The Reality of Tennis Adolescence

President Theodore Roosevelt once said of his 19-year-old daughter, “I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.”  We’ve all been (or are) adolescents – we can all recognise the strain we’ve put on our own parents, friends, or loved ones.

Professional adolescence is real too – at 25, I have experienced this in my own career over the last several years: the awkward transition from wide-eyed, shell-shocked new worker to something resembling a functioning, professional, grown-ass human being. I’m still very much  a work in progress.

In tennis, adolescents face this pressure publicly. The best young players are already earning thousands of dollars in prize money or lucrative sponsorship deals by as young as 17 or 18, they have other people relying on them for salaries, they regularly have to account for their failures and successes to press or fans on social media, and they have more experienced opponents across the court actively working to hold them back. With all of this, they are expected to display Federer-zen off court, and Hingis-prodigiousness on court.

That’s tough. No wonder the young stars have drawn ire in recent years. Their age dictates that they break from the mould of the generation before them. They do not conform to accepted behaviour. They do not conform to expectations of their performance. This is what it is to be adolescent.

Eugenie Bouchard is one such adolescent who draws frustration, and one whose results ought to speak for themselves. The twenty-one year old Canadian is not only a comfortably cushioned member of the top ten at a current ranking of no. 7, she was also one of the last two women standing at Wimbledon last year and one of the elite 8 who earned a place on the battleground of Singapore to close out the 2014 season. Absolutely, on those occasions she was unable to make a large impact, but her place was earned.

Of course Bouchard’s problem is one of control, she is unapologetic for not fitting the sunshine-blonde persona some would rather she adopt. Eugenie is best described as a jock – competitive, stern, focused, even unapproachable. Her most recent foray into angering tennis fans, her refusal to shake the hand of Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru ahead of a FedCup tie because she doesn’t believe in wishing an opponent luck before a match, has only increased the unfriendly image she presents.

While many are scandalised, I don’t know that this is such a cause for concern.

It wasn’t long ago that similar charges of unsportsmanlike conduct would have been cast at the young American Sloane Stephens. Indeed, for the last couple of years Stephens had been the poster girl for adolescent misbehaviour – a seeming lack of effort on court, suggestions that she was too involved in her own fame, mockery for having dared to call Serena Williams ‘disrespectful’ on the court.

Stephens’ greatest opposition came when her game started to show weakness – it has been three years since she defeated Williams at the Australian Open, and she has rarely been able to attain such success again. In 2015 though, Stephens is resurgent, and one can’t help but notice a more positive sentiment towards her return. Now that Stephens has had time to settle into the life of a tennis player, has had time to learn how to take the hard times, she may well be more equipped to deal with success.

Stephens’ personality hasn’t fundamentally changed, nor should it, she just seems to have gained a better knowledge of herself and her position in the grand scheme of the tour. At the same time, tennis fans have gained perspective in regards to her character.

Perspective is exactly what Bouchard is likely to gain from the current series of terrible defeats she is suffering. As this perspective sinks in she may well learn to compromise on her surprisingly vehement anti-handshake stance, choosing instead to save her passion for matters less trivial. Where Bouchard is already impressing is her attitude to her current situation – she admits there is a great deal wrong with her game, she admits she isn’t quite sure what all of her problems are yet, and she is approaching improving with a workmanlike tenacity. She’s not whining, where it would be very easy to whine. That’s tennis maturity.

Bouchard doesn’t need to become a pocket-full-of-sunshine, not at all. There’s nothing wrong with being unapproachable, or a jock. I hate to draw the typical comparison, but…it works for Maria Sharapova. Bouchard will grow, and evolve. We should give her time, rather than trying to control her.

In tennis it is easy to lament a lack of focus, a lack of respect, a lack of effort, a lack of this…of that…but all of this really comes from wanting to control young players who need time to develop into their games and into themselves. What good does this do?

It is far more enjoyable, and sensible, to embrace the adolescence of rising stars. To enjoy the journey to tennis adulthood that will come with its highs and lows.

Alice Roosevelt became renowned for her sharp tongue and iron clad will. Nobody ever did manage to control her, and by the time she died at the age of ninety-six she had become known as “the other Washington monument”.

Adolescence is hard, but it is how you build an adult. It is how you build a champion.

Andrew can be found in the mountains of Switzerland, watching tennis and trying not to eat too much Swiss cheese. You can follow him on twitter @BackSwings

9 Responses

  1. Sabey
    Sabey April 21, 2015 at 2:28 pm |

    Very nice piece Andrew! I think we all need to be reminded to take a deep breath and give young players some space to grow. It always seem the vitriol piles up when the player is slumping.

  2. Kisha
    Kisha April 21, 2015 at 9:13 pm |

    I enjoyed this article but do think it’s possible to disapprove of a churlish act and not be considered overly critical. I agree with many of the points made here regarding the slump, but that is somewhat separate from the handshake issue, is it not? The slump is clearly not something she is able to control at the moment, refusing to shake hands is not. Being unapproachable is not the same as being discourteous, and it’s difficult for me to think of an example of Maria as being the latter (and no I’m not a Maria fan).


  3. Y
    Y April 22, 2015 at 2:42 am |

    Bouchard could be experiencing emotional issues that likely affect her game. Her weight loss since the beginning of this year is a cause for concern. It may or may not be in her case, but often, young women try to manage crises in their lives by controlling their bodies. In early 2014, Bouchard was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and happy, it seemed. But by late summer, she had angst and anger in her face. Unfortunately, for young tennis players, especially women, most of whom did not have “normal/regular” childhoods, their acting out becomes fodders for public consumption. Remember Jennifer Capriati and Hingis in their younger years? Bouchard, the face of young WTA, is over-exposured to the media – yes, there is a lot of blame to pass around for this, while others have the benefit of working out their ups and downs quietly. Halep, turning 24 later this year, is a good example of a player who has been allowed to grow without much public scrutiny outside of Romania. By contrast, Bouchard was shot out of a cannon, and expected to achieve greatness in no time. She bears some responsibility in constantly proclaiming her desire to win grand slams, thus, raising the expectations from fans and critics alike. And she is probably her own harshest critic. Her people need to pull her back from the spotlight. On the bright side, Agassi, with whom Bouchard shares similar early stardom and an aggressive ground game, did not win his first major until more than 5 years after he turned pro. And we know how his career went. Let’s hope those who love her unconditionally will see to her well-being, and that she will humble herself to take good advice. Instead of fixating on winning grand slams, just relax and concentrate on playing great tennis. Enjoy the game and not get psyched out by tunnel vision. Paint dries whether you are staring at it or not. Good will happen if you do the right things.

  4. cjb
    cjb April 22, 2015 at 3:32 am |

    I can’t see any reason why Bouchard shouldn’t learn some manners. Being young, famous and rich no doubt makes life difficult but I don’t recall Chris Evert, who experienced all three at a younger age, refusing to shake anyone’s hand.

  5. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic April 22, 2015 at 4:58 am |

    Great text! I think, however, that youth is not necessarily an excuse for being a dick. Lets take Sharapova – I find her prudish, cold and sometimes plain rude behavior distasteful a lot of the time, and she is pretty far gone from being an adolescent.

    What does remain to be seen is whether Genie’s manners will improve over time. I’m a Gulbis fan, so I’m no stranger to people being asses, and I genuinely liked Genies “go-f-yourself” attitude, but sometimes I think they take it a bit far (Gulbis included) just in order to be all spunky and rebellious – using this kind of lip to build an image instead of it being an integral part of their personality that just leaks onto the court and their PR goings-on.

  6. Karen
    Karen April 24, 2015 at 7:58 am |

    In some parts of the world, Bouchard is considered an adult, not an adolescent. She is an adult, having the ability to make adult decisions. How is her growth in a professional arena any different than the other millions of young adults who make their foray into the working world? I am a Genie fan but this nonsense about no handshake and wishing your opponent good luck is just that, nonsense. It is not even a case of wishing your opponent luck. It is about fair play, sportsmanlike conduct and good competition. All of which embodies the spirit of Fed Cup for love of country etc. I agree with the poster up to top who describes Sharapova as rude etc. She is rude and Genie has said in the past that she admires Sharapova so not for nothing the comparisons are being made.

  7. Yolita
    Yolita April 25, 2015 at 10:04 pm |

    You make some very good points.

    However, I can’t help noticing that, although Genie behaved in exactly the same way last year, the outrage was minimal. So it seems to me that the media/fans are not chastising Genie for being rude or rebellious, they are chastising her for losing. If she had won, like she did last year, this would be a non-issue, as it was last year.

  8. April 30, 2015 at 5:07 pm |

    I enjoyed this article but do think it’s possible to disapprove of a churlish act and not be considered overly critical. islam quotes on life

  9. James
    James May 3, 2015 at 1:45 am |

    Since when does a handshake automatically equate to wishing someone good luck?

    I view it the same as getting your picture taken with your opponent pre-match. It just signifies the spirit of fair play.

    If you’re going to be arrogant, no problem. But you better have the results to back it up. Otherwise, you’re just a jerk.

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