Are the next world tennis stars one of these pre-teens?

ACHARNES, Greece — This is Dominik Defoe. Ten years old and barely bigger than the net. Shoulder-length golden curls bounce through the air as he chases and smashes tennis balls, which he does better than any kid his age.

Defoe loves to play with the GPS in his mother’s car, so in the morning when they go to school, the phone directs them to Roland Garros, site of the French Open. He does it so often that his mother knows Roland Garros is 2:47 from their home in Belgium.

Defoe was almost in tears earlier this year when he received one of 48 invitations from IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, to attend the first Future Stars Invitational Tournament at the chic Tatoi Club in the northern suburbs of ‘Athens. The event, for boys and girls aged 12 and under, is both a tournament and a week of life education that could await Defoe and his rarefied peers, with seminars led by Nike executives and the men’s and women’s professional circuits, the ATP and WTA.

The race to find the next sports star has come down to this: With eight-figure fortunes potentially on the line, agents and scouts are evaluating and cultivating players still under 10 who are just getting started in serious competition. Future Stars is the latest and most extravagant recruiting effort for IMG, the company that essentially invented the sports representation business and dominated tennis for years.

“Nobody wants to organize a tournament for 11 and 12 year olds,” said Max Eisenbud, who heads the company’s tennis division. “I prefer to wait, but the competition has put us in this situation.”

For years, IMG agents rounded up future stars in two ways: tweens and young teens (Maria Sharapova, for example) showed up at its academy in Bradenton, Fla., once the premier training ground for the sport, looking for one of the many scholarships. ; where the agents showed up in Tarbes, France, for Les Petit As, the world’s premier tournament for players under the age of 14. There they often had something close to litter choice.

Over the past decade, however, rival academies have opened across Europe and IMG’s academy has focused more on profiting tuition-paying families rather than long-term bets. term about teenagers. Moreover, in recent years, when Eisenbud and his colleagues made their annual trips to Les Petits As, they found that almost all of the most promising players had already signed contracts with other management companies, many of which were operations. well-financed boutique companies that offered generous financial guarantees, sometimes going well beyond covering the annual fee of approximately $50,000 for training and travel on the junior circuit.

So, a sign of a fierce era in tennis, IMG is aiming younger, even if scouting for pre-teen talent can be nearly impossible and very difficult, risking increasing the pressure on children who are already giving it their all. heart joy and, in some cases, carry the load. financial responsibilities to their struggling families.

While stars like Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, Grand Slam champions in their twenties, have had to take breaks from tennis to take care of their mental health, it’s no exaggeration to consider the risks of raising the expectations so explicitly for prepubescent children. At a talk for girls on how to stay physically and mentally healthy, WTA Athlete Development Specialist Saga Shermis said she expects to see them on the tour in years to come. to come. It can be a lot.

“At this age they are still learning,” Polish Tennis Federation youth coach Adam Molenda said after watching two of his players, Antonina Snochowska and Maja Schweika, huddle together for an hour on Monday. . “You can never tell who will. Life is full of surprises.”

And decisions.

Grace Bernstein, a young Swedish star, floated onto the pitch and threw balls at a boy as his mother watched from the fence. Whether she plays tennis or cards, Bernstein competes tirelessly, said her mother, Catharina, a former player whose singles ranking peaked at 286 in 1991. She plays at an academy run by Magnus Norman, once a second player world in men’s singles. She is also a top soccer player.

“She’s going back and forth, but right now it’s tennis, so she’s playing tennis,” Catharina Bernstein said.

For some, fame and fortune can truly seem inevitable. Eisenbud signed Sharapova at the age of 11 after watching her strike for 45 minutes with an intensity and perfection he had never seen before. Carlos Alcaraz, who turns 19 on Thursday and is already the hottest young player in men’s football, has also been deemed worthy of being invested as a must-see 11-year-old. Then again, Eisenbud was sure that the first player he signed, Horia Tecau from Romania, was destined for greatness. Tecau became one of the best doubles specialists but never reached the top 300 in singles.

Eisenbud laid out his plan 18 months ago for a lavish competition with most expenses covered and all the perks of a professional event – ball kids, chair umpires, pristine red clay courts, Beats headphones and music swag. Nike for all children.

“We want to treat them like professional athletes,” said Tatoi Club general manager Elli Vizantiou.

Without forgetting that they are children, there was also a treasure hunt, group dinners each evening and a visit to the Parthenon. IMG brought in Alcaraz, fresh off their victory in the Barcelona Open final, to play an exhibition against Hubert Hurkacz, the 14th player in the men’s singles.

Assembling the Future Stars field took months of interviews with coaches and tennis federation officials around the world, evaluating resumes and tournament results, and browsing videos, in search of the magic combination of athletics and skill. The creation of a globally representative domain was also important. Finding a future top 50 player from a country or demographic that has never produced a tennis star could be game-changing and incredibly lucrative.

Players had to come with a chaperone, who in most cases was a parent, and a coach, giving IMG the chance to build relationships.

Credit…Gary I. Rothstein for The New York Times

Eisenbud encouraged coaches to pepper Italian coach Riccardo Piatti, who led a coaching seminar, with questions, describing him as the “best” in the world.

Piatti spent Tuesday morning with an eye on Tyson Grant, one of the best Under-12 players he has worked with for almost seven years. Piatti also oversees the coaching of Tyson’s 14-year-old sister, Tyra, who is already an IMG client. Tyson and Tyra’s father, Tyrone Grant, is nearly 6-foot-8 and played basketball professionally for a decade in Europe. With good genes, an early start and guidance from a renowned trainer, Tyson Grant could be a decent bet.

A few courts later, Haniya Minhas was tearing up one of the stunning young backhands, which she starts with the knot of her racquet handle resting roughly on her back hip.

“My favorite shot,” she said. “Everyone tells me to stretch my arms out, but I like the way I do it.”

Minhas, 11, is Pakistani and Muslim. She performs in a hijab, long sleeves and tights, and already looks like a billboard in the making.

She has been winning tournaments since the age of 5. Her search for a suitable competition took her from Pakistan, where women’s sport is sparsely supported and where she faced and beat every boy her age, to Turkey. Her mother, Annie, said she and her daughter wanted to prove that someone who looks and dresses differently than most players and who comes from a country that has never had a football star. tennis can beat anyone. They expect to sign with an agent when Haniya turns 12.

“We try to change the way of thinking,” said Annie Minhas.

Teo Davidov has a nice trick. Davidov, arguably the best men’s player under 12, lives in Florida. Her parents moved to Colorado from Bulgaria ten years ago when her father won the Green Card Lottery. Born right-handed, he strikes forehand from both sides and can also serve with both hands. His father and coach, Kalin, started trying to make Teo ambidextrous in tennis when he was 8 years old because he was hyperactive. Kalin thought that stimulating the right hemisphere of his brain, which controls attention and memory, and the left side of the body, with exercises for the left hand, would make him calmer.

“I hope it helps his game as well,” said Kalin Davidov. The technique is devastating for now, but a top player has never had success playing this way.

The Davidovs first became acquainted with Eisenbud and IMG three years ago, after Kalin posted a video of his son’s double forehand on Facebook. Soon the phone rang. Babolat, the French racket manufacturer, is a sponsor.

Michael Chang, who won the French Open in 1989 aged 17, came with his daughter, Lani, who displayed a terribly familiar cushioning and buried her nose in a Rick Riordan novel in the shuttle between the courts and the hotel. Chang said the young junior circuit has transformed since he was a child, with a lot more travel and international competition.

“They have a taste of what it is,” he said.

Gunther Darkey, a former middle pro from Britain, brought his son, Denzell, a top prospect and one of the few elite black juniors for the Lawn Tennis Association. Alcaraz has a 10 year old brother, Jaime, who was kind enough to receive an invitation. Just like Meghan Knight, the daughter of a well-known cricketer from England.

“You have to be the kind of person who, from the age of 9, can constantly improve while suffering losses every week for 10 or 15 years,” said Seb Lavie, who brought two players from his academy to Auckland , in New Zealand.

Dominik Defoe insisted he was ready to do anything to make it happen. He was about the smallest of the two dozen boys. He still plays with a junior-sized racquet and struggled to keep up with Grant in his first game. His opponents are all trying to hit with big topspin to bury him in the backcourt. He pushes the ball away with a short jump before it hits over his head.

Defoe, who speaks four languages ​​fluently, promised himself as a child that he would win the French Open. He built his life by giving himself the best chance to get there.

He goes to school in the morning for math and language lessons, but he works independently on the rest of his studies to free up more hours for tennis. Studying the pros closely, he decided not to have a favorite but built a composite player who has Dominic Thiem’s ​​forehand, Nick Kyrgios’ serve, Novak Djokovic’s backhand, Rafael Nadal’s attitude, Roger Federer’s net game and Felix Auger-Aliassime’s footwork. He practices mindfulness by writing in a journal.

“He told me when we got here that this trip was like a train ride,” said his mother, Rachel, who served as his first coach. “It’s just a stop, a station. Then the train continues.

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