Monthly Archives: May 2009

You Can’t Go Home Again: Young Tennis Prodigies

Should you send young children off to tennis academies or not?

I wanted to cover the Dinara Safina vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova final in Rome as Safina put Kuznetsova away 6-3, 6-2, to further cement her hold on the number one ranking (feel free to weigh in on the match by leaving a comment), but I got waylaid by a documentary that preceded the match on Tennis Channel.

The filmmaker is Karim Koulakssis and the documentary is titled Tie Break. If you didn’t already get the pun by looking at the title of this post, tie break here refers to the ties that bind – family ties that are broken or frayed when a child moves to a tennis academy at a young age to train for a professional tennis career.

The framework of the documentary – which covers young players at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris – is Marcos Baghdatis’ fabulous trip through the 2006 Australian Open all the way to the final. Baghdatis left his family in Cyprus to train at the academy when he was 13 years old. His Australian Open run not only provides the framework for the documentary but also asks the central question: Was the Australian Open final emotionally satisfying enough to make up for losing those childhood years with his family?

Sometimes leaving a parent behind might not be such a bad idea. There’s one freaky place in the documentary where you do wonder about pushy sports parents. A young girl broke her ankle while she was playing around and her father – who is also her coach – castigates himself for letting her out of his sight long enough to do something as silly as fool around. He promises not to let her out of his sight again. Now that is scary. That is what people mean when they complain about parents who don’t let their children have a childhood.

A family from the U.S. sells their house and most of their belongings then packs up their three kids and moves to the academy after Baghdatis spots their 4 year old hitting balls at Indian Wells. You may have seen videos of Jan Silva on the internet. His father is pretty sure that Jan can win multiple slams and while this sounds like yet another pushy sports father, let’s look into this a bit deeper.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of research that has corrected our view of talent. I grew up with the idea that Mozart was a child genius who fell out of the womb writing operas. Not so. I first remember correcting this opinion when I read Anders Ericsson‘s work in the 1990’s. In short, precocious musicians, for instance, may be very talented but what sets them apart is the tremendous amount of dedicated practice they put in.

Then Tiger Woods came along and I realized how important a devoted family is to excellence. I was particularly interested in this subject because my father was a musical child genius – his first piece was performed by an orchestra when he was 11 years old – while I was raised in an adoptive family screeching out short violin pieces in the basement. My grandmother was a music teacher while my adoptive parents were blue collar workers who listened to Lawrence Welk now and then.

I would never have been a child musical genius in any case; the point is that talent is a less important part of the equation than we think and dedicated practice much more. And just as Tiger loved going out to the golf course, Jan Silva appears to love playing tennis.

So what are the pitfalls of sending children to academies to train? Was Baghdatis’ Australian Open final enough to make up for missing those years with his family? For his father Christos Baghdatis it was. This is what he says in the documentary:

I have been justified by this result. It gave me the justification for my decisions I took in the past for him to follow. It was a dream of mine but it was the future of him.


To leave home, to leave Cyprus and to go to France, it was a one way road. Coming back means it’s a failure.

Baghdatis the player is not so sure. As he explains that he has adjusted to the time lost with his parents, the emotion showing on his face betrays him. When the interviewer asks him how he feels, he admits that he would have liked to stay with his parents.

Baghdatis is having a tough time on the tour. He’s been injured a lot and his motivation appears to ebb and wane depending on the event. He’s an emotional guy. Maybe it would be exactly the same story if he’d grown up in Paris and could have attended the academy without ever leaving his family. But judging by his father’s comments, he may not have had much choice.

Not every family can afford to pack up their life and move off to a tennis academy with their child. There are lots of promising tennis players in out of the way places who will have to spend significant parts of their childhood in foreign places. But it’s not clear to me that Marcos Baghdatis would not have been just as happy today without that Australian Open final.

Serena and Safina: The Heavyweight Bout

Serena Williams called out Dinara Safina this week and that sent us looking for a few theories to explain what makes Serena a champion.

People were entranced by the Manny PacquiaoRicky Hatton heavyweight prizefight in Las Vegas last weekend, but tennis had its own version of a heavyweight bout when recent number one player Serena Williams called out current number one player Dinara Safina at the WTA event in Rome this week.

WTA Sony Ericsson Tour - Rome: Day Two

This is not new behavior from Serena because she’s well known for being dismissive of her competition, but this was an aggressive move with the clear message: if you haven’t won a slam, you’re not qualified to be number one.

What Serena said was this: “We all know who the real number one is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” Ouch! Safina had no trouble getting the message because this was her response: “She can say this because she won like many more Grand Slams than me.”

Yes, Serena does have slams, 10 of them, and I doubt it bothered Serena one bit that she ended up in the same position as Ricky Hatton – on her butt in the first round. She was taken out in Rome with a left from Swiss player Patty Schnyder.

That’s very disappointing because I’d loved to have seen Serena and Safina go at it, but it did get me to thinking: What makes Serena the champion she is? I don’t exactly know but I do have two theories on the matter courtesy of this week’s New Yorker magazine.

The first one has to do with mirror neurons and it comes courtesy of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a neurologist who is profiled by John Colapinto in the magazine. It turns out that if you open and close your hand, certain neurons in your brain will fire. That’s not surprising but this is: if you happen to be sitting next to a person and you see them open and closes their hand, those same neurons will fire in your brain even though it’s the other person doing the action.

You can see whey they might be called mirror neurons and Ramachandran theorizes that autistic people might be lacking in mirror neurons because they have trouble imitating others and empathizing. I’m not suggesting that Serena is autistic, far from it, she’s a very highly functioning and social person. But I was wondering if someone like Serena, who doesn’t seems as concerned about what her fellow competitors think of her as much as most of us are, might have fewer of those somewhat empathetic neurons.

The next theory comes to us from Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. In another article in the magazine titled How David Beats Goliath, Gladwell shows what happens to people who win ugly.

Gladwell describes a girl’s basketball team coached by someone who didn’t know much about basketball with players who didn’t have much in the way of basketball skills. The coach decided that the best way for the girls to win was to use a full court press for the entire game. In other words, harass and frustrate their opponents by closely guarding them every inch of the court instead of waiting until they’d thrown the ball in and advanced to the offensive basket.

The team won its games by large scores and reached the national playoffs but they pissed off a lot of opposing teams because they beat them badly. And since teams didn’t like getting beaten badly, they complained that this wasn’t how the game should be played, especially because, they said, girls should be learning basketball skills instead of running around like their hair is on fire.

When you defeat a traditional approach to the game with an unexpected strategy, you can expect backlash. The little team that could played the third round of the playoffs against a team that was playing on its home court and had supplied the referees for the game. These referees decided to negate the full court press by calling a ridiculously high number of touch fouls, thus forcing the team to abandon the full court press.

The point here is that outsiders sometimes win by taking a different, controversial approach and Serena has always been an outsider. Her father Richard Williams trained Serena and her sister Venus outside of the traditional junior tennis channels and he kept them out of junior tournaments. The sisters are also outsiders because they’re black and there were few black players on tour when they started. They were racially harassed in Indian Wells in 2001 after Venus pulled out of a Venus vs. Serena semifinal at the last minute.

That’s what you call backlash and though it was racially motivated, it was also a response to the Williams’ way of doing as they pleased regardless of what anyone else thinks. Venus isn’t far behind Serena with seven slams, but Serena has that extra bit of toughness and it goes back to something these two theories share: being a social outsider.

Venus doesn’t call out her opponents; she’s more sympathetic to her opponents’ feelings. Serena doesn’t care.

It’s hard to know whether Serena can return to number one and stay there because she has trouble playing week in and week out due to recurring injury problems. The WTA has has added more required events and heavy penalties for missing them. That will also make it harder on Serena.

Safina is starting to take on the leadership that comes with the number one ranking. She lambasted the Rome tournament organizers for threatening players’ careers by making them run around on wet clay (you can see why in the image above), and I expect she’ll get her slam. But right now, I have to say that I don’t disagree with Serena.

Keystone Kops in Roger’s Brain

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic met in the semifinals in Rome and I imagined what might have been going through Roger’s head.

If we were to treat today’s Rome semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer as a dramatic plot – and why not considering that each match and tournament, and any other form of sports competition for that matter, follows a complete dramatic arc in the short time it takes to go from start to end – the fourth game in the second set would be the turnaround, the point at which everything changes.

ATP Masters Series - Rome: Day Six

Roger had won the first set and he was now up a break at 3-1 in the second and he had a break point. We’re used to seeing Roger’s game improve with each round and this would have been the perfect time to lift his game just one more notch and put the second set away with a double break. He’d already hit a gorgeous backhand winner but when the break point came around, he chose that critical point to hit one of those limp backhands we complain about.

We always marveled at Roger’s slice backhand when he was using it to neutralize cannons from Andy Roddick and all the other big servers out there, but now we pull our hair out in exasperation as he keeps losing to Rafa the Exterminator without making adjustments. Why doesn’t he attack the serve from the backhand side?

Nole’s serve wasn’t that big but Roger sliced a return short and Nole promptly put it away. After Roger followed that up with two errors into the net, Nole had saved his serve. The errors kept coming from Roger with three in the next game and that gave Nole a break and put him back on serve. And it wasn’t as if Nole was pressing Roger, he was keeping the ball in play and letting Roger take himself out of the match.

This is a time when I’d like to have seen Roger crush a racket or do something more demonstrative than drop his head. As it was, Nole was the one who lifted his game and you could see it when he had a break point to go up 5-3. The two of them embarked on a 22 stroke rally that started with Roger running Nole all over the place, switched to Nole running Roger around, almost ended when Roger saved a ball that landed dead on the baseline and popped up at an awkward angle, and definitively ended with Roger mis-hitting yet another backhand.

I can only imagine what must be cross-eyed murky little characters with muddy boots running though Roger’s brain like Keystone Kops tripping all over each other and generally making a mess of things. I can also imagine Roger metaphorically swiping at them with his tennis racket trying to quiet the interior noise only to get distracted enough to mishit a backhand and find himself down 5-3 in a set which started with him up a break.

Roger will come away from this match telling himself that a semifinal loss in Rome is a great improvement over a third round loss in Monte Carlo and that he’s happy with his progress as he moves towards his goal of winning at Roland Garros, but this is the same way he lost to Nole in Miami and that will only feed those muddy little monsters. Roger managed to break Nole to get up 3-1 yet again in the third se, but Roger then lost his serve at love, throwing another mishit in there, and only won one more game the rest of the way.

I’d like to see Roger turn down the volume on the arrogance just the slightest bit and, assuming he has no physical problems that we’re not aware of, privately call up a mental coach or an actual tennis coach and pick their brain about the subject of focus. What once came naturally is now a struggle and it’s not as much about lifting his game as it is playing consistently. That skill has to be regained the way he learned it the first time: step by step.

For sure he’s not starting at the beginning and he could continue to play his way in semifinals and be happy, but if he wants that extra one or two slams, a remedial step might be necessary.