By Jessica Pinchbeck
Over the years tennis has seen many teenage stars grace the courts and defeat their more senior competitors. One of the youngest teenage tennis prodigies was Jennifer Capriati who turned professional and had attained top 10 status by the age of 14 in 1990. However following her successful teenage years of tennis Capriati experienced many issues away from the court and ended up taking a year out of the game in 1995. Following this she resumed her career and won three grand slam titles before retiring in 2005. Martina Hingis also reached great heights at a young age becoming the youngest ever player to win a match in a grand slam at 14 and at 15 the youngest player to ever win at Wimbledon in 1997. Injury forced her to retire at the age of 22. For both of these cases one must surely question the physiological and psychological implications of achieving excellence at such as young age. Monica Seles and of course Serena and Venus Williams also spring to mind when thinking of teenage tennis prodigies, all of whom specialised in tennis from a very young age. However it would appear that teenage prodigies are few and far between in the modern game and in Wimbledon this year 18 year old Belinda Bencic and 17 year old Ana Konjuh are the youngest top ranked players to watch.
This decrease in the number of teenage prodigies hitting the top world rankings is also replicated, possibly even more so, in the men’s game. In the past we have seen Boris Becker win Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 1985 and Michael Chang taking the title at Roland Garros aged 17 in 1989, with other teenage stars such as Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal winning Grand Slams under the age of 20. However top ranked male tennis players under the age of 20 are becoming rarer in the modern era and this year Borna Coric aged 18, is currently ranked at 40 but failed to take his Wimbledon journey any further after losing to Andreas Seppi in the second round.
So why is this the case?
The age at which children should ‘specialise’ in one sport is always a discussion point and early specialisation has frequently been fuelled by Eriscsson’s 10,000 hour rule with early specialisation in one sport being reported as the only way to accrue this amount of practice and achieve expertise. With the majority of research on 10,000 hours conducted outside of the sports domain Ericsson’s theory has received some criticism within sports research with the majority of studies concluding that early specialisation is not an essential part of elite athlete development. Instead sports can be classified as either early specialisation or late specialisation sports which is dictated by the age at which peak performance is typically attained. Those sports classified as early specialisation sports include diving, figure skating, and gymnastics where early sport-specific training around the age of 5 to 7 is traditionally seen as the route to achieving excellence. Late specialisation sports consist of all other sports including racket sports, where there is no advantage at specialising in just one sport at an early age.
Back in 1988 Carlson investigated the development of 10 elite tennis players in Sweden and remarkably found that non-experts engaged in more tennis during early adolescence than the expert group. The results showed that the non-experts specialized in tennis by age 11, while the experts did not specialize until age 14, concluding that ‘early life specialisation did not benefit the development of elite tennis players’. So is the current lack of teenage prodigies due to the combination of evidence and common sense prevailing and young tennis stars being encouraged to sample a range of sports and specialise in tennis at a later age?
Interestingly this shift at the top does not appear to be preventing early specialisation from occurring. A study of 519 US Tennis Association junior tennis players found that 70% began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old. There are also reports in the media of young child prodigies such as Jonah Ziff who appeared in national papers aged 2, 8 year old Diego Quispe-Kim and 9 year old Gabby Price. Of the young Wimbledon stars this year Bencic remembers playing tennis at the age of two with her her father (and coach) and at just 4 years old began training at the Melanie Molitor tennis school. Ana Konjuh started playing tennis at 5 years old and left home at the age of 10 to develop her tennis career. Borna Coric also started playing tennis at age 5. So in Wimbledon this year we have a few examples of early specialisers that have managed to break through and it will be interesting to see the path that their careers take as a result of such early specialisation. However the question remains as to what is happening to the rest of our young tennis stars?
Assessing the evidence there would appear to be two possible answers to this question. The first explanation attributes the lack of youngsters at the top of the sport to the increased speed and strength of the modern game whereby players, particularly in the men’s game, need to be physically mature to be able to cope with the demands of the game. In addition careers are now lengthier with improved training methods and advancing sports science knowledge keeping players injury free and physically and mentally match-fit for longer. The second conceivable answer is that intense specialisation at an early age is having a detrimental effect on the performance of young tennis players and may even be causing young tennis stars to burnout and dropout before they reach their peak performance age. Studies show that youth sport is becoming increasingly competitive which in turn has led to children taking part in extensive training, specialising in one sport at a young age, and playing large numbers of competitions at young ages. The result of this is an increasing occurrence of overuse injuries and burnout. John O’Sullivan author of ‘Changing the Game’ reveals in the US that a shocking 70% of children drop out of sport by the age of 13!
So whether it is due to the increasing demands of the current game creating a longer road to the top or the fact that tennis continues to encourage early specialisation at the risk of future champions losing motivation and burning out or withdrawing from the sport, either way it is highly unlikely that the pattern of teenage champions as young as Hingis, Becker and Capriati will repeat itself any time soon.