. I'm no longer in the tennis business or right now playing competitive tennis or coaching a college tennis team as I've done in the past. I don't teach tennis, as I once did at the National Tennis Center, and I don't write for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Tennis Magazine or Tennis Week as I also once did. So I'm always a bit stupefied when I see how many people I still know who still work in the tennis business and who I still feel real fondness towards.There was Randy Walker, the publisher of New Chapter Press, who puts out a lot of very good tennis books, all starting when he re-printed the book about Roger Federer first written and printed in German, I guess. Then there was Joel Ross, who owns a tennis camp in Connecticut and Peter Kaplan, who owns a club and Bed and Breakfast in the Hamptons. The tennis world is large, but very small at the same time. And that is one of the joys of returning to the US Open site and seeing these people again and rekindling our love for this sport. But I was late, we didn't get out to the tennis fair until 2 pm and it was closing at 4:30 and my mission was to find my son, Callum, some kids his age who he could play against. I wanted to see if there were kids his age who were as good or better than him and I could mark his skills and progress. Callum is more into baseball and basketball. He takes a once-a-week group lesson with kids who are 10-14 years old on a regular court with regular balls, no Quickstart tennis for him. I haven't been able to find a kid his age who hits the ball baseline to baseline like him.The kids were playing on the upstairs courts, Nos. 10, 11, 12, but these courts were set up width-wise and they were using the big plump soft balls. I asked right away if Callum could get out there and hit with one of the teenagers manning the site, and he did, and they launched the ball back and forth, Callum really able to fully hit out with these soft balls. But then then the teen stepped off the court and a girl around 9 stepped on and she was clearly a beginner so I hustled Callum off and asked where the higher-level players were playing. (If I were reading this, I'd think, "This guy is an expletive," for whisking his kid off the court when he's matched with a lower-level player. But I see it as one of the jobs of being a so-called, "tennis father," that I have to get my kid the right coaches and opponents, as well as interest him in the sport by taking him to pro matches or watching them on tv with him.)Anyway, they told me there were college players hitting with kids out on Court 17, the new sunken court at the tennis center. So we headed in that direction, but we came upon these 60-foot courts set up where there were two kids Callum's size just racking the ball. It was something to see, these two pint-sized kids slamming the ball back and forth, using the orange kids balls. One was a 6-year-old who is seven-months younger than Callum and the other, was a boy named Eric, who is 8 (16 months older than Callum), who was actually smaller than Callum, but ran like the wind, hit a one-handed backhand and served huge with a Continental grip and full extension and slice on the ball. His father, Anders, is Swedish, from a small town an hour south of Gothenburg, and he was a very nice guy, as well as being a former tennis pro at the Roosevelt Island Indoor Tennis Center. He said he'd worked there for ten years, but was let go last year. I've heard this kind of story over and over again. Tennis pros let go for no apparent reason, cast off and left to go adrift looking for another job. But Anders (through the powers of the Internet, I found out this information about him--"Anders Johnansson is originally from Halmstad, Sweden, where he competed as a junior and received his tennis education from the Swedish Tennis Association. As a junior player in Sweden, Anders held regional rankings in the top 10 for five consecutive years. He holds a Swedish National Chair Umpire license") didn't go looking for another job. He said the first seven years of his son's life, he was always working so he decided for the next three years--until his son develops his own friends and basically won't want to spend so much time with his dad--he was not going to work so he could spend more time with Eric. Eric's mother is Chinese, just like my son, Callum, and this kid (if my tennis observational skills are shrewd enough) is an incredible player and I think an almost certain future pro. He does things at 8 that far surpass what Andre Agassi was doing (at what was he, 4, in those old videos you see of him?). I know 4 and 8 are lifetimes away in a tennis player's development, but for example, Eric Johannson hits with a one-handed backhand, he moves like the wind and does Djokovic-like slides on the court often ending in a mini-split. I've already mentioned his beautiful service motion and this kid just keeps playing and playing and playing with fierce passion. He hits every ball like the pipsqueak Agassi, as hard as he can. When he was playing Callum, they often went into the net or over the baseline, but they also often landed in a corner and sped off the court. There was a young pro overseeing the court by the name of Daniel Gliner, who played at USC and was No. 2 in the nation at age 12, No. 4 at age 14. He had worked with Gilad Bloom at the Johnny Mac Tennis Academy on Randall's Island and we got to talking about how many private lessons a young boy/girl needs to become a top player. Bloom once told me he thought a kid wouldn't make it unless he was taking at least a lesson a week with a pro of his caliber, but Gliner told me that after the age of 10, he never took a private lesson. Of course, he also started playing tournaments at 6.I asked Daniel if Callum could play in with the two boys and he let Callum in and then I kind of jumped in and started them playing King of the Court, where one player has to serve and win two points in a row to take over the king's side. The other boy who was younger than Cal was very good, too, (his mother said he lives 5 minutes from the Tennis Center and takes lessons 5 or 6 days a week), and he had the look of a player right down to his Babolat shoes. But he wasn't as strong as Callum. But my eyes went towards Eric and so did a lot of other pros' walking by including a couple of high-profile ones I knew of. Eric's father, Anders, stayed off to the side. He never walked onto the court. He said he has never given Eric any tips or instruction. They only play together and usually he picks the last public park court for them to play on so a lot of passersby don't congregate at the court and gawk and ask questions about his prodigy son. He said he's never given Eric a lesson or had another pro do so and when Eric is on a court with another pro, Anders tells the pro not to say anything to Eric about his strokes. Even at the age of 8, Eric has not played in a tournament yet, and Anders said he'd scout the different tournaments and junior players before he'd enter Eric into his first tournament to make sure he has a good experience. I am fascinated by Anders' choice (or non-choice) of tennis tutelage. I've never heard of anyone developing a tennis prodigy this way or seen it done before. Anders believes that the way a young child learns to walk and talk is the way he should learn how to play tennis, by his own observation, trial and error. Anders doesn't want anyone tinkering with Eric's learning process. Eric is fascinated by the sport and he watches it intently. Anders says he spends the entire US Open at the event watching hours and hours of tennis. Eric is the one who wanted to hit with a one-handed backhand even though Anders says he knows how to hit a two-handed one. Eric loves Federer and all by his own, he has modeled his game after Federer's. Anders said a couple of years ago when Fed hit the in between the legs shot for a winner against Djokovic, Anders and Eric went out on the court and for the next two weeks they practiced nothing but Eric hitting the ball through his legs the way Fed did and Eric could pull it off. But is it true? Can a kid really teach himself the game just through his own observational skills and hitting endlessly with his pro dad who says nothing to him about how the game is played? Can he learn how to hit a serve with a Continental grip and hit driving forehands and backhands and little touch shots, in between the legs shots with his back to the net without some professional tutelage of the mechanics and nuts-and-bolts of the game? Anders seems resolute in his story, but part of the mystique and mythology of the great player is his humble, distinctive beginnings: Agassi's father matching him up against crazily-wired ball machines while the father worked as a Las Vegas casino manager; Djokovic sticking with the game even as his native city, Belgrade, was the target of NATO bombs; Connors being taught by his mother and grandmother; Borg's father taking his racquet away from him to teach him a lesson about losing his cool; the Williams's sisters learning the game from their father on the bullet-ridden public courts of Compton, CA. The ascendancy of Eric Johansson and how he taught himself the game might one day rank right up there with these great tennis epochs. And it begs the the age-old sports question of whether there are innate geniuses that don't need any adult coaching and lessons?Callum was thrilled when he returned one of Eric's serves for a backhand winner, but an hour after they started playing, after the other boy had left, I could see Callum's energy was wilting. He'd walked two miles earlier in the day with my wife at the March of Dimes Walkathon and he's not used to playing for hours upon hours. Eric was still going strong. So I walked onto the court and told Callum he'd had enough, but he could only leave after he and I hit 20 balls back and forth together without a miss. This is the way I always end my hitting sessions with him. On the other side of the court, grown men, all pros, one at a time, got on the court with Eric and had a kick hitting with him. The average pro spends so much time on the court with average kids that when he gets the chance to hit with a gem, it's exciting and novel.Cal, my mother and I left, and as we walked back through the indoor facility, there was Nick Bollettieri, all 81 years old, given a speech on a court to a group of children and their parents. Nick looks withered, wrinkled-brown, a little hunched, but trim and fit and all-around great. The magic of Bollettieri--because I've seen him operate a number of times now over the last 25 years--is that it doesn't matter who he's addressing, his pitch is always earnest, passionate and memorable. It always starts and ends with how a little Italian-American boy from Pelham, New York through persistence and passion built the biggest and best tennis academy in the world. Callum was beat by then, but afterward, he recalled what Bollettieri said about "dreaming big dreams" and working hard to make them come true. Callum took his picture with Nick. And later that night, Callum switched onto the Nadal-Almagro finals from Barcelona. He usually opts to watch basketball or baseball instead of tennis, but his fire had been ignited yesterday. He was already talking about a possible play-date with Eric. Today he's off school and he says he'll go out and work on his serve with me.