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Sunday Special: Tennis Terror

September 8, 1995

As the U.S. Open winds down on Sunday, the tennis landscape remains crowded with the next generation of players _ kids really, all ready to move on to another plateau, all eager to make their fortunes.

Remember the names: Justin Gimelstob, Jan-Michael Gambill, Ryan Wolters, Stephy Halsell, Lilia Osterloh and Tara Snyder.

They’re all bright young kids, top players on the U.S. National Team, each equipped with serves and slices that turn heads.

The problem sometimes, though, is that the wrong heads get turned.

This sport is unique in so many ways, none more so than the way it consumes its young, tempting them to turn pro at a time when perhaps they ought to be concerned with other things. Too often, it becomes a case of too much, too soon.

Every one of the semifinalists in the men’s singles competition at the Open turned pro before the age of 18. It seemed like each of them had been playing forever, even though the oldest, Boris Becker, is not yet 28.

Becker won Wimbledon a decade ago, at age 17. Michael Chang was the same age when he won the French Open. Pete Sampras had just turned 18 when he won his first U.S. Open.

Each of them has flourished, but for each success story like theirs, there is a player who gave into the temptation too early and failed. There are no guarantees, even though the coaches and agents and even parents sometimes make it sound like failure is impossible.

Talk to Jennifer Capriati, still trying to find her way back after falling into the abyss. Or Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, burned out and beat up by injuries before their time.

Or Ann Grossman, who grew up a slave to the sport, prodded to play by her father.

``I really did hate myself growing up because tennis was everything to my dad,″ said Grossman, who reached the third round of the Open. ``And if I won, I was great. And if I didn’t, I was like nothing. And when you’re an adolescent, you think there’s something wrong with you. You don’t know.

``I wouldn’t be here if he didn’t push me. They have to push but they have to know when to stop. And that’s difficult for a parent, and it’s kind of scary. ... What I’ve done is gotten out a lot of the anger. So when I go on the court, all those bad memories don’t come back to haunt me. And now, I’m free.″

Or try Mary Pierce, ranked No, 5 in the world, but only after she fought off her overbearing father, getting him barred from her tournaments. She will not discuss the matter.

The pressures, sometimes applied unwittingly, impact the way junior tennis is played. ``Every parent of a talented child starts thinking their kid might become multimillionaire professionals,″ said Seena Hamilton, who operates the Easter Bowl, a major showcase of American junior tennis and is an authority on all aspects of the game. ``It starts the first time a pro says, `This kid has talent.′ If they do well in a tournament, they get on a train to the fast lane.″

The USTA operates an ambitious junior program with an illustrious list of alumni including Chang, Sampras, Jim Courier, Chanda Rubin, Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez.

And Capriati and Grossman.

The competition is good for the kids. The pressure may not be.

Wayne Bryan is owner of the Cabrillo Tennis Club in Camarillo, Calif., and father of Mike and Bob Bryan, twin brothers who won the National Junior Doubles championship. He lectures coaches on the care and handling of young players.

``You always encourage a dream,″ he said. ``You have to know when not to overstep the boundaries of their true futures. If they play high school tennis, if they get a college scholarship, that is the realization of the dream. Not everybody is going to make it. If they have talent, help them reach their potential.″

And that doesn’t necessarily mean center court at the Open.

The agents surrounded Gimelstob, who completed a Junior Grand Slam by winning USTA National Boys 14s title in 1991, the 16s championship in 1993 and the 18s crown this year. He held them off and accepted early entry at UCLA last January, achieving a 4.0 grade point average in his first semester.

When he won a first-round match at the Open, he talked about turning pro and made it sound like that would happen sooner rather than later. He also talked about studying girls at UCLA, which, at his age, might be a more appropriate pursuit.

Slade Meade of Advantage International offered the agent’s perspective, saying if a player wins a junior title or NCAA crown and doesn’t sign when he’s hot, the big dollars may not be there later. It is a tough argument to ignore.

Hamilton looks at it this way:

``For those who are really competitive and want to work at the game and can find the resources to get the necessary training, the tournament system offers a tremendous opportunity for college scholarships and perhaps a successful pro career. But the money in the pro game is so strongly imparted on the mentality of the junior game that it often turns common sense into fantasy.″

END ADV For Release Sun Sept. 10

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