Saturday, June 23, 2007

Hype - The Double Edged Sword

When I was coming up my mother used to make these comments. To me they were cryptic and I thought that I was too bright to pay attention to what she had to say. One of them was about having a childhood. I was too busy trying to be grown to think much of her statement at the time.

Craig has often spoke about hype and the damage it can do to a person. I'm sure many of us can cite at least two or three players, male and female, who crumbled under the weight of expectations. In a sport where you're over the hill at twenty seven the pressure to do well while young is extraordinary.

On the eve of Wimbledon, the Holy Grail of tennis, Peter Wachter has written this revealing article on Donald Young, the young man who would be king of American tennis. It's a cautionary tale, one that is still being written and may still have a happy ending. So while we cheer on the young men and women who have clawed their way to the top during this fortnight there is nothing wrong with spending a little time thinking about the sacrifices they and their families have made to get them to the grounds of the AELTC.

Prodigy’s End

...At this moment in May, Young is two months shy of 18. Before he had a learner’s permit, Young had a Nike contract and was saddled with the expectations of returning American men’s tennis to the heights occupied by Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. He was on a path to become the first black men’s champion since Arthur Ashe. And he didn’t dodge the hype. A clip from the Tennis Channel a few years ago, preserved on YouTube, shows Young addressing the camera. He’s 14, with the barest patch of hair above his lip. “Win all the Grand Slams more than once — that’s always been my goal,” he says. He calls Sampras his idol and says he’d like to “maybe surpass what he did or come close.”

But even if he does play at Wimbledon this week, no one will be making comparisons to Sampras, who won seven Wimbledon titles (and a record 14 Grand Slams overall). Because here at the Carson Challenger, Young is ranked No. 335 in the world, and he is losing to a guy almost 500 spots below him, a nobody. As he rises from his chair and picks up his racket to start the second set, the question is not whether Young is the future of American tennis, but whether he has a future in tennis at all.

Has there ever been a bleaker moment in American tennis? On the women’s side, the Williams sisters still show flashes of brilliance — Serena, ranked No. 81 at the time, won the Australian Open earlier this year — but their best tennis is behind them. Have you even heard of another active American women’s player?

As for the men, Roddick is a respectable No. 5 and a winner of the U.S. Open, but he has reached only three Grand Slam finals in the four years since then. James Blake has never made it beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Once age and injury bring Roger Federer back down to earth, players like Rafael Nadal (already far ahead of the rest of the pack), Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Marcos Baghdatis and Richard Gasquet are ready to supplant him. There are no Americans in sight. Not so long ago, however, Donald Young, younger than all of them, seemed to be the exception.

The script was perfect: Young grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was raised by a couple of tennis fanatics — instructors, in fact. They didn’t force the game on their son, but he showed natural aptitude. At age 3, Young was able to hold rallies over the net. At 10, he hit a few balls with the sport’s most famous lefty, John McEnroe, who told reporters, “He’s the first person I’ve seen who has hands like me.” He dominated his peers and, with endorsements from Nike and Head lined up, turned pro at 14 — an astonishingly early age, but not unprecedented in tennis, especially after the rules were tweaked to allow young professionals to continue to play in the juniors. With his earrings and funky cap, Young brought another look to a men’s sport whose only other memorable sartorial flourishes recently have been stonewashed jeans shorts, worn by Agassi, and the pirate ensemble favored by Nadal. And image wasn’t everything: as a 15-year-old, Young became the youngest player ever to win a junior Grand Slam title, the 2005 Australian Open, and the youngest to hold the world’s top spot in the junior ranking.

His accomplishments generated attention outside the tennis world. Newsweek included Young in its 2005 Who’s Next list of up-and-comers, alongside another rising African-American star, Barack Obama. “There aren’t a lot of obvious bets in tennis,” says Jim Courier, a winner of four Grand Slam titles and the executive producer of “Unstrung,” a new documentary that follows Young and six other top American juniors. “At 15, with what he did, Donald was about as close as you get.”

When Young started playing the elite tournaments of the ATP tour, it figured that a breakthrough would happen soon. Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Chang and Aaron Krickstein won their first ATP titles at 16, and none had a record as a junior that was as sterling as Young’s.

But the script didn’t unfold as expected. In February 2005, in Young’s first ATP outing, in San Jose, Calif., Robby Ginepri, then No. 74 and quickly rising, needed only 50 minutes to beat Young 6-2, 6-2. Two weeks later, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Young lost 6-3, 6-1 to Paul Goldstein, currently ranked No. 95. Over the next year, Young continued to lose, and he now has a record of 0-10 in ATP events. And the matches have not gotten any more competitive. At the 2006 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last year, he was crushed 6-0, 6-0 by Carlos Berlocq, a journeyman who lost by the same score to James Blake in the next round.

At the time, Young tried to give the impression that he was unfazed by the losses. “I really do think I’m learning something from each match,” he said after the drubbing by Berlocq. But among the tennis cognoscenti, the feeling was that Young has been pushed too hard, too fast. “Psychologically, it’s got to be tough when you’re barely winning games,” Patrick McEnroe, the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, says.

But who’s to blame? His parents? Tennis has seen far worse, with its share of maniacal disciplinarians who order 1,000 serves before breakfast, as well as nut jobs like Jelena Dokic’s father, who was thrown out of the 2000 U.S. Open after badgering the staff about the high price of the salmon plate and who said he wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on Sydney after his daughter’s early exit from last year’s Australian Open.

Or was it Young’s management company, IMG? A colossus in the tennis world, the sports-marketing company represents Federer and Nadal, but it doesn’t yet have that most precious of commodities — an active American men’s champion. Was IMG pushing Young too hard, using its muscle to get wild-card entries into top events that his ranking — a lowly 1,253 at the end of 2004 — wouldn’t otherwise qualify him to enter? Shouldn’t he have stuck to the sport’s minor circuit, the Futures and Challengers tournaments, where the total prize money is capped at $15,000 and $150,000 respectively, until he earned a spot in the ATP events alongside the game’s elite?

Or is Young just another bust, hyped beyond the level of his talent? A Kwame Brown of the tennis world? The difference is that Brown, the first pick of the N.B.A. draft in 2001, is still being paid $9 million a year for his underachieving, while Young is in Carson fighting for the top prize of $7,200.

“There’s been a lot of negative press put on us playing in some of these ATP events,” Young’s father, Donald Sr., told me. It was a week before the Carson Challenger tournament, and I was visiting the Youngs in Atlanta, where Donald Jr. trains at Tennis in Motion, a tennis facility and training center run by his father. The campus is impressive enough, with more than 20 courts, hard and clay, set on a barren patch of land not far from the airport, but it was virtually empty on that Saturday in May. When I arrived, Donald Sr. was stringing a racket and Young’s mother, Illona, had just brought in pizza for lunch.

The decision to play the big tournaments was in large part a financial decision, Donald Sr. said, and the family wasn’t pushed by IMG. In fact, he wasn’t very happy with the company or Young’s agent, Gary Swain, who set up that now-legendary early practice session with John McEnroe. Neither Swain nor the company, according to Donald Sr., had done enough to market his son, beginning with a missed opportunity when Young became the world’s top junior. “Why couldn’t he have had . . . a two-dollar popsicle deal,” he said, or “a two-dollar bubblegum deal?”

Far-fetched examples, perhaps, but Young’s father had a point: even small endorsement deals can make a difference. After all, tennis, on any level, is expensive. That’s why, like golf, it’s often regarded as a sport for rich kids. Donald Sr. learned this long before his son was born. A Chicago native and the son of a former pro baseball player, he took up tennis at 16 and played for Alabama State. He tried his luck on the minor pro circuit, but it wasn’t much of a living. “I realized you had to have resources, sponsorships to do certain things,” he said.

Young’s mother, who grew up in Missouri, was not allowed to play tennis as a child because it was too expensive, but she fell in love with the sport during college. When she moved to Chicago to work in advertising and later for Fannie Mae, she taught tennis on the side. Donald Sr. and Illona met at a mixed-doubles tournament as opponents but soon realized they would win more matches playing together. “We partnered up, and then we really partnered up,” Illona said.

When their only child showed an early gift for the sport, the Youngs were well aware of the sacrifices, financial and otherwise, that they would have to make to see him reach his potential. Beginning in seventh grade, Young was home-schooled by Illona — she is also a certified teacher — to accommodate a heavy traveling schedule that you don’t see as often in more school-oriented and seasonal sports like football and baseball. The United States Tennis Association contributed yearly grants ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, but they weren’t enough. “You take a kid like Donald, who had a hefty travel schedule, and you’re looking at $30,000 to $40,000 in expenses,” Rodney Harmon, director of the U.S.T.A.’s men’s-tennis program, says. “Plus, you have to double that, since he’s too young to travel on his own.”

Neither the family nor Swain will discuss the size of Young’s endorsements, but his Nike contract, the largest of them, is reported to be significantly smaller than the $2 million deal the company is said to have given Gael Monfils, a young Frenchman of Caribbean descent who is ranked No. 62. Young’s father says only that his son is already making more than most recent college graduates. “They’re lucky if they get thirty, forty thousand,” he said — and Donald is “doing that already.” With the endorsements and the income from Tennis in Motion, the family is comfortable financially, and Illona can travel full time with her son.

Still, the Youngs aren’t rich, which is why accepting the wild cards made sense, Donald Sr. said. “If you had the opportunity to play in a pro event, make 5 or 10 thousand dollars, losing in the first round versus losing in a Future making $137. . . . ” Donald Sr. begin to ask rhetorically, referring to the paltry sums generated by a first-round exit in a Futures tournament. “Your hotel is paid for, you’ve got a car to drive around in. Is there any comparison?”

But at the time, what he didn’t understand was that the losses were exacting a heavy psychological price on his young son.

Young was on the academy’s practice courts, hitting with a college player and a teenage girl — just fooling around, really, before flying out to California in a few days to prepare for the Challenger tournament. When he took a break, we talked briefly and awkwardly, comparing opinions about “Spider-Man 3.” He has dealt with many reporters and seems to have determined that the best way to handle them is to be generous with his smiles and laughter and to say little. At first, even his high speaking voice seems conditioned to appear agreeable. But he’s handsome, naturally charismatic and well mannered, so he comes off as perhaps a tad nervous, but not affected.

The following morning, we sat down in the tennis center, next to the Ping-Pong table. Young had awoken early to catch the end of a tournament final in Hamburg, in which Federer happened to beat Nadal for the first time on clay. Later, he was hoping to make the two-hour drive to the University of Georgia to watch some of the college championships then under way. I recalled my earlier conversation with Harmon of the U.S.T.A, who has known Young for many years. “That’s one thing people don’t realize about Donald,” he told me. “That he really loves the game, loves watching it and appreciates the history.”

So I was surprised to hear Young tell me that the previous year he had thought of giving up the sport entirely.

He had lost plenty of times as a junior, he said, but the losses were always followed by wins and then dominance. Yet the learning curve was steeper at the professional level, and after his dismal start in ATP events, Young found himself for the first time questioning his tennis skills. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough, felt like I should go to school now, just hang it up,” he said. “I didn’t feel I deserved to be in the locker room.”

Meanwhile, Young, so close to his parents, began to push them away. “I wasn’t listening to anyone,” he said. “I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and that was it.” He didn’t feel like traveling. He wanted to hang out with his friends in Atlanta. Briefly, he dated. “It kind of got in the way a little bit,” he said. “Maybe it was the wrong person. I don’t know.” Young wasn’t just trying to find his way as a professional tennis player; he was negotiating his adolescence.

For the entire article please continue reading Paul Wachter


Craig Hickman said...

Who's to blame?

John McEnroe. The biggest creator, because of his stature as great champion and "voice", of hype in tennis today.

According to JMac, Raja is the GOAT, Justine is the best player on the ATP by far, the Djoke is the Next Big Thing, and Donald Young was going to be like hi when he got older.

But, as per usual, the context of Donald Young was overlooked. Hype is tough enough to live up to as it is, but add in Young's race, and you've got a whole other ball game.

Race as excuse? Hell no. Race as context? Absolutely. When you have a young boy having to deal with blatant racism in his junior events on most of the entire circuit (no Black junior should ever be ranked so high, you see - one of the reasons why I'm sure Richard didn't allow his daughters to play on the "freak show" called the ITF) a complex can settle in the far reaches of the mind so intense it may never be exorcised.

Admittedly, I didn't read enough of the article to know if the author addresses anything remotely close to this observation, but if he doesn't, he's merely scratching the surface and telling too little of the tale.

Craig Hickman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Hickman said...

I meant to write Justine is the best player on the WTA by far. Freudian slip, perchance...?

Savannah said...

Some Freudian slip there Mr. Hickman. He does touch on race but not the way you or I would. I love your statement about race as a context not an excuse.

Craig Hickman said...

Okay, I just finished the DY article.

Paul Wachter needs an editor!!!

Anyway, I see how race was touched upon. And I must say, if his family never talks about it, no way a reporter can go any further.

I find that problematic. When Black people keep the issue to themselves in becomes self-destructive. Look at James Blake.

Richard Williams never kept it to himself and look at what his daughters have been able to achieve in the White World of tennis.

It has to be addressed. Again, as context. Nothing more; nothing less.

b said...

hi craig -

completely agree with you and thought the same thing when i read it

of course the family knows race is an issue but they're not "stupid enough" to discuss that in front of a "white audience"/"general public" because they know what the repercussions will be

blake's way of dealing with racism (try and get everyone to like me) is the absolute worst and it has ruined his prospects and career

as even better models for how black athletes can be ruined in this manner - see zina garrison - often held up as a model of a nice "professional" black athlete - underperformed and apparently suffered from severe bulimia and other problems during her time on tour - especially in light of the neverending stream of comments about serena's weight and appearance

the worst part is that people are already so happy to write off young - how can you dismiss a career of someone that young? ridiculous he's not 30.... or even 25...... donald sounds as if he has excellent prospects - as long as he doesn't listen to the hype around him