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.