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Sanneriet
Oct 3rd, 2003, 09:19 PM
Home > Sport > Tennis > Article
Courting, or caught in, the tennis net?
By Linda Pearce
October 4, 2003


Jade Hopper has the look, the attitude and the training to reach the top.


Jade Hopper is the tiniest girl on the doubles court, a 145-centimetre, 35-kilogram package of Gold Coast suntan, startling white-blonde hair, and undisguised ambition.

Hopper wears loud red and white shoes, supplied by her new Italian apparel sponsor. She wields an oversized racquet befitting a second endorsement deal worth, potentially, six figures. And she is 12.

There is a frequent-flyer tag on her sports bag and an American twang to her young voice. The pre-pubescent Hopper wants desperately to grow to the size of her rivals, but must wait a little longer.

That does not displease her father and coach, Gavin, who espouses the benefits of delayed puberty on skill development, confiding that the latest tests show zero levels of oestrogren and progesterone in a body that is "under science evaluation all the time".

Indeed, there is little about his daughter that Hopper - who has worked with the likes of Mark Philippoussis, Tommy Haas and Monica Seles - cannot, does not, measure.


A qualified exercise physiologist, he predicts Jade will reach a height of 168 centimetres, hopefully a little more, and has used amino acids and other supplements to maximise whatever size nature had in mind.

Diet and recovery are monitored as carefully as training, which began when Jade was three and now involves six hours daily at the academy her father runs with former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash.

Jade won her first tournament at the age of eight - the first of about 30 titles. Her father estimates her career win-loss record at 200-25, and the top seed will today play her third round match of the national 12-and-under hardcourt at Melbourne Park.

At home in Queensland's Paradise Waters, her mother, Karen, fills a bulging scrapbook with the deeds of her eldest daughter - eight-year-old Skye is taller for her age, trains for five hours most days and is considered similarly talented - while Jade logs the scores of each match. Well, almost. "I just haven't filled it in lately," she said this week, giggling. "I play too many tournaments."

None of this will surprise viewers of the ABC's Australian Story, which in 2001 explored the Hoppers' un-Australian recipe for the making of a tennis champion with the image to match. Letters pages condemned as "horrifying" and "disturbing" the combination of a demanding training regime and emphasis on marketability and media attractiveness. Surely, being 10 should be about hipsters and Britney Spears CDs? Surely, childhood as we knew it is not such an outdated concept?

Two years on, after a period in which Gavin Hopper deflected most interview requests while the fuss died down, the training is no less intense, but the attention has levelled off. Or it had, before last month's announcement that Fila had signed its youngest Australian client, and one of its youngest worldwide, to a lucrative clothing sponsorship.

Jade, though, is used to the publicity, and seems unperturbed that not all of it has been positive. "I got heaps of people noticing me then and they still do," she explained. "I went to the Australian rules football to see the (Brisbane) Lions play and outside we were just waiting for Dad to pull up the car and people go, 'Oh, are you Jade Hopper? I saw you on Australian Story. Well done'. Cool, OK."

Gavin said the focus became fixated on the perception his child was being "dragged through the coals at training", rather than appreciating his daughter's qualities and the contribution of hard work to her development. "It doesn't worry me what people say about what I do; I thought it was more unfair on her," he said.

"But now she's 12, I think it's getting over that stage. Now it's a little bit of a change in attitude; everyone's saying, 'OK, now you've got to do it if you want to be the best'. But you get to that stage in the first place because you're actually doing the hours of training.

"There's no way I would flog young kids into the ground; I have a very structured developmental order that I believe in, and I'll stick to that."

It is part-plan, part-luck that Jade is sound technically and strong mentally - now for the growth spurt she awaits so impatiently, which will also trigger the scaling back of training while nature does its work.

"It's a little bit of a handicap," said Jade of her size. "But I guess if I win when I'm small, I can beat them easier when all that power and strength comes."

A typical day starts with an 8am wake-up call, and, by 8.30, Jade is hitting with her father for about 30 minutes before training at the Cash-Hopper Academy officially begins. At 11.30 comes 30 minutes of fitness work, then lunch and lessons at the on-site school run by her mother, a qualified teacher. Jade studies year 7 English, year 9 maths and Japanese, before returning to the court from 4-6.30pm.

The routine has been approved by the Queensland Education Department, which satisfies Tennis Australia's tennis director Mike Dawes. "The difficult part is that the program that Jade is undertaking is not unusual by overseas standards," he said.

"It also depends on the child being happy, and what the child wants, and if that all works well and she's getting the education, then we're very comfortable."

Jade is nothing if not well taught, to the point where she seems at times to be disconcertingly adult. She talks of having "other interests" outside tennis, such as gymnastics and guitar and the music of '80s band Bananarama, and nominates Kim Clijsters as her favourite player, "cos she wears Fila".

Her fallback plan is to go to university, perhaps to study marketing; an unusual degree for a 12-year-old to choose, but then Hopper knows hers is an unconventional life.

Not every child grew up jetsetting on the tennis circuit with Monica, Anna and the Scud, or can boast three annual month-long trips to the US for competition. And few pre-teens have juicy endorsement contracts, even if they are riches Jade does not see, but which her father says he is saving on her behalf, as a reward for all she has put in.

"I know you people would say, 'Gee, she's only 12, why the heck is she getting paid to do things?', but I think she's very marketable," Hopper said.

"I'm not comparing her with Kournikova, but it is very noticeable that sponsors are very keen to get on board with her, not just because she's winning but because of her attitude and the way she photographs and the way she holds herself on the court - just her whole demeanour. You always have to have a face of the future. It's going to put a lot of pressure on her, but what fun for a 12-year-old kid."

Last year's Uncle Toby's nationals were not such a laugh. Jade, the 12-and-under favourite, won the doubles with Victorian Kristina Pejkovic, but bombed out in the singles quarter-finals. This year, she wants to win. Badly.

"(It's) really, really important because if I lose again, people might say a few things," she starts, before correcting herself and continuing on more cheerfully: "It's just I really want to win, just so I have a national title in my bag."

So do most of her junior rivals, but few make such fascinating case studies in the "nurture v nature" debate.

Is Jade Hopper Australia's best 12-year-old player because she has special talent or simply because she has been programmed for this since she was a toddler? The latter, says Jade, and her father agrees that, along with the basics of athleticism, and innate mental strength, early exposure is essential.

"If her progress continues like it has over the last few years, she's got a legitimate chance. If it doesn't . . . she won't make it," he says. "I know how tough it is out there and I'm very realistic about it. But I think she's got the head for it. I think she's got a chance and that's probably better than most kids in Australia have got at the present stage."

The risk of burnout, either physical or mental, is ever-present, but Jade dismisses her sore spots and "niggles" as an inevitable consequence of so many hours on the court.

She cannot predict what will happen; whether she, like Martina Hingis, will be retired in her early 20s, worn down in body and mind. Indeed, no one can predict with any certainty whether she will be good enough to have a tennis career from which to retire at all.

But she has been given every chance, and continues to stand out for more than just her results. She is polished, and bubbly, and has the on-court mannerisms of one much older. She slaps her thigh twice to urge on her partner, Pejkovic. She raises her finger almost nonchalantly to signal when a ball has flown long or wide.

And yet, she is still a child, and a tiny one. During matches, Jade Hopper regularly looks over to her father for reinforcement. Gavin Hopper praises her later, advises, takes charge of the debriefing. Daddy knows best, apparently - even if, in this case, time will be the best judge of whether he truly does



Well, if she succeeds and is relatively normal he is a genius. If she gets into trouble then he is a terrible parent.

I feel a bit sorry for her thou.

arcus
Oct 3rd, 2003, 11:46 PM
I have a feeling that there is something sinister about this.
No pre-pubescent 12 year old should have a father thinking in terms of "the way she photographs" and "how marketable she is"
A bit sick, IMO.

He is not saving her from penuary. They are comfortably off. Its not necessary to sacrifice her childhood for his compulsion to incubate a champion.

I fear this is more to do with him than her. And where have we seen that before. Tennis parents are a scourge sometimes.

Kids can be conditioned to fit a variety of unnatural stereotypes, if their parents are so inclined. Loook at the beauty pageant circuit. They might appear to thrive as kids, be poised and adroit but, as soon as they spend their time 'ape'ing the sophistication of their elders, rest assured they will pay the price later on of missing a care-free childhood.

tennischick
Oct 4th, 2003, 12:15 AM
i can't wait to see the outcome of this experiment. i wonder where Gavin got the idea to program his daughter into a tennis genius? what i find scary is all the measuring and amino acid taking. Lud! why not let nature take its course? and why am i not surprised that Pat Cash is in on this? :o

thanks for posting Soph...:)

Kart
Oct 4th, 2003, 12:23 AM
That does not displease her father and coach, Gavin, who espouses the benefits of delayed puberty on skill development, confiding that the latest tests show zero levels of oestrogren and progesterone in a body that is "under science evaluation all the time".


Perhaps Gavin should direct some of that science evaluation towards scanning his head to make sure it's not empty.

What kind of parent checks their daughter's oestrogen levels ?

Very disturbing.

Albireo
Oct 4th, 2003, 12:41 AM
Hell, Gavin's even had her trained firsthand in press conferences since she was about four.

I knew the guy was off, but his nonchalance at all of this is a little scary.