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Friday, September 11, 2009

Talking with Great Coaches on a Rainy Day; Plans for Saturday

©Colette Lewis 2009--
Flushing Meadows, NY--

With the persistent rain, I had an opportunity to do a story for the New York Times Straight Sets blog that I would ordinarily not have had time to write while covering a major junior tournament. I'm posting it here in its entirety, because it hasn't yet been put up there.

Because girls between 14 and 18 are restricted in the number of tournaments they can play by the ITF and WTA, it's more common to see those with high professional rankings in the junior majors, while boys, who face no such restrictions and mature later, aren't as highly ranked. Ksenia Pervak, who won the Australian Open Juniors this year, was ranked around 150 by the WTA at the time.

I spoke to three outstanding coaches today about the pros and cons of playing junior and pro events: the famous Nick Bollettieri, Laura Robson's coach Martijn Bok and Lauren Davis's coach Rich Mostardi. The conversations were of course much longer than the quotes in the story, and in fact, I will be doing an additional post devoted specifically to Lauren Davis and the training plans Mostardi has for her in the coming months given her breakthough here, but it was interesting to talk to them about a complicated issue. It is similar to the "playing up" question, just a little more dramatic than whether to play 14s or 16s.

The Saturday plans are similar to last year's, when the singles semifinals were moved to the Sound Shore Indoor Tennis in Port Chester New York. This year there are twelve more matches to be played (the doubles were completed on Friday last year) so it will be a long day, and I'm not expecting any internet access, as there was none last year. I will tweet for as long as my battery holds out, so please sign up to follow me on twitter or check the feed to the left.

Junior Girls Face Balancing Act

In any of the girls Junior Championships at the four majors there will be girls like Irina Khromacheva of Russia, a 14-year-old prodigy who has yet to play a professional event, and American Gail Brodsky, an 18-year-old who has played 16 events on the International Tennis Federation and Sony Ericsson Women’s Tour. What brings such diverse levels of tennis experience together four weeks each year is not just the prestige of playing for a Grand Slam title, but the opportunity to play period.

From the day she turns 14, when she becomes eligible to compete in professional tournaments, until her 18th birthday, there are strict limits to the number of tournaments a girl can play, a rule enacted to try to stem the tide of injury and burnout.

Seeking additional competition, junior girls with SEWTA rankings as high as the Top 200 can be found in the draws of junior slams. It isn’t for financial reasons--there is no prize money in junior tournaments—but it may be a chance to snare an endorsement contract if already a professional, or perhaps more support from the country’s federation if still an amateur.

Stepping in and out of the worlds of junior and professional tennis has it perils however, according to longtime coaching legend Nick Bollettieri.

“For some people it’s very confusing, to play with the pros and play with the juniors,” Bollettieri said.

“If you’re doing well on the ladies tour and you go backwards and don’t do well (in the juniors), that has an effect on getting wild cards and also a psychological effect. So that’s a tough call that the individual coaches and families have to make.”

But, Bollettieri adds, those girls who do opt to play juniors after having success on the professional level are also sending a message about their confidence.

“If you put yourself back down in juniors, that means you have so much confidence that you can whip the juniors.”

For Timea Babos, a 16-year-old Hungarian who has played three ITF Women’s Circuit events this year, winning one and making the final in the other two, competing in this year’s U.S. Open Junior Championships is a way to keep working on her game.

"Because of my age I can play only 12 tournaments, so that’s why I have to play a lot of juniors,” said Babos, the world’s third-ranked junior. “I think the younger players need more matches, so that’s why we still play juniors, that’s really important.”

Fifteen-year-old Laura Robson, the 2008 Wimbledon girls champion who had immediate success in professional events and won two women’s qualifying matches at the Open two weeks ago, is playing the U.S. Open juniors for the first time this year.

“It’s very important to keep playing junior tournaments to keep the right balance between winning matches and feeling confident,” says Robson’s coach Martijn Bok. “The senior tournaments are good of course, to see what still can be improved on, and measure themselves with the bigger players, but junior tournaments are still important to keep their confidence going and get the matches.”

Bok believes the psychology of playing on two levels can help a junior girl’s development, but acknowledges that Robson, Brodsky, Kristie Ahn and other U.S. Open junior competitors who have already played main draw Grand Slam matches don’t face the same pressures against seasoned professionals.

“I think they definitely play with a different mindset in the seniors when they play up, way up,” said Bok. “They have nothing to lose and play freely. Then when they go back to the juniors, they feel like they need to win a certain match, but that’s also a very good experience for them.”

“What happens in the juniors, if the player becomes good, is the exact same thing that happens on the WTA tour.”