Professional Tennis at Age 15: Too Much to Young?
Many Wondering If Joining the ATP Hurts, Not Helps Teen's Progress
By Douglas Robson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D05
He's 15, black, prodigiously talented and competing with men twice his age -- a boy in a man's world.
He isn't D.C. United's Freddy Adu, though the comparison is apt. He is America's latest tennis sensation, a lanky Chicago native named Donald Young Jr., whose list of age-defying accomplishments is breaking barriers.
"He's insanely talented," said Andy Roddick, the top-ranked U.S. player. "If you've watched him just strike the ball, the way he naturally feels it -- there's definitely something special there."
Forget Young's race, which automatically makes him an anomaly in tennis. Simply put, he may be the best 15-year-old male in the history of U.S. tennis.
Sixteen months ago, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound left-hander won the prestigious 16-and-under Orange Bowl title -- the first African American to do so -- and followed up by winning the Easter Bowl 18 singles crown last year. Not even Pete Sampras, who reached the Easter Bowl semifinal at 15, or John McEnroe, who won at 17, equaled that feat.
In January, Young became the youngest male to win a junior Grand Slam crown, capturing the boys' title at the Australian Open. That win also made him the youngest player to be No. 1 in the junior world rankings, a position he still holds.
Young turned pro last year, at 14, and he already has contracts with Nike, Head and sports management giant IMG.
"If he gets bigger and stronger, I predict him to be the top American and one of the top players in the world," said Nick Bollettieri, whose famed Florida academy (now owned by IMG) has produced Grand Slam champions Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.
But unlike Adu, Young has been thrust into the upper echelons of the game by agents eager to earn him publicity and valuable tour experience, securing him a number of wild cards at top-tier tournaments this year. It would be like Adu trying to play in a top European league instead of gaining experience in MLS.
The result: A youngster who has rarely lost at any level has been battered like never before. Since his ATP Tour debut in San Jose in February, Young is 0-4 and has won more than five games in a match just once.
"I'm getting more games than I did the last couple times," Young said with a shrug after his 6-4, 7-5 loss to 56th-ranked Frenchman Jean-Rene Lisnard at last month's Nasdaq-100. "I'm getting a little more confident, I guess."
Young will try to boost his confidence and halt his four-match ATP losing streak today, when he takes on Spain's Alex Calatrava at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, where he has received yet another wild-card entry into the main draw.
But the string of losses has led to speculation that Young is being pushed too hard too fast, and that it could ultimately damage his confidence.
"In my opinion, he's played too many of the bigger events," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who thinks Young would be better served playing smaller and lower-level Challenger and Futures events. "You can't let a kid go out there and lose one-and-one 10 times in a row. That's no fun. It can start to have a detrimental effect on his mental state."
Added 2003 U.S. Open champion Roddick, himself a highly touted prodigy and former No. 1 in the world junior rankings: "Is he ready to play week in and week out on the main tour? I don't think so, but I hope I'm proved wrong."
Those in his inner circle -- his agent, his parents, some USTA officials -- say Young is handling the mounting expectations, travel, attention and losses well.
"I keep things as basic as possible," said his mother, Illona, who home-schools her only child and lets him continue to play his beloved Xbox and engage in other teen activities.
Donald Sr. said his son is able to shake the losses off quickly by "taking it out on me around the court."
His agent, Gary Swain of IMG, whose company is responsible for getting Young the wild cards, dismissed the notion that the teenager is being pulled along too fast.
"We have not put pressure on Donald to win at the professional level but have given him opportunities [that he has earned] to accelerate his learning curve," Swain wrote in an e-mail.
Young has beaten two players ranked in the top 200 and is now ranked in the 600s. But despite his excellent court vision, superior movement and once-in-a-generation hand skills, he lacks the size and strength to compete with many pros.
"He's a boy playing a men's game," said American pro Jeff Morrison, a former NCAA singles champion from the University of Florida.
Off the court, Young seems split between the teen and adult worlds. In news conferences, he can seem distracted and immature; a minute later, he can sound like a jaded veteran: "A lot of people have told me that," he said of the praise heaped upon him, "but I just try to go out there and play my game."
Driven by their son's success, the Youngs relocated to Atlanta last year, where Donald Sr., a one-time player at Alabama State, took over a tennis academy with the help of IMG. Illona, also a former player, shares coaching and child-rearing duties with her husband.
"He's a pretty levelheaded kid," said Paul Roetert, managing director of the USTA's USA Tennis High Performance Program, which has been involved in Young's training. "His parents are doing a fabulous job."
Still, it's hard to know how much pressure Young is putting on himself. His court demeanor is revealing. He often engages in self-critical muttering, slouches his head on missed shots, constantly eyes his parents in the crowd and occasionally slams balls into the backstop.
Illona Young admits that there is no blueprint for an African American boy, or any boy, with Donald's skill. That has made their journey sometimes lonely, and certainly difficult.
It would seem logical that the Youngs might have sought advice from Richard Williams or Oracene Price, the parents of Venus and Serena Williams.
"No, never met them," said Illona. "Never talked with them."
She gets defensive when people criticize the decision to allow her son to turn pro so early -- a decision made because there was no competition left for Young, and the travel and other expenses were becoming prohibitive. There is no cookie-cutter approach to raising a prodigy, she says.
"It's very customized, personalized," she said.
But with such a heavy schedule of pro and junior tournaments -- Young will play top-tier junior events this year, including all the remaining Grand Slams, plus pro tournaments -- some worry he will burn out, or take the mounting losses too hard.
Asked about such concerns, Donald Sr. said: "That's their opinion. No comment."
What everyone is willing to comment on are Young's gifts. He has solid groundstrokes, an improving serve, moves well and isn't afraid to charge the net.
"He's one of the very few kids that actually comes to the net," said Bollettieri.
Much is also made of his size 12 1/2 feet, which suggests he has a lot more growing to do.
"The closest thing to a sure bet," said IMG's Swain.
Of course, tennis is littered with sure bets who failed to make an impact in the pros, such as Billy Martin, Scott Davis and Al Parker Jr., or early flameouts, such as Andrea Jaeger.
John McEnroe said it pays to be cautious when kids turn pro before they can even obtain a driver's permit.
"He's not fully developed, and I don't think he should be professional now, personally," said the three-time Wimbledon champion, who first met and hit with Young when Young was 10 and who spoke about him at the All England club last year. "But on the other side of the coin, I don't know his parents' financial situation. If someone is going to pay him, a Nike, a million dollars -- I'm just throwing out a number -- to use rackets or clothes or sneakers, who am I to say not to do it?"
Agassi, 34, who turned pro at 16, said that tasting top competition at a young age isn't always a bad idea.
"I wouldn't say it's necessarily a mistake to be out here taking your lumps, because it's what you have to face ultimately."
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