Thursday, September 30, 2010

Junior tennis players: turn pro or go to college?

Agents Bet on Future at the Juniors Tournament

"“Juniors are the lifeblood of the business,” said Norman Canter, an agent and owner of Renaissance Tennis Management. “Most people out here are looking for the kids born in 1995 who have demonstrated some talent and have some growing and maturing to do. But don’t kid yourself, it’s a total crapshoot.”

"What are the odds of unearthing the next Andre Agassi, or even an Andy Roddick?

"Not too long ago, McKinley said, Babolat examined the top 100 players from the International Tennis Federation’s boys’ and girls’ junior rankings over a stretch of several years. Then it tracked those players as they tried to crack the top 100 in the men’s and women’s professional tours.

"The results? About 7 percent of the world’s best juniors were able to make the transition to a top 100 men’s or women’s player. Barely 1 percent reached the top 10. Gael Monfils, for example, was the International Tennis Federation junior world champion in 2004 and reached as high as No. 9 in the A.T.P. world rankings in 2009. He was ranked 19th before losing Wednesday in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic.

“They are pretty discouraging numbers,” conceded McKinley, who covers America and Australia for Babolat, which earned more than $150 million in revenues in 2009. “But we’ve built our business at the grass-roots level by identifying up-and-coming juniors and making sure they are playing with our rackets and strings. They may not make it to Nadal’s level, but in their hometowns everyone knows who they are and what they are using. That is a lot of exposure and sales for us.”

"The agents, too, know it is a numbers game, and follow an adage: Sign 100 of them, and start picking up the phone when one or two start to win.

"After all, in 1998, Federer was the I.T.F. junior champion. Twelve years later, 20 percent of the $25 million in endorsements he earns as the world’s most decorated tennis player is substantial money.

"There is mounting evidence that older is better in professional tennis — the average age of the women occupying the first 10 spots in the world rankings is 26, a year older than that of the top 10 men. Patrick McEnroe, the general manager for the United States Tennis Association’s player development program, has been blunt in his assessment of what the search for teenage phenoms has done to weaken American tennis.
“The bottom line is, we lost a generation of players the last 10 years that should have gone to college but didn’t,” he said.

"Still, the juniors tournament at the United States Open remains a bustling marketplace as manufacturers and agents double down on the next-not-so-sure-thing. Lagardère made the biggest noise recently by signing Monica Puig, a 16-year-old who lives in Miami. She is ranked fourth in the I.T.F. junior rankings and won her first professional tournament in April in Spain.

"Turning pro hardly means instant riches. In addition to free equipment and clothing, companies like Babolat and Nike will offer performance bonuses for tournament victories and rankings. Winning a $10,000 Futures tournament — the fledgling pro’s starter circuit — might bring a $1,000 bonus. Rising to the top 100 tour rankings can be worth $25,000 from sponsors.

"The out-of-pocket expenses, however, are substantial; players train and practice five hours a day for 41 weeks, receive high-performance coaching and travel, and compete in 24 tournaments.
“It’s about $100,000 or $150,000 just to start a boy or girl down the professional path,” Canter said.

"The hard reality and cold cash it takes to chase a dream rarely discourages young players who have been given free equipment and courted by agents since the time they could hold a racket.
The American Ryan Harrison, 18, for example, who advanced to the second round of the main draw, said he was first approached by an agent as a 12-year-old and turned professional three years later.

"Sock, 17, the promising American, plays with Babolat rackets, wears Nike clothes and plays a mix of junior and pro tournaments, but he has yet to accept bonuses or prize money to preserve his N.C.A.A. eligibility. His father, Larry Sock, wanted his son to go to regular school and keep some semblance of a normal family life intact. ... The Socks have not decided if Jack will turn professional or go to college, perhaps at Nebraska, where his brother Eric plays for the Cornhuskers.
“They can be very persuasive,” Larry Sock said of agents. “But college sounds pretty good to me.”

"European players do not have college eligibility to protect and are often the center of the agent frenzy. But their odds of success are hardly any better. For every Maria Sharapova, there are perhaps dozens like Lera Solovieva.

"Solovieva, a Russian, was 11 and one of the most sought-after juniors in the world when Canter signed her. He got her deals with blue-chip sponsors like Nike, paid for her to live and train in Miami, and cared and outfitted her down to a set of braces. Nearly four years and $650,000 of Renaissance Tennis Management’s money later, Solovieva is back in Russia, trying to revive a career thwarted by injuries and a lack of development."

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