For parents and “wannabe" professional players it is hard to understand that this highly competitive sport of tennis seeks the boundaries of the maximum capacity of human efficiency. Neither do they realize that the decision for a career in top sports performance, especially in tennis, represents a persistent incision into a youngster's way of life. Next, they lack the global vision to assess the future restrictions in the young person's development as well as in occupation education or job situations. In many cases they do not either foresee the considerable financial expenses, demands on their own assets (parents) or that finding sponsor and tennis association funds is very difficult or extremely restricted. Therefore, at the training formation and talent selection, not only from the sporting point of view, but especially for ethical reasons, high requests on all areas should be placed on players by coaches and teachers.
A special feature of development in tennis is the tennis-typical early entry into high-level competition already in the child age 9-12 year olds. For that the ambitious new generation is already training in situations that usually are very high performance and normally in areas where only physically mature grown-ups would be.
The need for such an early start grows in dimension even more because tennis in the last years took a notable growth development and it is demonstrated by the high numbers of active players and by the high level of professionalism in the ATP & WTA tennis circuits.
As a Teacher and Coach I have been often confronted with parents with high expectations but who do not have a clue of the hard reality of high level competitive tennis.
The dilemma I am faced with is often; “am I going to tell this parent that unfortunately his son does not fulfill the high athletic, coordinative, mental or competitive standards of a future professional", or. . . “should I shut-up and say to myself, this man is an adult he should know better and offer his “lame" son 5 times a week training plus conditioning and the works to cash in on a cool $20 000 or $50 000 a year". . . . and in 3 or 4 years comes daddy and asks; “why is my son not improving and so and so who started 3 months ago has already eclipsed him?!?"
Even though I am always as diplomatic as possible I choose the first option and I try to persuade the parent to go easy on the kid; give him more time to develop, keep the weekly training to one or two sessions a week and have a wait and see attitude.
Some parents have come to me with 17 and 18 year olds (not even ATP ranked) and when I try to dissuade them from the “professional" 5 hours a day training, they tell me; “but Marat Safin or Roger Federer only started to be sucessful at 21 or 22 years old!"
Trying to be nice I tell them, “well, Safin at 17 years old in 1997 – Won his first Challenger title and at 18 years old in 1998 – Finished in Top 50 Qualified and reached 4th RD at Roland Garros and US Open!"
"Roger Federer at fourteen years old, became the Swiss Junior champion for all age groups. At 17 years old in 1998 Federer's last year in the Junior circuits; he won the Wimbledon Juniors title and the prestigious year-ending Orange Bowl. He finished the year as the ITF World Junior Tennis champion, N#1. Earlier in July, 1998, he had joined the ATP tour. In 1999-Youngest player (18 years, 4 months) to finish in Top 100!"
Some of these parent's feel offended or think that I am “unprofessional" (how dare you say that MY SON is not going to be a champion!) and seek the next “famous" or “infamous" teacher that will sing them the song they wish to hear. Others stay, ask more questions, follow my advice and often consult me on the progress of their children. I feel very comfortable with this kind of person, they want to see their children improve but, they also understand that I am foregoing huge amounts of money by giving them an honest assessment. Therefore we strike a balance between high expectations and reality. On the other hand, from my side, I am more than willing to do all I can to help their children be the best they can be.
In many cases if the youngster has reasonable qualities, but not enough for an ATP or WTA career, I often suggest the second best choice that is to improve their tennis and conditioning between 15 and 17 years old and than apply for a tennis scholarship in a US University. This often is the best compromise with an excellent perspective of a diploma for a future successful professional life and a continuation in the sport of tennis.
Surely many of you are pondering the same questions, whether it is with your personal tennis, your children's or as a teacher/coach.
To help teachers, parents and players make informed decisions, I put together some links that show how most of the players we see in the top hundred (if you want to make a living out of tennis you need to be in the Top 100!) WTA or ATP made it through.
(Copy and paste the links below onto your browser)
Carefully compare the WTA or ATP rankings with the junior careers of tennis players and you will realize that with very few exceptions (Pete Sampras for example) almost every player in the top hundred was either top of their junior year or among the top five in the ITF world rankings or was a winner of either the Junior French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open or Orange Bowl!
Most of the players are precocious in their development and often are the N# 1 in their countries and some of them win the National 14's old at 12 years old the 16's at 14 years old and 18's at 16 years old. There are exceptions Pete Sampras being one of them, but, you must keep in mind that as a junior Pete Sampras goes practically unnoticed, because he played all his junior career in an age group or two ahead of his age and he was competing with the likes of Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, David wheaton and Jim Courier!
Another exception are the William sisters Venus and Serena two superb athletes who developed themselves without a junior record, but at an early age were beating mediocre pratice men partners on a regular basis and that played their first WTA tournaments in their 14s!!
If you want to get scared, think about Martina Hingis at 12 years old won the adult Swiss Women Nationals and that at age 13 won the French Open (Roland Garros) 18's!
Not all top players are junior super-talents such as Pete Sampras, Roger Federer or Martina Hingis were, but they are pretty darn close!
There is a place for everyone in tennis, good or bad players they all love the game. What is important is to help young boys and girls within their possibilities without installing false expectations in their minds and ultimately avoiding large disappointments that in the end lead to many totally deserting the game of tennis.
It is better to develop 3 or 4 happy for life young tennis players, than 10 “wannabe champions" who sooner or later will quit disillusioned with the game!
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Sergio Cruz is ex # 1 National Champion, Davis Cup Player from Portugal and former Coach Jim Courier ATP World Ranking # 1
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