Winning a gold ball is recognized from 12 and unders to 90 and overs as the most coveted prize in USTA tennis – one awarded a few times a year to the effective national champion. For juniors, it can often mark the start of a future pro level career (past winners have been Sebastian Korda, Brandon Nakashima and Jack Sock among many others).
Earning a gold ball takes effort and commitment. From practice, to entering tournaments, to a bit of travel. It’s taking a hobby one step deeper – which therein lies the fun for many.
Look no further than the 2016 Documentary movie Gold Balls. Where five different men from totally unique walks of life aspire to win a gold ball. Among these men are a 94-year-old comedian and a minister’s son. They bond through one thing – their desire to compete and achieve.
A gold ball gives players something to strive for, even after high school and college sports. And gives those who came to tennis later a chance to compete in a way they haven’t before.
So how does it work? Where exactly do you get a gold ball? And how can you channel your competitive energy towards a USTA national championship and gold ball laden trophy case?
What is a gold ball? And where do you get one?
It is a trophy awarded to the winner/s of USTA National Level 1 tournaments – often called the National Championships. They are highest of the 7 levels of USTA tournaments and there are 3 per year, one on each surface -- hard, grass, and clay. (This is for adults. Juniors there are more).
And if you meant what is a gold ball, literally? It looks like this:
And yes, the actual ball is pretty small.
What is a level 1 tournament?
USTA tournaments are tiered on a scale from level 1 to level 7. In theory, each level gets more competitive in skill level, with 1 being the most difficult. Consequently, the higher level the tournament, the more USTA ranking points available.
Keep in mind there are literally dozens, almost a hundred, different age groups and divisions in which you can enter a national level 1. Including -- parent-child doubles divisions, mixed doubles, 90 and over, and the list goes on.
Here’s a sample schedule of where and when level 1 (gold ball) tournaments take place. This is for the men’s age groups 30 and over through 50 and over.
How do you get into these tournaments and win?
First things first, sign up on USTA.com and search for level 1 tournaments there. The list above is also a good guide with everything in once place. You can also just google any of the events from that link word for word.
Practically, how do you get to into/win these tournaments?
Play a lot of tennis.
How many tournaments you enter, and even ranking, is not as important as how much tennis you play. As these tournaments attempt to accept as many people as possible, and acceptance is lenient. For example, the Men’s Singles 30 and over Hard Court National championships had less than 16 entrants last year. While the Men’s 50 and over had almost 64. Each tournament had open spots so qualification into the event isn’t the tricky part.
The tricky part is that the players entering these tournaments are those who play, or have played, a lot of tennis and are looking to test their skills.
For instance, last year’s Men’s 30s Hard Court National Champion Phillip Eilers played only three singles and one doubles tournaments over the course of the year but won the hard-court level 1 event with ease. He also played college tennis and has a current UTR of 11+ (NTRP 5.0, 5.5 player). Similarly, 3-time 2021 gold ball winner in the women’s 30s and 40s divisions, both singles and doubles, Kaysie Smashey, is a former professional player with an 8+ UTR. And the Men’s 40s Clay Court singles winner, Tyler Cleveland, also has an 11+ UTR.
Again, that’s not to say there isn’t a division for everyone – but those really competing to win gold balls tend to be accomplished, dedicated players.
On the other hand, some may prefer just to be involved in the competitive atmosphere, without necessarily breaking their backs to compete. There is, of course, no one right way.
What about the gold ball tournaments themselves?
National Level 1s take place three times a year, typically from late April through the rest of the year. They’re most commonly in states like Florida (the majority), Arizona, Texas, Rhode Island, and California, though several other states get into the mix as well.
They are feed-in consolation draws. Which essentially means double elimination. So not to worry, you’ll get your money’s worth!
Every tournament format is different, from round-robin to standard tournament structures, but typically competitors play several matches a day over the course of a weekend or, in some cases, over the course of a week if the draw is big enough. Competitive players may take off work for a few days and make a trip out of it.
How much does it cost?
There is a cost associated with this level of commitment. But it doesn’t have to be out of control. Tournament entry fees vary between $50-$150 and some travel and related costs will likely be part of the deal. At the very least, attending the gold ball tournaments themselves will require travel, unless you’re lucky enough to live locally.
More than likely, attending a gold ball event would be akin to a mini vacation. And as mentioned before – it’s not strictly necessary to constantly enter tournaments. You can go to one a year if you feel like it. But, a lot of these tournaments are at beautiful venues in great cities with a lot to do and see.
Now how much you want to pay for courts, high end coaches, and practice venues to sustain your game … that’s a matter of taste.
Striving for a gold ball is one of the best ways to remain competitive in tennis. And there is likely a schedule that works for you. Many players find a sense of community in the competitive tennis circuit as they end up at the same tournaments with other likeminded people.
Gold Balls film director Kate Dandel compared the life of the senior gold ball USTA tour to that of indie rockers in their 20’s. Driving vans, staying in random hotels, “It’s all about the next tournament, playing in that big game.”
Earning a gold ball does take a level of commitment to your tennis game, but for many of us the competition and dedication is the fun.
So maybe you’re an ex-college player, or just looking to compete. Either way, pursuing a gold ball can be a great jolt to your game, giving you something new and exciting to aspire to in tennis.