Weight of Expectations...
1/31/07 6:36 PM
That's where you can best measure how a junior is going to develop: whether he or she is bringing what has been learned in practice into matches and trying to execute it. Nothing spectacular happens overnight, or in a week, a month or sometimes in a year. Long-term success is built on putting the key building blocks of a player's game properly together. If a player is constantly admonished for failing to win then they may end up resenting what they have been taught and, consequently, fail.
My parents never put pressure on me to win titles, even when I was considered the hottest thing in US tennis.
At the age of 13, I was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was touted as the next big thing. At the time, I didn't even realize how significant that was and when I was asked to do the photo shoot for the cover, I went straight over from practice. I didn't stop to put on make-up, and I couldn't care less about how my hair looked or what was written about me.
All-time great Jack Kramer once told my mother to make sure to tell me not to read was written or said about me, positive or negative. If you read an article and the writer is fawning over you, you can develop a big head. If it's negative, it can stay with you for a long time. Even after I beat Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert to become the youngest player to win the US Open title at 16 years and nine months in 1979, I didn't read my press. I knew I was a great player and could prove that on court, but I didn't need to hear that I was the best thing to happen to tennis since sliced bread.
My parents treated my brothers and sister and I the same: all of our victories were treated with applause and a slap on the back, whether it was my brother John winning a collegiate match for UCLA, or me winning the US Open.
Even though I was winning nearly every match in sight, my parents kept it normal. They kept me in school and expected me to behave like every other responsible and well brought up teenager. I wanted to stay in school so that I could at least have my balance. Because I was still in school, I didn't compete in the Australian or French Opens until after I graduated high school. This rarely happens today, as most good juniors are home-schooled and almost have to be to keep up with their peers. It's a different era now.
A player's job is to focus on what's happening inside the arena of battle. In an individual sport, the more that outside forces distract you, the less likely you are to succeed.
That's why it's so critical that parents, coaches and agents create a positive environment. The last thing that a 14-year-old needs is to have his agent or parents going to the press saying that their player is the next Rod Laver or Margaret Court. When that happens, that becomes the expectation, and like it out not, the junior has to play up to it.
Those kind of weighty expectations are too much for most players. There are exceptions to the rule, like Lleyton Hewitt and Martina Hingis, both teenage prodigies who had few problems responding to a pressure cooker.
Both are children of high-level athletes, though, and their parents knew the ropes of the professional sporting arena a lot better than many others.
But not every player has had a positive experience being pushed, and some even resented their parents for it.
Andre Agassi has said that it took a long time for him to repair his relationships with his father, Mike, who drove his kids to become great players. Andre eventually succeeded, but older brother Phillip and older sister Rita didn't.
Much the same happened with Mary Pierce, who had to separate herself from her father and coach, Jim, before she became a champion and it took her years before they were able to repair their relationship.
Why parents would want to risk their long-term personal relationship with their child just to get a couple of years of success is beyond me, especially when there are so many positive examples of players who have prospered under more easy-going parents that stayed out of the spotlight, like Lindsay Davenport or Jim Courier.
Another key with junior players is to make sure that they are taking the proper steps up the tournament ladder. Juniors need to learn to win at every level: from the local 12 and under competitions, to the national junior events, to the international junior events, to the Futures, the Challengers and then to the pros.
Pushing a player straight out of juniors into the rough and tumble world of pro tennis doesn't always work. Kids mature emotionally, physically and often technically at different ages.
My coach, Robert Lansdorp, pushed me to excel on court and he led by example, working as hard as I did in our practice sessions. He pushed me to my limits and he knew he could get more out of me.
The role of the player's support group should be to alleviate pressure, not put more on. The future success of players like Tomic is tied to how well he learns to focus his attention on court, and how constructive his coach, parents and agent are.