Serve and Volley

Tennis Kids Today

A constitutional amendment to stop kid-indulgence.

By 8.1.14

Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov (Katherine Ruddy)
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Vasek Pospisil beat Rajeev Ram two sets to zero, on Wednesday at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, site of the Citi Open, Washington D.C.’s ticket to the tennis big leagues. Pospisil’s 24 years, compared to Ram’s 30, do not represent much of a spread by any ordinary standard, but in tennis these days, the Canadian is a young man entering his peak years, while the American is on the threshold of middle age. But are such terms reasonable?

Certainly not by the evidence of the match. The two tall, lean, strong-upper-bodied pros were keeping up with each other and you would not have said, seeing them from the close up bleachers on the Grandstand 2 court, who was more fit. One of the pleasures of this tournament is the unusually fine visibility on every court; even the showcase center court in the ten-thousand seat Stadium, which by the way was built not with federal matching grants but thanks to the generosity of W.H.G. FitzGerald, a great American who served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland in the Bush I administration. Well, you can see how close the kids and the adults are in basic tennis ability and in physical fitness and in mental strength.

It happens that this year, the Citi Open is full of kids. I would not say full to the rim, but there are several promising teenagers and very-early-20s, in both the women’s and the men’s draws, as well as some players who have been around the block, or the court, a few times.

Among the former, you have Pospisil and his doubles partner Jack Sock, 21, who is from Nebraska and is touted as one of the answers to America’s tennis decline. These decline stories leave me cold, as a general rule, but it is correct that since the end of the Sampras-Agassi era in the early ’00s, we have not been the top country we used to be on the men’s side. Venus and Serena Williams have dominated the women’s tour, pretty much alone — which does not augur well if you consider they are approaching their mid-30s and you believe in the idea of decline.

Sock lost to another Canadian in a very close match (tie breaks in both sets) the same day his pal was beating Ram, and if it’s any consolation his nemesis, Milos Raonic, is about the same age, so you can argue they are in the same North American cohort and it remains to be seen, though I am not sure just what “it” is supposed to be. Several very young American women or teenage girls are doing well here, suggesting there is, in fact, a successor generation to the Williamses, though two of the favorites, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend, will not be on the courts as the singles draw goes into the home stretch this weekend, though young Taylor has a good shot at victory in doubles with her partner Vania King.

Frankly, I would be more worried about the age of our public officials, elected and nominated, than the age of our sports stars. I would even suggest a constitutional amendment raising the age of eligibility for elected office. The president should be at least 65, senators should be at least 60, and representatives should be at least 77, in order to deal with the annoying problem of term limits — you would not need them!

The states, of course, are free to do whatever they want (or are they still?), and in my scheme they should lower ages of eligibility. This balance would give a certain impetuous recklessness to the states, and a certain prudent restraint to the feds. At present, the equation seems more the other way.

The FitzGerald Tennis Center itself can to some degree illustrate my idea. The men at the origin of this marvelous Washington institution were young-middle aged World War II veterans who were making good money in the private sector. This was when Washington, D.C. still had a private sector. (Pat Buchanan in his memoir Right From the Beginning observes that among his friends when he was growing up in Northwest Washington — not far from the place I am talking about, in fact — he did not know a single kid whose father worked for the federal government. But this an aside.) They were Republicans and they believed implicitly that sports build character. Noting the rising panic about juvenile delinquency they came up with a simple idea: keep ’em on the tennis courts and out of the juvenile courts. These were black kids as well as white ones they were concerned about. They would not let their charges compete in segregated sport events in Virginia.

The tennis foundation, somewhat to the pleasant surprise of its original patrons, flourished. Changing its name to Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, it put the emphasis on helping children succeed in school. The honing of their tennis skills remained a central focus, but the men and women in charge know that children and adolescents need help, not pampering, discipline, not indulgence.

As everyone knows. And yet, as everyone needs to learn anew. At any rate, some signs of the reversal of the dismal trend in U.S. tennis are on display at the Citi Open, in the form of such juniors as Francis Tiafoe and Jared Donaldson. Both lost in early rounds — Tiafoe to Evgeny Donskoy and Donaldson, as it happens, to Ram — but they are 16 and 17, respectively, and have plenty of time to grow.

Actually, there is some reason to question whether letting them compete on the pro circuit at such young ages is a good idea. We are a free country, of course. But are they ready? They do not seem to be particularly gracious on court. Will coaches remedy this, or will they on the contrary reinforce the teens’ sense of entitlement and self-adoration?

These may be normal teenage attitudes, and it may have been expected in kids suddenly finding themselves on a big stage — here was their chance to strut a little, where is the harm. In a doubles match against the mighty team of Bob and Mike Bryan, the most successful American doubles team ever, Donaldson and his partner, Stefan Kozlov, appeared to be earning the guarded respect of their elders (the Bryans, twins, are 36), who held back somewhat on their famously ruthless power game and let the boys stay close. The complaining attitude became annoying, however, and at 5-5 the pace abruptly shifted, as if the Bryan’s were saying, okay, enough, it’s bedtime. It took them only a few minutes to win the next eight games, with the final two shots zapping so close by young Stefan (without touching him, which obviously was no accident) he bounced both times.

Lesson learned? Maybe, probably not. Sometimes these attitudes persist, in one form or another, in highly gifted athletes. Each is a case of its own, of course; but consider some of the outrageous (and sometimes criminal) behavior of top pros in the big leagues of many sports these days, or even in earlier days (there was a whole series of “tennis brats” in the 1970s and ’80s). Might this behavior have been avoided with better education?

Might we, for example, have avoided the entire steroid and PED horrors if the WTEF way had been at the center of our values? It is never too late to re-think the way we think about childhood and youth and the making of real adults.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.