Patrick Mouratoglou

Girls should be given main tour chance

Patrick Mouratoglou

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Recently we've seen the older generation winning the major tournaments.

Kim Clijsters claimed the US Open after not playing for more than two years due to her pregnancy, while Serena beat Justine Henin, also returning to the game after not playing for a year and a half, at the Australian Open.

Francesca Schiavone made the headlines at Roland Garros, while Samantha Stosur and Vera Zvonareva had very promising results, reaching the final in Grand Slams.

They are playing the best tennis of their career after passing the age of 25, which is a real shock to some viewers and even some tennis specialists since they expected to witness the blooming of a younger generation full of talent.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Yanina Wickmayer, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova, Melanie Oudin, Polona Hercog, Petra Martic, Alize Cornet and Sorana Cirstea to name a few have decent rankings after turning 21.

All of them are among the top 100 players in the world, or even higher. Some are ranked among the top 50, 10 or even five.

But far from saying "women's tennis is weak", it is important to give explanations for late bloomers.

The Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati years seem to have happened a long time ago. Make no mistake; we are bordering on a new era.

One of the reasons for this is the ITF's "age eligibility rule". The goal of this rule is to prevent juniors from playing on the main tour if they are too young.

They argue that young athletes can burn out at an early stage of their career and therefore retire when they are too young. We must protect their mental and physical integrity.

How does it work? For the junior girls the tournament restrictions are as follows: they can play eight tournaments at 14 years old, 10 tournaments at 15, 17 tournaments at 16 and 21 tournaments at 17.

I do agree one hundred per cent that institutions must do all they can to protect junior players. They should prevent tournaments that exploit players, which could harm them in the long term.

However, I have serious concerns about how they should achieve this. Is it very bad if a player retires at a young stage of her career?

Let's take the case of Martina Hingis.

She took the decision of halting her career when just 23 years of age.

Previously, she claimed five Grand Slam titles, reached the world number one ranking at 16 and decided to retire after spending nine years on the main tour.

Remember that she started playing on it at the age of 14. After retiring she could have chosen another career, or gone back to her studies. She was rich and famous. I know a lot of young girls who would dream to have such means in their lives.

The rise of Hingis was a gift to tennis for its popularity.

Her precocity, her game, her originality and the way she made headlines were big assets for the popularity of tennis. She displayed passion when facing the Williams sisters - brain and talent against power and determination.

We had the golden years of women's tennis thanks to Hingis. Some players need a lot of time to believe in their abilities and reach the top while others are ready at a very young age.

Why shouldn't we let nature dictate its course? Why are we punishing talents ready to burst or just waiting to express themselves? Is it a real issue to see players retire at the age of 25?

It is very unusual to see players spending more than a decade at the professional level. Isn't there a risk in preventing teenagers from playing their best tennis at their optimum age if we set strict limits?

I believe the systematic use of this rule is one of the reasons we are seeing late bloomers. Tennis players always have a phase when they are 'on the up'.

In this phase, they play fearlessly, and hit the ball without any doubts. They don't feel the pressure - they are in the zone. They have the impression that every victory is there for the taking.

It is the time where they are most efficient. In this phase, they improve their ranking at a fast pace, as well as their game.

All champions go through this, where they improve from 800 to top 20, or top 10, in the space of one or two years.

Then comes the phase where they meet the tour's challenges with the media, the passing status from outsider to favourite, which changes the dynamic of the game. They are all of a sudden hit by the pressure, which means they will start to think too much, lose their instinct, as well as their attitude.

It's a difficult phase, but most of the time they can overcome it thanks to the hundreds of matches played and won to reach such a level.

Some of the most improved players find their ascent cut with this 'age eligibility rule' and won't get the chance to meet their 'in the zone' phase.

They could learn to build their game with nothing-to-lose matches played on the main tour. But instead they are forced to remain on the junior circuit, so they learn the status of favourite at a very early stage of their career.

That is the time when doubts and hard questions will rise again and again. And losses to lower-ranked players can break their confidence and don't help when they have the green light to play on the main tour.

The ITF put this rule in place for goodwill and political correctness.

We all remember the Capriati case, who made headlines in the news in a way that demonstrates all systems have failures. There is no perfect system, however, and the Capriati story is special.

Why are we making a rule due to one or two special cases? What is the impact of such a rule on players? Are we certain such a rule has positive effects on players, or that the bad effects have fewer consequences? Are we sure the ITF rule is efficient, and if the reduction of tournaments played was put in place in order to prevent injuries?

Personally I am convinced these laws do not prevent juniors from playing a lot. To the contrary, they train much more instead of playing tournaments, which increases the amount of tennis played at the end of the day.

On the ITF side, it is a way to find good conscience. They can show the media they have every issue under control. These are political wills more than sporting or social evidence.

I once had a specific example with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who I coached for two and a half years. She won the Girls' Singles Australian Open at 14 and became the world junior number one at the age of 15. Her level was high; she was ready to play on the main tour.

Unfortunately she could only play 10 tournaments on the main tour, and was forced to play on the junior circuit for a second term as the absolute favourite.

These rules were bad for her, as they were for Michelle Larcher de Brito, who was another early bloomer player. You have to adapt to the highest level.

As coach, we must do whatever is possible for each different issue. These laws don't take into account the individual spirit of a player.

I am not sure it is goodwill to act against the nature of players, and therefore even less convinced this rule is a benefit to the career of an early bloomer.

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