The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) came up with an indicative statistic at the end of last year. The top-10 average age in 2008 was 23.8 years, the youngest since 1993 (23.1) and was steadily declining in the past 10 years.
Teenage prodigies in the game are abundant but according to experts, too much too soon will do more harm than good.
One of the most respected coaches in the world, Nick Bollettieri puts it in perspective, “It was recently stated that the negative impact of parents and coaches forces 80 per cent of kids out of sports by the time they are 13 years old.” Tennis’ ruling body, International Tennis Federation, has also pruned the age groups to prevent kids from rushing into the game.
“We introduced the early age rule (for under-18) in 2003, to allow the players who had completed their 13th birthday because we didn’t want kids to start too early,” says Luca Santilli of the ITF.
The ITF also reduced participation in the under-12 tournaments by putting the minimum age at 10.
The chase for rankings also begins early on. The USTA has state ranking right from the under-eight age group while the British LTA ranks its players from under-12. Most of the Indian state associations start at under-10. Whereas Europe, the superpower of tennis now, begins ranking only at U-14.
Though All India Tennis Association does organize tournaments for 12 and below, state associations like the Maharashtra Lawn Tennis Association hold about 20 U-10 tournaments in a year. And the number is on the rise. Rick Leach, former doubles no.1 turned coach, says, “I have no problems with kids competing at a very young age. Competition is good, to find out your faults. The danger is the parents or coach putting too much emphasis on winning.”
Apart from the emotional fallout, starting too early can have physical repercussions too. “Physical growth can get stunted if kids are pushed too much,” says Indian coach Sunil Yajaman. Leach adds, “Over playing is always a danger. I have seen a lot of injuries occurring in young kids, the joints are not able to stand so much tennis at an early age.” Academies, pressed for results are also likely to put youngsters under unreasonable pressure. “Coaches make that mistake because at the end of the day it’s business for them,” says Yajaman.
But Bollettieri disagrees. “Pressure is everywhere. Our job is to prepare them to accept it and teach them how to deal with it.”