Remember back in the day when no one talked about Junior Tennis? Yeah there were kids out there playing their hearts out but many of them ended up going to college on scholarships and played tennis on weekends in parks or country clubs.
All of that changed a few years ago though and I'm wondering if it might not be time to go back to the days when kids weren't tagged #1 with a bullet like the old Billboard record charts and they were relatively free to pursue or not pursue a pro career. What changed? Richard Williams and Oracene Price's daughters changed the way the world at large viewed tennis. All of a sudden every parent with a dollar and a dream to borrow a phrase felt their child had the goods to become the next Williams sister and the race was on. If your child could hit a tennis ball over the net he or she was dragooned into playing tennis because Venus and Serena. The siren song reached as far as Eastern Europe and as near as the lower 48 states in North America.
An important article was posted this week by Steve Tignor on the current wild card system employed by the Grand Slams where their up and coming players are given the chance to play on the big stage of a Slam and see how they do against the best in the business. Most of these players end up as cannon fodder, hitting or practice partners for the top players rarely making it past the first or second round of play. Here is Tignor's opening salvo:
The way it's done now, each major gives most of its wild cards to its home players. The few that don't go to the other Slam countries, in a reciprocal arrangement. For example, six of this year’s men’s main-draw wild cards went to Americans, one went to Pierre-Hughes Herbert of France, and another to Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. It’s understandable, on one level: The national federations run these tournaments, and their first mission is to promote tennis in their home countries. But there are only four countries that host Grand Slams: Australia, France, Great Britain, and the United States.
Should players from these countries have a leg up forever?What about all of the worthy—and often worthier—hopefuls from other nations? The umbrella organization for the federations, the ITF, is in the business of promoting the game not just in four places, but around the world. And with the recent prize-money increases at the majors, a free ride into the first round is more valuable to a young or struggling player than ever. It can also be valuable, as Hewitt’s long, multi-year good-bye has shown, to an aging legend, too.
But are all of these wild cards to "rising stars" a help or a hindrance? As is pointed out in the article Donald Young was picked to be the next big US player. Now, at age 26, he is doing what he could have done at age 19 and playing Challengers not only in the States but overseas as well. He's not storming the top ten but he's playing well enough to beat the likes of Gilles Simon who is not an easy out. With tennis careers lasting longer Young has a chance of getting and maintaining a career in the top 20, something that would've been laughable five years ago.
What does this have to do with junior tennis? There is a lot of hoopla and promotion around Juniors now. There are racquet and clothing contracts available. Some majors go out of their way to put top juniors on televised courts not only for junior matches but when they play main tour players. Tennis is all about the pleasure of pressure but is the focus on juniors causing some players to stay stuck at that level of play? How often have we seen promising juniors getting Wild Card after wild card and instead of rising in the rankings sinking, no plummeting in the opposite direction because their games, mentally and physically, aren't able to cope with those of the top pros.
I watched the match between Danka Kovinic and Anna Karolína Schmiedlová last evening and feel it was a prime example of the lowering of tennis IQ in players labeled "promising" or "rising stars". Kovinic can hit the snot out of the ball but can't control her power. AKS has been playing a lot of main tour matches this year and while her skills are developing you'd think she would've won the match easily based on where she played and how she's done for a player her age. Instead we got a marathon of junior level tennis where AKS won because Kovinic thinks there's only one way to hit a ball. AKS was barely standing but she has a bit of subtlety in her game and won. Was it exciting? Yes, in the sense that someone was going to have to win and maybe someone will faint kind of way. Was it great tennis? No.
I also got to watch one of my "ones to watch" this season, Alexander Zverev, 18 play both qualies and a main draw match live. Zverev's got a pretty decent game. Of course it still needs work, but he plays his age. Shot selection can be improved on as well as paying closer attention to what his opponent is doing.
I also watched Chung Hyeon age 19 on an outer court, and Frances Tiafoe age 17. Both were in the Main Draw, Chung based on his ranking, Tiafoe via a Wild Card. Tiafoe has all the shots. He moves well. He's got a big personality. But on court he's 17. Chung, who forced Stan Wawrinka to three tiebreak sets, has been playing a mix of Challengers, ATP 250 events and Slams. It shows. His game is much more mature than Tiafoe's, and right now I don't see Tiafoe being able to duplicate what Chung did even in defeat. Tiafoe's game is not maturing. I think it would've been better to hold a Slam WC for Tiafoe until he is 19 and has hopefully gained a measure of tennis maturity by playing Challengers and ATP 250's not only in the States but overseas.
Are Wild Cards overused for young players from countries with long tennis histories? Yes. Is too much emphasis being put on doing well at a Slam instead of doing well at tennis, especially in the US? Yes. Should the emphasis on "the next great one" be downplayed? Yes. Labeling a youngster a success when he/she has yet to prove that they can do more than hit the cover off the ball or has connections in a particular Federation is wrong.
I've been a critic of Patrick McEnroe and his stewardship of the USTA Player Development program but one thing he was right about was teaching young prospects to play on clay. Here's a quote from Andre Agassi who, along with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, are being recruited by PMac's successor Martin Black to help mentor young American men. Keep in mind they're talking about young men by the way.
Agassi thinks the drought can be explained through domination and change in the game.
"I think the biggest problem over the last decade has been Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic," Agassi said. "You throw in Murray and you have one hell of a generation who have clearly raised the standard."
He said that the new game doesn't naturally suit itself to the American game as it once did.
"Back in the day, me, Pete, [John] McEnroe and [Jimmy] Connors, we hit the ball through the court," Agassi said. "We struggled a bit on clay, but our game still translated throughout the year for the most part. Now with the spin and the athleticism, you need that clay mentality in every part of the game."
I've been saying this for years but now that Agassi has said it maybe some of the éminence grise of tennis will pay more attention to what has to happen if the US is going to be competitive in tennis again. We don't need any more players with all the shots and no game. The Zverev's, Chungs, Schmiedlova's and Bencic's of the world are "hungry to win" and are working on improving their games not their celebrity profiles. So yes, it's time for everyone involved with Junior tennis especially in the US to take a step back, let the kids develop their games on their own at their own pace. If your game is set at 18 there is no where for you to go. It's definitely time to let the kids be seen and not heard.