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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kozlov, Tiafoe, Wiersholm and O'Loughlin Reach Les Petits As Quarterfinals; The Problem with Junior Tennis

A quick update on the action today at Les Petits As, which saw four of the six remaining Americans advance to the singles quarterfinals.

Top seed Stefan Kozlov, No. 2 seed Henrik Wiersholm and unseeded Francis Tiafoe won in straight sets, with Tiafoe beating No. 7 seed Michal Demek of Poland 6-1, 7-5. Eduardo Nava lost to Sasha Merzetti of Italy in today's third round. In the girls draw, No. 16 seed Carolyn Xie lost to top seed Francoise Abanda of Canada 6-2, 6-2. All eight girls matches today were decided in straight sets. No. 8 seed Julia O'Loughlin defeated No. 10 seed Anna Sviripa of Ukraine 6-3, 6-2. Kozlov and Wiersholm, the top seeds in doubles, lost in the quarterfinals to Canadians Alejandro Tabilo and David Volfson 6-1, 7-6(5), leaving four unseeded teams in the semifinals.

For complete draws, see the tournament website.

A couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal published this article entitled "The Problem with Junior Tennis."

I'm likely to sound defensive about this, because I've centered my working life around junior tennis, but after reading the article, I still haven't figured out what the reporter thinks the problem with junior tennis is.

It seems to boil down to this: There's no guarantee that the winner of the Australian Junior Championships will go on to win Grand Slams as a professional. I personally don't see that as a problem that demands as its solution the elimination of junior slams. If anything the lack of a direct correlation just adds to the excitement of the sport and demonstrates the many mysterious factors that determine professional success.

Probably my biggest objection, after the vaguely defined "problem," is the opening three sentences.

Later this week, one boy and one girl will win junior singles titles here at the Australian Open. There will be trophies, lots of smiles and some breathless talk about the future.

If history is any guide, however, it's probably the last we'll hear from them.
That is just so dismissive of players who haven't won a slam, even if they are well-known to casual tennis fans. Jelena Jankovic, Shahar Peer and Viktoria Azarenka, three AO girls champions from the last decade, have fashioned long and successful careers at the top of the professional game. How about Janko Tipsarevic, Marcos Baghdatis and Gael Monfils? Ever heard of them? All have won the Australian Open boys title in the past ten years.

Despite the denigrating tone, there are some interesting kernels in the article that would stand on their own if expanded upon. It touches on the fact that the Australian Open Junior Championships attract the weakest fields of the four junior slams, a problem the senior event had for many years. Why did the professional event grow in stature over the years, while the junior event continues to lag? Is it the distance, the expense, the other competitive alternatives this time of year, the fact that if a junior wins it all, he or she knows it's the last we'll hear of them?(a little joke there). Or is it because, excepting the professional players, there are fewer of the coaches, agents, equipment reps, media, etc. that make for maximum exposure for a junior who does make the trip? Lots of good questions that don't get asked or answered.

I agree with the premise that players are not ready to compete for slam titles as early in their careers as they once were, but does that really make junior slams obsolete? For girls particularly, who are limited in the number of professional events they can play from age 14-18, the junior slams give them an opportunity to compete with the best of their age group.

Lagardere's John Tobias is quoted as saying "a lot of players choose not to go through the traditional junior route and they're kind of skipping that and starting to play the lower level professional tournaments at a really early age."

This is, of course, the route that most Spanish boys have taken in the past, the most notable of whom is Rafael Nadal. Nadal played only one junior slam--2002 Wimbledon--and was beaten in the semifinals there by Lamine Ouahab of Algeria. He played Futures and Challengers almost exclusively, but on the other hand you have Roger Federer, who played all the junior slams and many, many other lesser junior tournaments, so if there's a true pattern there, I don't think it's an obvious one.

I think junior slams, while perhaps not as fertile an environment as they once were from an agent's perspective, still serve the same mission they did when teens ruled the tennis world. Back then, the article states, "the stars of tomorrow accumulated experience (and occasionally rubbed shoulders with the sport's stars on the practice courts),[and] their junior matches gave organizers an excuse to continue selling grounds passes at a point where a majority of players in the senior draws had already been sent home."

Playing in a junior slam is also a reward for the hard work required to become a world class junior tennis player. After years of playing in front of parents and coaches, it is also chance for a player to gauge his or her comfort level in the spotlight such venues offer, against opponents they often have never played.

I just don't see how any of this is constitutes a "problem."


NPO said...

I actually started a sports foundation a couple of years ago and raised some scholarship money to help economically disadvantaged kids who showed academic and athletic talent get some tuition money for secondary and post-secondary education; with an eye obviously, to the NCAA system.

I can see your points, and they are 100% valid and accurate.

The take-away for me from the WSJ piece was -- and I hope this resonates with the GS Committee -- that while it's great to have the junior tournaments at the slams, there is equally a lot of economic hardships. With all of the money that these events make, the opportunity-stakes (meeting potential future agents, sponsors, etc) isn't enough -- especially not when so many of these professional sources aren't putting much $ into juniors.

Heck, plane tickets to Australia alone don't come cheap. The training costs for the IMG Academies are more expensive than tuition at many top-notch US universities.

In fact, there are quite a lot of families that fall into the middle class gray areas between needing financial assistance and not qualifying, which is where an NPO like ours came into play. And believe me when I say it breaks my heart to think of all the kids we couldn't help, because the applications were competitive and the number of organizations like ours were limited.

Sure, the world economy is bad all around. But if you're going to have a junior tournament, be committed to running a "real" event and pony up some prize money.

observer said...

Mr. Brulliard's article does not contain anything revealing or interesting about the "problem" with junior tennis. As Colette says, plenty of past competitors have made it in the pros. Apparently he missed that. Several of the competitors this year will be making their mark in the pros. Vesely, Pavic and Thiem are three. Puig and Krueger will too. They just have to mature their games even more and grow into their bodies.

If anything, the AO like the other Slams is where you go to test how good your game is coming along. American players get their check up at the Orange Bowl and the US Open. The only point to be made (and was missed) is that the USTA should have spent some funds and send two or three players to the AO. Alex Halebian could have done some damage. Nothing wrong to go through qualies if need be. It would not be a bad idea to cover all expenses for main draw players. Prize money is a stretch. The Slams and the ITF do make enough money to afford this. Call it a developmental incentive.

sportsmom said...

Great insights, Colette.
I have been thinking how valuable your posts are, and how much I learn about junior tennis thanks to your selfless coverage of the events around the world. I'm usually a strong online shopper (:) ) but don't feel I've done enough through your site to pay my dues. I was wondering: do you have a PayPal account I could send some support to? Please let me know.
Thanks again and keep up the great work!! We all appreciate it so much. I know I do.

Colette Lewis said...

Thank you for your kind words. I've been debating the donation route and was leaning against it, but recently I've had several readers encourage me to provide that option. Many of them are parents and coaches who know the substantial travel costs associated with junior tennis. I had hoped the advertising and affiliate agreements would be enough, but it is proving difficult to generate much income from those sources. I've created a donate button that works via PayPal and added it to the site.

getreal said...

“Playing in a junior slam is also a reward for the hard work required to become a world class junior tennis player….” I do believe one other key point needs to be addressed, which to me is one of the dark sides of junior tennis. While I agree playing the jr slams should be a reward for the top tier players, it seems too many juniors from a bunch of countries get the points to play the jr slams by chasing points. Why not spend $70,000 a year for a junior to play tournaments around the world, as one parent in the WSJ article claims his costs are. In an ideal world yes, where money and getting the most value for your dollars, or getting any kind of education is irrelevant. But in reality there are ample tournaments here in the US (futures and ITFs) to develop any junior’s game and get the points to qualify for the junior slams if the junior is good enough. Bjorn Fratangelo, currently #13 ITF, has rarely played outside the US. A real negative of ITF junior tennis is this focus on non stop international traveling which I believe hurts the sport.

vitas said...

traveling and spending money like that for junior activities is more than harmful. it is riduculous


Jerry said...

to vitas

ridiculous...says who? if it's personal money people can spend it the way they wish.
BTW the ITFs in US went down to level 4, only handful remain where you can collect decent points.
BTW #2 travel overseas is often not that much more expensive (i.e. counting total cost per tournament), considering that you can play multiple tournaments in short amount of time and distance.
If playing locally in US is sufficient, how come so few US players are being successful on international stage?

getreal said...

To jerry, the US has lost its edge on the pro level on the men’s side because most of our top athletes chose other sports because of the cost, travel, sacrifices ect to develop a top junior. The risk vs reward makes zero economic sense vs. a team sport that can be developed at a normal school, plus a lot more fun. at my kids schools none of the top boy athletes played tennis, not one.

Texastennismom said...

* Jack Sock has not played internationally at all I don't think and very little ITF. Doesn't seem to have hurt him...

* The article is correct that there's very little correlation/predictability between top junior success and pro success - but I don't think that's changed...I don't recall Graf, Capriati etc playing much in the juniors ... And the now lamented big US stars (Sampras, Agassi) did not play internationally much as juniors either. That's not the difference between success and lack of success as a pro.

* Lauren Davis's loss this week seems to reinforce the idea more evidence of her ability to succeed as a pro might have been worthwhile before she leaped I think...

best of luck said...

texastennismom, could not agree with you more. It appears you can by a great jr. ranking and you can buy a ranking so you do not have to qualify for 10s and 25 thousands. interesting with davis, she turns pro and the pressure hit. so much for a top jr. ranking

Jerry said...

to getreal
I agree that there are many more opportunities in other sports (professional) for top athletes, and high school provides for great development and very low cost. This, as you mentioned, applies primarily to boys, as there are few opportunities for girls in terms of professional sports (golf?).
Perhaps it is time to recognize it and 'divide' the money and attention unequally, focusing more on girls?

bravo said...

Get Real,
Tennis players are by far the best athletes in sports. I would bet that there might be one kid at your kid's school every several years who is at the level of a blue chip tennis player athletically. To say the best athletes choose team sports because they are more fun shows your bias and lack of knowledge about who is playing and why they play. Just ask a top level junior player why they play and in almost all cases they will tell you because it's fun. It's just a lot harder to become an elite player in tennis than it is to be good enough to make a high school team in any sport. Top American junior tennis players are a unique blend of athlete and ambassador -- especially those who travel across continents to play a sport they love. They deserve our support, not your petty jealousy, whether they turn pro or decide to pursue a college education.

getreal said...

to bravo

Agree that the top APT/WTA tennis players are very athletic, world class athletes, but not the best in the world. All top tier athletes are world class. As for top USTA “junior” tennis players, some are very athletic but it certainly is not a requirement with the boys. Is the top 100 US junior tennis player as athletic as the top 100 US junior basketball recruits, heck no. In my kid’s school for boys the top athlete chose football or basketball and then baseball because yes it’s fun, the fans even at the junior high school level are packed in. These are defiantly cool sports and for the parent its low cost as the kid develops within a traditional school. Tennis is clearly one-off, even in the college sports peaking order. Some to programs consider it a good day if they can pack in 800 for a dual match vs. 50,000 for a football game. How much money does UG football make for the school vs. the tennis program. I agree these kids deserve our support but realistically if US tennis is going to rebound there needs to be a more affordable/reasonable path to develop these elite junior tennis players besides spending $60,000 a year and having them constantly travel international. That may work for some, but it is turn-off for most. That is the point I was making/

avidfollower said...

Jerry said...
Perhaps it is time to recognize it and 'divide' the money and attention unequally, focusing more on girls?

When it comes to Tennis and the other "minor" sports, girls have a HUGE advantage over the boys when it comes to college sports. This means a free education worth possibly $100K plus. Title 9 not discrimintes based on sport and not gender. Men's tennis for example get only 4.5 compared to the womon. MUCH easier for the girls to get college scholarships outside of football.
Funny how people want to "make things equal" with things like Title 9 and now you want to spend more on the girls? How does that make sense?

Greg said...

to bravo:
dont want to pile on, but i feel pretty strongly about this... i dont think it is debatable that in most (not all, there are always exceptions to the rule!) places across the country the more athletic kids are choosing other sports (and have always done so and will do so in the future). i am not biased as i make my money in the tennis business. as a parent of a competitive junior who also plays other sports competitively, i see how tennis is looked at as a "second tier" sport that does not attract the top athletes as a whole. people see exceptions to this "rule" and say "see what about so and so". but again the exception does not prove the rule. i am not one of those that sees anything bad in this; it just is what it is. but let us at least agree who we are and who we arent attacting to this sport (generally speaking of course!) i would love to hear other views on this...it is an interesting subject!

tennis whiz said...

I can see that you guys on this blog know nothing about tennis or more specifically junior tennis..because they are two "exceptions" to rule doesnt mean its the gospel.. Nadal didnt play juniors so what, he travelled all around europe playing futures at a young age.All the other top pros competeted in Junior Grand Slams..Querrey Murray Baghdatis, FEDERER so why get rid of the Junior GS. Jack Sock doesnt travel around the world to play tennis good for him but guess what they will be a time if Jack Sock keeps going up the rankings that he will have to travel to keep up his ranking in this INTERNATIONAL sport..

Stop hating on the kids who travel to tournaments..tennis is an international sport..
why take out the Grand Slams I can see you guys never coached or played at a Grand slam..its a great experience for the top juniors in the world to seeand gives them another drive to actually play in the senior event..And guess what you cannot BUY your way into being top 50 in the world in Juniors you have to be able to play serious tennis so rethink and come again.

The Dude said...

My son was a gifted ambidetrous athlete who excelled in every sport he played whether it was soccer, lacrosse, baseball, basketball or tennis. His mother did not allow him to played football because of the risk of injury. He played every sport until he was 13 but chose tennis because his parents played and we belonged to a private country club. We also could afford the private lessons and the exhorbitant cost of tournaments and travel. Affluence was a necessarry requirement for him to pursue tennis as his sport. He liked excelling and playing nationals and didn't care for incompetent team coaches at the local level. He liked the indiviual competitive nature of tennis. If I had realized the ridiculous total cost of this sport before he played Little Mo Nationals, I would have never suppported his pursuit of tennis. I would have rather he excelled in a team sport like lacrosse that is supported by the school system. As a left handed shooter the lacrosse coaches were disappointed and dismayed that my son couldn't play lax because it was played during the tennis season. Although he won 3 state title and was recruited into the Ivys, he could have accomplished the same thing in lacrosse at a less onerous cost to his parents! the cost of this sport we love is a serious impediment to broadening this sport and attracting the best athletes. In the current USTA system, there is no two ways around the cost dilemma. In the old days, you would only have to played a couple of nationals in a head to head system to get your ranking if you beat highly ranked kids. It a points system, you had to play more and include the 4 National Opens which tripled the cost of the sport!

Jerry said...

to tennis whiz
Exactly right! There's no better experience for juniors than playing the Slam and seeing the pros play it; this can make the player to 'want more' and build the will and drive to be on the top - from experience perspective it's invaluable.
Local tournaments, small pro tournaments...not really too exciting if you play the final of supernats and there are 6 people watching, very easy to lose the desire.
BTW, that was my point about US juniors not going to Australia Open, playing futures or challengers in Florida instead is not quite the same.
As far as expenses, c'mon, people know what they are getting into, and that there aren't way to reduce costs, they are what they are.