Prospects for future champions and inner-city initiatives

Ace Tracker
01-04-2004, 02:12 AM
this is part of a longer article by the Guardian Unlimited - Second-class citizens (,10069,1115627,00.html) , after the controversy caused by Martina Navratilova's comments about the sad state of British tennis prospects and the LTA... According to Piotr Unierzyski's findings, an associate professor at the University of Physical Education in Poznan and whose work has been funded by the International Tennis Federation, whatever happens, the next British champion is likely to come from an easily identified stratum: the affluent classes (as opposed to Martina's suggestions...)...

on to the article...

"A document with the LTA's logo on it landed on The Observer 's desk. It said that if you want to produce a champion you need to 'look for skinny and agile kids who have older brothers/sisters and whose parents are recreational tennis players; avoid heavily built, biologically accelerated children of low educate [sic] parents' (...)

For the past nine years, Unierzyski has been researching who 'makes it' in tennis and who doesn't, and how you can recognise the signals at around age 12. Funded by the ITF, he has monitored more than 1,000 talented young players aged 11-16 from 60 nations. They include Roger Federer, Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, but equally importantly top-level champions at 12 and 14 who never made it.

Though Unierzyski has not yet finished processing his data, he has a number of interim conclusions relating to how quickly children grow, and what family they come from. His view is that those who are champions at 12 frequently don't make it, and those who do make it are not only late developers but have strong parental involvement.

The good news for parents, is that Unierzyski believes the optimum average on-court time is less punishing than some coaches want. He says many 11- and 12-year-olds practise more than three to four hours a day (he found one player doing 40 hours a week), and it is not uncommon for some to play 30-35 weeks of tournaments. Yet those who 'made it' practised on average about 10 hours per week at 12, much less than players who didn't make it, and played 45-50 singles matches per year, well below the average. (...)

The bad news for parents comes in Unierzyski's study of family profiles, and this is also the bad news for attempts to broaden the appeal of tennis as advocated by Caborn. The professor says the parents of successful players are 'usually very well educated', and he is right judging by the world rankings, which show a predominance of players with educated parents - many of them with direct involvement in a tennis club.

Unierzyski created a system in which a player's parent educated only to primary level was awarded one point, secondary level two, and university three - making a maximum score of six for two university-educated parents. For the top juniors from Eastern Europe (former Soviet Bloc), the average is 5.2 (meaning the vast majority of players have parents with university degrees), the EU and Switzerland have an average of 4.2, and the top ATP players post an average of 4.8.

What this means is that a tennis player who is likely to be successful in the professional game will need a massive input of parental time. Add to that the money involved, and it's easy to see why Unierzyski comes to the conclusion that: 'Tennis is a middle-class sport. The role of parents is very important.' (...)

With so much depending on the parents, how can inner-city schemes - which will inevitably attract many kids with two working parents and even single parents who don't have the time or money to support a tennis-playing child - produce champions? Perhaps their value is in attracting to tennis those who will become leisure players, and then go on to give their own children the support needed to become champions.

That would mean waiting for a generation before the schemes produced a champion. (...)"