France could be dominating the top ten in tennis but for injuries. Why does the U.S. insist on educating the world’s athletes?

French Dominance Interrupted

Richard Gasquet lost to Christophe Rochus in Barcelona this week and though Rochus is making a good comeback after a forced return to challenger events – he made it to the third round before meeting up with Rafa the Terminator this week, can you imagine what the top ten would look like if Gasquet and his fellow Frenchies Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils weren’t perpetually injured?

Sony Ericsson Open Day 5

As it is, France has the number 9, 10, and 11 ranking spots (Gilles Simon, Monfils, Tsonga) and they could have another top spot if Gasquet had his head and shoulders screwed on correctly.

Gasquet missed Miami (except for carousing with the Miami Dolphins’ cheerleaders as you can see above) and Monte Carlo with an injured right shoulder and he missed the French Open last year with a knee injury. But, as I not so subtlety suggested, that was partially a head injury. He flamed out in the clay court season with an existential crisis. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life or what he was doing on the court.

To me it looks like Gasquet made a mental adjustment designed to find his comfort level. Going into the clay court season last year he was in the top ten. Since that time he went down to the mid- twenties and is just now moving back towards the teens. I think he feels more comfortable in the 10-20 ranking than he does in the top ten. I think he’d rather leave that pressure to his fellow Frenchies.

Jo-Willie is probably the most ambitious of the lot but it’s his body that betrays him, not his head. He’s remarkably consistent at reaching quarterfinals and semifinals when he’s healthy, but he misses significant portions of each year with an injury. Last year he missed the clay court and grass court season. This year he hadn’t missed anything till he injured his right knee and skipped Barcelona.

For Monfils, it’s his left knee and it could keep him out of the French Open where he reached the semifinals last year. Monfils suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease when he was younger and that sometimes causes knee inflammation and, for sure, his gymnastic style of play and those wonky splits on those spindly legs cannot help the situation. And while I’m not exactly sure we could say he has head problems, we could use the word immaturity.

Monfils seems to be recovering from immaturity and appears to have settled into long-term tennis domesticity with Lleyton Hewitt’s former coach, Roger Rasheed. Hopefully La Monf will keep maturing but I wonder if it galls the French in any way that it’s their most plodding, least charismatic, least artistic player – Gilles Simon – who’s now their number one.

College and Sports in the U.S.

Having said all that about the French players, players often break down early these days because they start young and wear their bodies out by playing millions of hours a day. I thought about this while reading about Jeremy Tyler. Tyler is a 17 year old U.S. basketball player who’ll skip his last year of high school to play basketball in Europe.

Tyler has dropped out of high school and is practicing eight or nine hours a day while he waits to join a European team. He can’t play in the NBA until 2011 at the earliest. While it’s that eight or nine hours that got my attention – no wonder players break down in their early to mid-twenties if their running and jumping for eight or nine hours a day – education is an issue that comes up in tennis from time to time.

Does a young man or woman suffer by leaving school and joining the tennis pro tour at a young age? Pete Sampras was never a scintillating conversationist and I do remember a journalist somewhat unfairly impugning his intelligence because he didn’t know what the word “jocular” meant, but many people would like to be leading Sampras’ life right about now.

But, you say, what about players who turn pro and don’t make it? They’re left with no money and no education. Not exactly. First of all, most players get high school equivalency degrees and not only that, if they bomb out on the pro tour, they can often go to college free in the U.S. no matter what country they come from.

Foreign-born players have won the U.S. college singles title for the past five years. After some college tennis coaches complained about older foreign players getting scholarships because they were beating up on the younger, amateur U.S. players, U.S. colleges put an upper age limit on scholarship players and only allowed pro players who’s winnings never exceeded their expenses.

However, my point here is not to complain about foreign players, it’s to complain about the U.S. education system. Europe does it right. If you want to become a professional basketball player or tennis player, you join the lower level pro tours.

Jeremy Tyler can’t play in the NBA because it doesn’t allow him to enter the NBA draft or play in its minor leagues until he’s 19 years old and one year removed from high school. By pushing players to U.S. colleges, the NBA is essentially making college basketball its minor league. No other college system in the world that I know of gives free scholarships to athletes including the young tennis players of the world.

I hope many more young basketball players go to Europe because it will force the NBA to change its rule and allow younger players to turn pro. I’m not advocating abolishing athletic scholarships. I’m suggesting that athletics return to its role as an enhancement to college life, not its focus as it in the U.S.

Give amateur athletes – including tennis players – partial scholarships and let them lead a normal college life. And let professional sports franchises take the responsibility of training the serious professional athlete.

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