Thank you to @gingertwit for this suggestion. It is a really important one as according to most critics this is where we go wrong in British Tennis. Here are my thoughts…
If you take a cross section of Britain’s best 12 year olds and compare them with any other tennis playing country we are right at the top end of the ladder year after year. Ok so we aren’t the absolute best but we have always been very good at producing world class kids. So why, if you then repeat this process with the same kids at 16, are we so far off the pace year on year? One would assume that something is going wrong between the age of 12 and 16, otherwise referred to as ‘transitioning from junior tennis to professional tennis’, but I disagree. Not only do I not agree, I don’t believe that any aspiring player should have to transition at all.
Ever since I have been involved in tennis there have been junior girls and junior boys in the top 100, among twenty somethings, thirty somethings, and the occasional forty something! So then why is junior tennis seen as different to professional tennis? Am I missing something? Is it a different sport? When did they transition?
The answer is, they didn’t. They didn’t need to. Sharapova has always played the same way, worked the same way, and competed the same way. Somehow I can’t believe that at 16 she decided she wanted to win Wimbledon the following year, called a meeting with her team and they agreed that she would change her game to do so. It is quite the ridiculous concept. She has always done the same thing… she just kept getting better at it.
Kids can have a lot of success at a junior level by running around 3 metres behind the baseline, looping the ball up high, and hoping the other kid misses. After watching junior tennis for so many years this seems to be the most opted for tactic, as it gets results quickly. I remember constantly losing to hackers, and because of this, I was not even ranked in the top 20 in the country for my age at 14. In fact, I lost in the first round of qualifying for under 14 Nationals in exactly this fashion. The girl was hacking every ball up in the sky, and I was thumping shots all over the place… a few went in. Fast forward 2 years and more were going in to help me win under 16 Nationals. A year later I find myself thumping winners on a show court at Wimbledon playing the 18th seed in the main draw. The other kids who would beat me 1 and 1 every time did not make it to Wimbledon… I don’t think they even got a ranking.
I never felt like I was transitioning, I was just striving to improve my game each match I played. I am still doing that now. I was fortunate to be involved with a particularly strong age group internationally. I was competing with Wozniacki, Azarenka, Radwanska, Cornet, Paszek, Brengle, Rybarikova, and more regularly at junior events. What I was on the receiving end of then is the same barrage of quality tennis they produce now… they are just better at it.
Looking at the big picture is really tough for players, parents and coaches when there is so much pressure to achieve results now. I got frustrated and fed up of losing to these junior players, trying to drive volley everything that went up in the sky, but it still ending in defeat. If you want to read about the importance of losing, check out my recent blog ‘You Want to Win? Then Learn How to Lose’.
Transitioning is not the problem. Developing a junior that needs to transition is the problem, and that starts from day one.