The Long Journey to the U.S. Open

There are more than 3,000 professionally ranked players in the world and many more competing for their first point. Less than 10 percent of players competing in professional tournaments make it to the U.S. Open.
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The U.S. Open, the final of the four annual Grand Slams of the professional tennis tour, takes place in Queens, N.Y. from August 31st to September 13th (with qualifying rounds beginning the previous week). It often takes years of traveling to tournaments for players to get ranked highly enough to qualify for the U.S. Open. There are more than 3,000 professionally ranked players in the world and many more competing for their first point. Less than 10 percent of players competing in professional tournaments make it to the U.S. Open, and a fraction of 1 percent of all competitive junior players graduate to the professional tour.

All of the players on the professional tour started their training as children, and many competed on the international junior tour, which currently has more than 4,000 ranked players. Players are often introduced to the game by their parents as early as age four and specialize in tennis by age 10. Young players put in years of training and commitment to a professional athletic lifestyle entailing strict diets, long daily practice sessions, weekly tournaments, obedience to coaches, tolerance of pain and fatigue, restricted social engagements, and little free time. This typically requires separation from their childhood identities. For instance, traditional schooling is often replaced with online schooling to allow for more practice hours during the days and more flexibility to travel to tournaments.

As they become increasingly skilled, some of these young athletes turn professional or earn college scholarships. If they are not able to make a living on the professional tour, their academic sacrifices often narrow their career choices. This is especially true for players ranked outside of the top 200 where playing professional tennis usually costs more than it earns. For this reason, more and more players are deciding to play college tennis before turning professional.

However, in addition to being driven by the hopes of earning a scholarship or playing professionally, these athletes come to know themselves through their competitive identities. They develop a deep sense of self and purpose as they learn life skills, discovering what they are capable of doing in high-pressure situations as they respond to experiences of pain and potential loss. As a result, they develop a sport-based identity marked by their intensive focus, sacrifice, tolerance of pain and criticism, discipline, independent drive, and quick thinking; all characteristics that can be translated to life and careers outside of sport.

Sensations of mind-body-spirit connection and control can result from this early high-performance training and empower young athletes throughout their lives. But, along the way, many players also experience overuse injury and mental/emotional burnout. This happens more often when players and their trainers prioritize immediate results over long-term development and holistic well-being, or when training environments contradict cultural norms of parenting and social expectations of children. The year round schedule for junior players and the expectation to specialize as pre-teens are key factors in the development of overuse injuries throughout adolescence and of chronic injuries into adulthood.

Young players committed to their tennis identity are especially vulnerable to burnout as they learn that perseverance is a valued trait, even if they must persevere through abusive coaching and parenting behaviors. It is often difficult to discern beneficial training behaviors from detrimental ones in the elite sports environment because abuse and neglect are sometimes normalized as part of the process to developing a world-class athlete. But players who survive these training conditions do so in spite of the abuse they experience, not because of it. Player resilience as well as cultural conceptions of discipline and abuse factor into how certain training and parenting approaches can influence young players.

Like a rite of passage, qualifying for the U.S. Open signifies a player's status as having "made" it as a professional tennis player, even if that career is short-lived. Having invested their childhood and adolescence into tennis, the players of the US Open are social commentators of the human experience. They tell stories about perseverance and loss with each point that they play, and they inspire a drive in all of us to transcend our obstacles. But we should not take for granted the journey these players have endured and how they represent the small portion of athletes who struggled to get there but did not. For every young player who makes it to the U.S. Open, there are hundreds of others who withdraw from tennis because of lack of financial support, injury, burnout, and/or detrimental training conditions. This is important to remember for all involved in junior tennis and in policy-making aimed at maintaining the well-being of youth athletes, in general.

Jennifer Fiers has a Ph.D. in Anthropology. Her dissertation research focused on the ways in which junior tennis players interact with parents and coaches, deal with pain and burnout, and perceive their junior tennis environments. Her larger research focus is on well-being in youth sport. Fiers was a national junior tennis champion, played Division I tennis, and earned a world ranking on the professional circuit. She is currently Director of Tennis at the Boca Grande Club in Boca Grande, FL and has a one-year old son with her husband, Dan.

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