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Snakes and ladders: Junior tennis

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Originally published on: 14/10/11 10:45

On the afternoon of Friday July 1 two young men from Britain were dominating the action on two  of Wimbledon’s biggest show courts. Andy Murray briefly led against then-world No.1 Rafael Nadal on Centre, while earlier, over on No.3 Court, 17-year-old Liam Broady had taken care of business in the semi-finals of the junior event against Aussie Jason Kubler.

Once the teen from Stockport had wrapped up a straight-sets victory, he could have been forgiven for looking up at the screens inside the gentlemen’s locker rooms showing the final stages of Murray’s four-set defeat to Nadal and wondering if, one day, it would be him flying the British flag in the last four of the men’s singles.

Despite coming up short in the final against Aussie Luke Saville 24 hours later, Broady has proved himself as one of a handful of teenagers from around the world with the potential to make it in the professional game. Broady and Saville sit alongside the likes of 2011 Australian Open boys’ singles winner Jiri Vesely from the Czech Republic and recent junior French Open champion, American Bjorn Frantangelo, as ones to watch who are currently playing junior tennis. As for their female peers, this year’s Junior Wimbledon champion, Australian Ashleigh Barty, French Open girls’ champion, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, and Australian Open winner, Belgium’s An-Sophie Mestach, are also on the radar.

All have risen to the top after years of intense training that has enabled them to do well at the biggest tournaments on the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) calendar of junior events. “The ITF junior circuit was created in December 1976 with the aim of becoming a platform for the best juniors from every nation and to prepare them for professional tennis,” explains Luca Santilli, the Head of Juniors and Seniors Tennis at the ITF. “We want it to be the main pathway to pro tennis.”

The ITF’s aim is for its junior structure to provide the first level on the road to professional success. The second and third stages of that journey feature events on the ITF Pro Circuit (tournaments that offer total prizemoney of $10,000 to $100,000) – and the men’s ATP Challenger Tour. The final stage is the promised land – full WTA and ATP World Tour events.

While Broady and his peers appear to be heading for superstardom and multi-million dollar endorsements, those in the know will tell you there is a big difference between winning titles on the junior circuit and enjoying the same level of success as a pro, however. Factors such as the required mental toughness to survive the dog-eat-dog lower levels of the Futures and Challenger tours, unshakable self-belief, a playing style that continues to develop post-juniors, a body strong enough to cope with training and tournament tennis week in week out, an understanding that the transition might take longer than expected, as well as the occasional slice of luck, are all key factors in climbing the professional ladder.

Even the ITF is keen to make it clear to young players and parents that success is by no means guaranteed, which is reinforced by its junior ranking points system. “You only gain a point by winning a match in the main draw in a round where points are available,” Santilli explains. “It’s a strong message from the ITF that not all junior players can make it. We want players to have a great experience but also to be realistic.

“Juniors need three to five years to make the transition which can be demanding on the body and on finances,” he adds. “Once you make it inside the top 100 or 150 you have another ten years when you have to push on even more. The transition into the professional game takes one or two years longer for boys than it does for girls.”

One woman who has experienced the challenges of that transition is British player Hannah Collin. The 29-year-old, who now coaches full-time in Wimbledon, looked set for a sensational professional career after rising to the top of the European and world game as a junior. Collin, from Surrey, was the under 14 European No.2 while playing alongside the likes of Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva. She went on to reach the semi-finals of the girls’ singles at the Australian Open and peaked at No.14 in the ITF junior world rankings.

Although she enjoyed plenty of success in women’s tennis too – she represented Great Britain in Fed Cup, won the singles and doubles at the women’s British national championships aged 17 and reached No.217 in the WTA world rankings – she decided to quit tennis aged just 23.

“I had a few setbacks with injuries,” she says when explaining her early retirement. “I started playing very young – when I was seven – and from about the age of ten I was travelling a lot representing Great Britain. You have to take a lot of knocks and go through a lot of ups and downs.

“I had the most amazing time between the ages of 12 and 19 because I was very successful. But it’s a tough transition. Suddenly you’re playing to earn a living, it’s your profession. And I wasn’t doing as well as I’d hoped or as other people had hoped. I was finding it all quite hard and I had quite long periods when I wasn’t enjoying my tennis or the lifestyle.

“Retiring was a big decision to make but it was 100 per cent right for me. I didn’t just want to keep playing for the sake of it and knew there would be a happy life after tennis for me. I think I could’ve improved my ranking but my happiness was more important.”

Talking to Santilli, it’s clear the ITF feels it has a responsibility towards youngsters’ development as human beings, as well as simply tennis players. With this in mind, in 2008 it launched the ITF Junior Tennis School with the aim of “helping the on and off-court development of junior players” by contributing to their education.

To graduate, kids must complete 17 online modules, available in six languages, on topics such as player protection, rest and recovery, antidoping and the role of an agent. In addition, the ITF runs regular player forums that feature talks from doctors, journalists and former players, and has introduced rules banning players and coaches sharing rooms during trips to protect youngsters’ welfare.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. As well as the potential to earn way beyond most people’s wildest dreams, providing the sport’s protégés are surrounded by caring support groups and can maintain a healthy tennis-life balance, they can enjoy an incredible lifestyle. Just ask current junior world No.6, Eugenie Bouchard from Canada. “I’ve been to so many places that my parents haven’t even been to!” she says. “Australia, everywhere! It’s really cool to go to all these different countries.”

And if things don’t go exactly to plan, Britain’s Collin is proof that the sport still has a great deal to offer. “I still love coaching and playing the game now,” she insists. “I have no regrets and I’m extremely lucky to have had the experiences and opportunities that I did. Tennis has been, and will always be, a big part of my life.”

Snakes and ladders was written by tennishead editor Lee Goodall and featured in the September 2011 issue of the magazine. For more information about how to subscribe, click here.

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