Earlier this week Roger was interviewed in Singapore prior to heading to Melbourne for the start of the Australian Open.
He was asked about the biggest change in tennis and towards the end of his answer he cited court speeds and new technology as a big reason why not as many junior players are coming through. He also revealed the statistic there isn't a single teenager in the Top 100 ATP Rankings. I think that's a very sad state of affairs for men's tennis so I thought I'd write a little bit about it.
No Teenagers in the Top 100
I find a statistic like this pretty alarming, if you go back 12 years to 2000/2001 there were quite a few teenagers comfortably within the top 100 Federer, Hewitt, Roddick and Nalbanian all spring to mind.
Now the youngest guys we have in there are Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic who are both 20 years of age. Which yeah, are close enough to being teenagers but other than those guys there's nobody really close with most around the 22/23 age group.
There's certainly nobody really young on the verge of breaking the top 10 with only Raonic at 22 looking capable. There's Dolgopolov too but based on his recent performances I see his ranking heading South. So where are the next crop of juniors coming from? I'm not sure.
Are the slowing of the courts to blame?
I have to say I think think this is one of the main factors as to why juniors struggle to break through because slower courts make the game much more physical and give the advantage to older more seasoned opponents.
When you're a teenager you're still not fully developed so going up against older guys that are more conditioned means that the longer the match wears on, and the longer the rallies; the odds significantly switch in their favour.
If you go back to 2005 when Andy Murray first turned pro, he struggled to keep up on even the faster courts like grass and hard courts breaking down with cramp and showing fatigue. Imagine if he was 5 years younger and turned pro in 2010; he'd be in an even worse position and it's likely his ranking wouldn't have risen as quickly as it did back then.
Slower courts make matches longer and as Roger pointed out in his interview, it gives young players less chance to hit through an opponent or go through a real hot patch that sees them across the line. Rather than just come up with 1 brilliant shot, they have to string together 10 or 15 to win a point.
You could argue that's a learning experience but I find it a little unfair and there needs to be some kind of middle ground where some courts let players win points with a great return and others where they do have to grind a little bit. At the moment it's far too lopsided in the favour of slow courts.
Why aren't the courts designed to help juniors? Well perhaps because juniors aren't the money making machine on the ATP tour, nobody really knows them and they don't really generate the ticket sales that guys who've been around for a while who have an established fan base are able to.
But surely that's a short sighted view; as once all those guys retire, the sport could drop off a cliff?
How would I get more juniors coming through?
I'd take a two fold approach:
- Speeds up the courts in general
- Completely overhaul the LTA
Speed up the Courts
I've explained most of this above but faster courts give players more of a puncher's chance to win games and improve their rankings. The only way players get better is to play better players but if they're ranking doesn't allow them to enter the better tournaments and slower courts hinder their qualifying then they're going to struggle to break through.
By speeding up the courts the ATP would be able to bring through juniors, create more entertainment and ultimately develop more complete players. What is tennis without shotmaking, flashy winners and fast paced rallies? Pretty boring I think.
Overhaul the corrupt and poorly run LTA
Being from the UK I do take an interest in British tennis and I think it's fair to say the LTA is an absolute joke in general but even more so when it comes to developing young players. I don't know if it's the same globally (although the USA junior tennis system seems to be in a state) so I'll only look at what can be done in the UK.
The LTA have no track record in producing good players yet year on year spunk cash like it's going out of fashion. Just last week we had a report of LTA Chief taking home a whopping £604,000 salary for effectively doing and achieving nothing.
Organisations like the LTA have no real interest in developing young talent, the people that run bodies like them are only interested in what they can get out of it, not what they can give back. Securing funding and making sure a percentage lands in their back pocket is the main aim, not producing a future British top 10 player.
In it's current format the UK doesn't have a chance of producing a junior that can compete at the top levels because they don't know how to find talent, or what to do with it. It's too elitist, badly run and completely inaccessible to the average kid on the street. They waste time and money on the elite performance areas that clearly only allow players who's parents hang out in the right circles.
When I was at school, we had 4 tennis courts (since been demolished to make way for a new building), but they weren't used to play tennis, the nets were rarely, if ever up and it wasn't a sport that was encouraged. I can only imagine that's gotten worse in recent years as more and more PE lessons are taught from the classroom in the UK so kids can learn the ‘theory' behind playing sports. If the LTA were to be overhauled they need to get into schools and create links with local tennis clubs so that tennis can be played for free.
This could be a whole post in itself but to start bringing juniors through the LTA needs to switch its focus to Grass Roots level sport and make the game more accessible. There are plenty of public courts, but many of them are poorly maintained and finding a club and paying a tennis coach is completely unrealistic for the average working class family.
I quite like Mark Petchey's suggestions on how he'd set about the task but whether or not he can get in there and get his hands dirty is a completely different matter. The powers that be in the LTA are far too comfortable at the minute on their inflated salaries and little work approach so I doub't they'd allow it to happen but I'd like to see him try.
As a tennis fan, is the fact there are no young players breaking through worrying to you? And how would you go about changing it?