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Tennis-Youngsters pay the price of sporting fame

Tennis-Youngsters pay the price of sporting fame

It takes more than a powerful serve, a knockout punch or a fantastic run down the final straight to rule the sporting world.

A player needs consistency, lots of luck and the will to win. Most importantly he or she must be mature - not only physically but mentally as well.

Striking the right balance between all these factors in the high-pressure world of professional sport is easier said than done.

Just ask Jennifer Capriati.

When the 24-year-old Capriati won her first grand slam title at this year's Australian Open, she finally laid to rest the demons that have haunted her ever since she became the most hyped American prodigy to hit the tennis circuit.

Capriati was a textbook case of tennis burnout for which fellow Americans Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger had provided the template.

At 13, she was a six-million-dollar girl, showered with endorsement contracts even before she played her first professional match in March 1990.

In 1991, she became the youngest Wimbledon semifinalist in history at the age of 15. But within two years Capriati had tired of the game and was arrested for shoplifting and for possession of marijuana.

At 18, when most teenagers are just starting out in life, Capriati had become the ultimate role model for failure.

PRESSURE TO SUCCEED

Tennis at the top level demands a focus that is too narrow to be healthy, with some youngsters pushed too hard too soon by parents and coaches, say critics.

When they arrive on the professional stage the pressures are intensified by media scrutiny.

As far back as 1986, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) published a booklet stating: "Burnout is a modern-day phenomenon. It is a result of outside pressures being placed on talented children to succeed at any cost, whether it be in education, music or tennis."

A manual to be published by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) next month adds: "Lack of control and being pushed by others can lead to demotivation, injury and burnout."

While injuries compelled Austin and Jaeger to retire before they were 20, Capriati has made a remarkable resurgence. She has succeeded where all precedent was failure.

Looking back on a first-round defeat in the 1993 U.S. Open, the low-point of her career, Capriati has said: "Maybe 14 is too young to handle everything emotionally and I needed to escape from the expectation of being able to win every tournament I entered.

An older and wiser Capriati recalled: "I spent a week in darkness, just hating everything. When I looked in my mirror I actually saw this distorted image: I was so ugly and so fat.

"I just wanted to kill myself. I was depressed and sad and lonely and guilty."

In a bid to prevent burnout, the WTA introduced a rule in 1995 which allows players under the age of 18 to enter only a handful of tournaments - and no grand slams until they are 15.

CROWDED CALENDAR

Tennis may be a prime arena for burnout but other sports are not far behind.

Former All Black captain Todd Blackadder has complained that top players are suffering because of the intensity of the rugby union calendar.

Injuries to a trio of British Lions squad members, including Lawrence Dallaglio, prompted calls to reduce the quantity of rugby played in England.

The cry of too much soccer by players and mangers alike was greeted by the introduction of yet another tournament in 2000 - the FIFA World Club Championship.

But last week FIFA postponed the 2001 tournament for two years citing, among other reasons, concern over the congested fixtures list.

Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, faced with a growing schedule thanks to the club's success in three cup competitions, took matters into his own hands.

He used a squad rotation system to rest players who might otherwise have been forced to play more than 60 matches for the English premier league club this season.

Brazilian striker Ronaldo has played only six minutes of competitive soccer in the last 18 months in another illustration of talent going to waste.

The twice footballer of the year had been billed as the greatest one-man soccer show on earth and the perfect advertising vehicle for a wide range of products.

DAZED AND LETHARGIC

However, from being the world's most famous footballer, the unfortunate Ronaldo has become the world's most injured footballer.

The starting point for his troubles was the 1998 World Cup final when Brazil lost 3-0 to France. Ronaldo was picked to play despite suffering a reported convulsive fit only hours earlier and he looked dazed and lethargic throughout the match.

A Brazilian Congressional inquiry is currently investigating how much influence U.S. sportswear giant Nike, the team's official sponsors, hold over the side.

Nike, who have committed $369 million over 10 years to the team and have a personal contract with Ronaldo, last month denied that they interfered in team selection.

Ronaldo himself told the inquiry that the decision to play was based solely on medical tests and his own wishes rather than outside pressures.

Sports stars, especially the young and good-looking, make good promotional vehicles, as advertising executives have long realised.

The striking Anna Kournikova made only $930,000 in tennis prize money last year but more than $9.3 million in earnings from endorsement deals, including one to advertise sports bras.

It is a point not lost on those surrounding current teenaged tennis prodigy Monique Viele.

A press release trumpeting the arrival of the 16-year-old American on the professional tour declared: "She looks more like a supermodel than a tennis player."

It was issued by her coach Rick Macci, whose previous charges included a certain Jennifer Capriati.


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