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.