Although Baker was a prodigy at Center Parcs, he didn’t seem to be anything special at Loughborough at first. Even at that age, you could see the game beginning to stratify. Andy Murray won the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl tournament in Florida at the age of 12; the year before, Baker had played an overseas tournament himself and found himself “absolutely smoked” by Raphael Nadal (sic). “I thought, that’s a bit different,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t in the top little bunch. I was one below that.”(emphasis added) – excerpt from the incredible piece “Jamie Baker’s break point: A tennis nomad exits from the planet’s cruelest sport.”
There have been instances in which an unexpected player makes a leap from one tier of the tour to the next. While Patrick Rafter and Jonas Bjorkman were known commodities prior to 1997, each man made a leap forward, Rafter in a big way, that was not predictable from previous results. Swedes Magnus Norman and Robin Soderling did make big leaps in the rankings. Stanislas Wawrinka just made a big leap.
To get to my point, we see videos of world #9 Richard Gasquet and #1 Rafael Nadal playing tennis as 13 year olds. One can easily find pictures of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray sharing space at junior trophy presentations. I even recall Murray losing to Gael Monfils in the junior Wimbledon final. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have all made serious history as tennis players. Gasquet has been inconsistently making noise since 2005. Monfils, like Gasquet, has also been a frustrating player who has spent a lot of time in the top 20 over the years.
Has Tennis Gotten Too Good at Recognizing Talent at Young Ages
I know that Olivier Rochus used to say that Federer was not terribly consistent or good as a junior. Still, Federer won the Wimbledon junior title in 1998 and as a teenager beat Pete Sampras on centre court in 2001. Even the newly minted Wawrinka won the junior title at Roland Garros. Is there anyone new under the sun?
I may also be making too much of this phenomenon as Agassi, Courier, Chang, and Wheaton all had strong junior careers. Goran Ivanisevic complained about how badly Courier used to beat him as a junior. Pete Sampras took a step back when he switched his backhand, but I am not sure that such a move could be made today. If it seemed insane when Sampras was a junior, my guess is that such a change would be seen as heresy today.
Have Strings and Things Made Tennis More Monochromatic?
Tennis has become increasingly routinized and mechanized. Sports medicine has identified specific exercises and (on and off court) training methods that help tennis players. Juniors start these exercises and training methods at early ages. Early exponential growth hits a player and perhaps makes a gap too great for a supreme athlete coming to tennis at a later age, say at 12 or 13 years of age, to make up the gap and reach the pro tour.
Beyond that, the ability to hit massive topspin creates a great motivation to develop a certain type of aerobically fit baseline warrior style of play. It is the path of least resistance to the top. If everyone plays a similar way, then young players with physical traits that lend themselves to this style will be identified and will become top 20 players once they hit their early to mid 20s and have enough physical heft to supplant the last generation of baseline warriors. The days of a teenager such as Becker or Sampras riding a big serve to a title are over.
Basketball has examples of players who came to the sport at a relatively late age and made it big. Kansas University’s first year center Joel Embiid came to basketball from volleyball and now looks like a top 5 NBA pick. Some NFL tight ends have come from the world of college basketball. A team sport may allow a great athlete to fill a key role as his or her game rounds out whereas individual sports require all players to be generalists to some degree. Still, it does seem depressing to think that if a world class athlete picks up a racquet at 11 years of age she or he might be relegated to at best playing minor level college tennis and becoming a club pro.
Variety or Not?
One of the best things about tennis is that it affords players multiple paths to the same goal: playing winning tennis. Jerzy Janowicz and Andy Murray do not play alike yet they contested an entertaining and at times close Wimbledon semifinal last year. The Australian Open’s 8 male quarterfinalists contained 7 right-handed players and 1 lefty, 5 two-handed backhands and 3 one-handed backhands as well as players who employed a variety of strategies. On the women’s side a 5’3″ player reached the final taking out a 6’2″ player along the way. Serve and volley tennis may be dead as an overall strategy, but Janowicz hitting 120 mph plus second serves and hitting drop shots against guys who play far behind the baseline may hint at emerging counter-strategies and tactics in this era. Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, currently the two best players younger than Juan Martin del Potro, play differently from one another and from Janowicz. Variety remains. I simply wish that most later round Grand Slam matches not be re-enactments of junior matches. I am not sure tennis will ever produce a Joel Embiid, but I would like to see a Patrick Rafter style mid-career rise more often.