The nations only ball runners in college tennis
Novelty by definition is rare. So when we find something truly unique, especially in sports, we want the world to know.
I first crossed paths with the Golden Retrievers in 2015 when we were invited to encourage our TennisForChildren members to consider participating. I knew it was a wonderful program however most of our members live, work, and play in north metro Atlanta which is a far cry from the GA Tech tennis facility, so we didn’t have much response.
Only recently did we speak again with the program director, Patricia Jensen, and we knew we had to get more directly involved.
It is time to tell the story of the Golden Retrievers.
It is time to tell the story of the Golden Retrievers.
So here it goes: A long time ago (12-13 years) in a city far, far away (from us in Hall County) a great tennis master combined two relatively obvious things in a way never done before. Kenny Thorne, the head men’s tennis coach at GA Tech University in Atlanta GA decided to invite junior tennis players*, younger than previously considered (8-14 years old), to be part of a ball management team for his men’s college tennis teams.
Well, it’s one thing to have a great idea. It’s a completely different thing to bring that idea to life. Thankfully, Kenny knew just the woman for the job. And without hesitation, Patricia Jensen agreed to create the Golden Retrievers.
First of all, the name “Golden Retrievers” was non-negotiable. Patricia will immediately explain to anyone asking, that the kids absolutely love the title of “Golden Retriever.” Dressed in perfectly muted golden shirts, they are so proud to be part of this team.
At the last home match of the 2023 NCAA tennis season, my wife and I were honored with the opportunity to visit with the Golden Retrievers team. Managed on that day by 12 year old, Alivia Sage, the sister of one of the experienced Golden Retrievers, they gathered themselves and led us into the Ken Byers Tennis Facility where we were able to speak with the entire team.
The oldest was Everett at 14 years old and the youngest was Arianna, only 8 years old. Apparently training the new comers themselves, these kids are confident, polite, appreciative, and love the sport of tennis.
The common theme running through the answers offered by the Golden Retrievers was obvious. These kids very much appreciate the camaraderie, the ability to spend time with the college players, as well as the friendships created during their time as a Golden Retriever. 11 year old Ava remarked that the players are so close personally, that they are like brothers. I believe she used the term “besties.”
This is a direct result of the culture created by Kenny Thorne. As a former college level player myself, I’m aware of the closeness that is inherent in a team like the Yellow Jackets. However, imagine having junior tennis players at every match watching your every move. Listening to your self-narration in between points. This is a constant reminder that as a GA Tech Men’s Varsity tennis player, you are not only tasked with winning and supporting each other as competitors, you are a role model to younger players who are right there on court with you.
Most of the Golden Retrievers are tennis players already, which makes sense. A major piece of being part of an on court ball management team is understanding the scoring in tennis, which isn’t exactly self explanatory. Another aspect of being a Golden Retriever is to understand a tennis players typical routine while playing a tennis match. A great ball management team is able to expect what the players want as well as what they actually need, which can sometimes be different things.
One of the first things we noticed was that the Golden Retrievers appeared to be training each other. Asking Patricia about their training, which we assumed must be extensive, she explained that she was not aware of any formal training system. And all we had to do was watch the kids managing the first court where Andreas Martin, GA Tech’s #1 player, was playing his match.
It was Kate’s first day as part of the team and, although she had previous ball management experience, she was placed on the same court as Everett, one of the more experienced Golden Retrievers. Part of his job was to make sure Kate knew where to be and what to do. And a few courts away was Alivia Sage, that days’ team manager, notebook in hand, making sure everyone was on the right court based on what Patricia Jensen suggested.
Alivia Sage got involved because her brother is a Golden Retriever. With no personal tennis experience, she was not offered a position on the court but she was so interested in bing part of the group that Patricia made her a “team manager.” At only 11 years old, she tracks which Golden Retriever’s are available and coordinates with Patricia for scheduling and court placement.
These kids are great examples of what a good tennis culture can produce. Being part of the Golden Retriever team teaches them to be someone others want to be around, builds personal confidence and character, and offers them solid role models in the GA Tech Men’s tennis players.
Congratulations to Kenny Thorne, Patricia Jensen, and Jim Hollar for the wonderful work done to create this program for our junior tennis players in Atlanta.
If you know a young player between 8 and 14 years old who might be interested in joining the Golden Retriever team, please contact Patricia at [email protected]
*According to NCAA recruiting guidelines, players in high school are not allowed to be on court during college matches.
Written by Shaun and Geovanna Boyce for GoTennis! Stories