Where Are the Junior Players?

Tennis tradition eroded by fast-track youths

AMONG the outer courts, where you can hear the wind in the linden trees and the Union Jack tugging at its mast, the last Briton to win a men's single's title at Wimbledon watches a slip of a girl more than 70 years his junior stroke tennis balls back and forth with machinelike proficiency.

She is pony-tailed 12-year-old Martina Hingis of Switzerland (named after her mother's favorite player, Martina Navratilova) who four weeks ago won the girls' junior title at the French Championships, and is now playing her first tournament on grass.

He is Fred Perry, who was Wimbledon champion three times in the 1930s and is still adding spice (and wisdom) to BBC Radio as a color commentator.

But Perry's admiration of Martina's powerful ground strokes is swamped by his concern that things aren't what they used to be in junior tennis. With a shake of his head he mutters, ``Too much, too soon.''

``If they're going to get anywhere, they've got to take one step at a time and consolidate,'' he says. ``We're rushing them. We're spoiling them. Most of them have got [playing] contracts and motor cars. No one's hungry anymore. There's too much money in the game.''

Perry's remarks apply mainly to junior-age players, whom he would like to see in the junior tournament but who play with the ``big'' boys and girls in the main tournament. This year, Jennifer Capriati, Chanda Rubin (who won the Wimbledon junior title last year), and Mary Pierce (had she not been injured) would have been eligible for the girls' championship. A few years ago, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier would have led the charge through the boys' championship. But somehow they missed what international coach Bob Hewitt describes as ``the best years of their lives.''

Two young players Hewitt guided through their junior years, Wayne Ferreira and Amanda Coetzer, were seeded this year in the main tournament, but he sees it as a Catch-22 situation.

``To make progress and strengthen their game, teenagers need to play opponents above their age group. But when they start to play seven hours a day, that's poor for the body, and worse for the mind.'' Women players most at risk

``Of course the boys don't face that problem,'' Hewitt adds. ``The 17- and 18-year-olds are far too strong for the 13-year-olds, who simply can't handle their power play. A little girl would be beaten by Steffi Graf, but at 14 she might be good enough to play her.''

Someone who shares Bob Hewitt's concern about girls' lost adolescence is Michael Mewshaw who followed the tennis circuit for 18 months while writing ``Ladies of the Court: Grace and Disgrace on the Women's Tennis Tour'' (Crown, $22, 352 pp.), and is back at Wimbledon.

He said in an interview here that their immaturity and lack of education render them vulnerable to abuse - from parents, coaches, and the system itself.

To him, the solution is obvious: ``Raise the age at which girls are allowed to participate professionally on the tour.... Basically, they should be forced to walk before they can run, and run before they fly.''

``Whenever you start - at 15 or 25,'' Mewshaw says, ``you've probably got 10 years of top-level tennis in you before mental and physical strain and other outside influences burn you out.''

So why start so early? Hewitt responds: ``If it were in my power to take a young player and coach him to win Wimbledon at 22, even though he might prefer to do it at 16, I'd happily take him on. Just think of all the pressures we'd escape, and all the other things that go with instant fame!''

He would be amenable to gradually raising the lower age limit for girls, especially.

Swedish journalist Bjorn Hellberg has written 23 books on tennis, and is covering his 27th successive Wimbledon. He sees the future of international junior tournaments as ``quite bleak.''

``But can you blame the players?'' he asks. ``If they're good enough to play for world rankings and money, they feel they have no choice anymore.'' Some prestige lost

Then, admitting a bias toward Swedish players, Hellberg adds: ``Things were different when Mats Wilander won the junior event in Paris in 1981 and the very next year went on to take the French Open.'' In 1983, Stefan Edberg clinched a junior Grand Slam by winning in Paris, Wimbledon, the United States, and Australia. ``Sadly, some of that prestige is now gone,'' Hellberg says. ``The best young players are reluctant to waste their energy on the junior events.''

Both Hellberg and Mewshaw suggest that the International Tennis Federation could change the rules and compel junior-age players to compete in junior tournaments. Hellberg proposes junior players who fall out of the main competition play in the junior tournaments.

Mewshaw, on the other hand, suggests that juniors who qualify for both tournaments play in both, regardless. He recalls a time 15 years ago when Yannick Noah and Ivan Lendl played in the juniors, a qualifying event, and in the main event at the Italian Championships - without complaint.

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