By Danny Richardson
In February the Winter Olympics were ensnared by the all-too-familiar spectre of a Russian doping scandal. Kamila Valieva, a 15 year-old figure skater competing for the “Russian Olympic Committee,” had failed a drugs test taken before the Games, a fact that only emerged midway through the competition. To the outrage of many, the Court of Arbitration for Sport declined to provisionally suspend her, usually routine in doping cases, citing the “irreparable harm” it would cause someone of her young age to not compete.
Valieva had no happy ending; during her next performance she fell four times and left the ice visibly distressed. Unlike adult doping cheats, Valieva garnered sympathy, with people recognising a child under the control of a controversial coach had little power over the substances she was taking. The outrage quickly focused on the ethics of allowing children to compete in the Olympic Games, exposed to a world where they can become lambasted across every media outlet, at an age they are ill-equipped to deal with it. With the fact that as long as medals and national glory is on the line athletes will be pressured to deliver, recognition came that the only way to protect children is to not allow them in this environment. Action swiftly followed: the International Skating Union raised the minimum age from 15 to 17, a move designed to better protect young skaters.
To considerably lesser fanfare, during the Winter Olympics another minor was marking a career milestone. Brenda Fruhvirtová, a 14 year-old tennis player from the Czech Republic, won her first ITF World Tour title. It was an admirable achievement that has since been followed by more titles. But it raises the question: should players that young really be allowed to compete?
Professional tennis has a minimum age of 14. This is young compared to other Olympic sports; most require an athlete to be aged 15-18 (though Olympic debutant skateboarding allowed 12 year olds to compete). With a majority of sports requiring competitors to be older than 14 to compete, it’s reasonable to ask if tennis has fallen behind in not addressing this.
One age restriction already exists. The WTA implemented their current age rule in 1994, usually credited to the public struggle Jennifer Capriati went through as a teenager. This rule places a progressively rising limit on the number of tournaments a player under 18 can play each year. The idea was to act as a speed bump, allowing a player to compete but preventing a similar burnout by forcing time away from the tour and the public eye. The ATP has a similar, though less restrictive, rule for players under 16.
However, this only reduces the number of tournaments one can play, it does not place a limit on the tournament level. A 15-year-old can still enter the draws of grand slams, like Coco Gauff or Marta Kostyuk, thrusting them into the limelight. The modern world does not let Gauff live in peace in between tournaments; she’s been famous since her first Wimbledon and everything she does or says is spread on social media. The fortunate few who navigate their way up the rankings are still exposed, raising the point that if tennis wants to protect young players, this limit is not enough.
Mental health in sport is finally being recognised as a serious issue. Action has been more sparse, and if governing bodies of sport wish to live up to their promises, helping athletes from a young age is a good start. Every player will eventually need to find a strategy to survive in elite sport, but adults stand a greater chance of coping than young teenagers. Allowing players the space to develop as people before developing as public figures may help them more than dealing with both challenges at once.
Of course only a handful of players will ever get near the top as a teenager. Most, even future greats, will spend their time in the lower levels of the ITF tour, competing in front of small crowds and going little-noticed apart from the true obsessives. Does that mean it would be unfair to a majority of underage players to raise the age limit, to protect the top echelon by barring the participation of all children?
Well no. Because the mental pressures aren’t merely for those in the public eye, they are part and parcel for sport. Yes, a player needs to learn how to cope with it eventually. And yes, competing in junior tournaments can be taxing. But junior tennis, despite its own pressures and expectations, is still just juniors. It does not come with the prizes (or indeed any prize money at all) and obligations of the adult tour. And if changes for player welfare are also needed on the junior tours, it is a lot easier to achieve than trying to change the professional tours to suit underrage players.
Looking after young players’ mental health is a good enough reason. But their physical health is just as important, and the strain competing in any sport places upon still developing bodies must be considered. This was a cited factor in the ISU’s decision to raise their age limit. The WTA’s 10 year review of their age rule found that careers were lasting longer and player retirements had decreased. With the game now more physical than ever, should teenagers yet to fully go through puberty play against fully developed adults?
Unfortunately I am not an expert in physical development, nor has any of the tennis governing bodies seen fit to commission a further study into this. (A wide ranging investigation into the level of injuries sustained by players, and possible factors to mitigate them, is surely overdue, although that’s another topic entirely.) But a casual look at the evidence throws up a possible correlation that players who achieve success very young, at least on the women’s side, have a high chance of falling victim to long term injuries.
When the ITF congratulated Fruhvirtova in a tweet, they paid reference to previous 14-year-old winners Anna Kournikova (retired at 21 with a back injury), Laura Robson (career effectively over at 20 thanks to a wrist injury) and Timea Bacsinszky (gave up tennis for two years at 21 due to injuries and burnout). To this list of teenage stars with injuries we can add Cici Bellis (retired at 22), Ana Konjuh and Donna Vekic (still playing but both persistently injured). Almost every player competes to some extent in senior tennis from the first year of eligibility, so this shouldn’t be cast iron proof. But it at least suggests a correlation between rising up the rankings young (committing full time to WTA tour level events against the top players in the process) and long term injury.
Finally, we have to face the reality of sport: most participants will never make it anywhere near the top. Many will fall before even reaching adulthood, and the nature of competing full-time as a teenager usually requires sacrificing education and socialising at a crucial age in their development, potentially leaving an ex-player ill-equipped for the rest of their life.
By delaying the age a player can enter professional sport you delay the age a player needs to commit to it full-time. While all junior athletes are training and competing on a regular basis, most will remain in school, at least until teenage years where the prospect of professional competition drives many to leave in favour of remote schooling (often of a potentially dubious nature). A higher minimum age in tennis makes it likely more players would stay in school for longer, perhaps long enough to ensure they leave with qualifications and a reasonably normal childhood.
While many parents and coaches follow the received wisdom that going full time into sport at an early age is necessary for future success, even with current rules you can win young. Iga Swiatek became world number one at 20 despite remaining in school, while anyone who has watched British TV coverage over the past 18 months is fully familiar with the fact Emma Raducanu was sitting her A-Levels months before winning the U.S. Open.
And with careers now lasting deep into the 30s and even 40s, it’s hard to say players will lose much time by delaying the age they can compete. Although the current ATP no. 1 is 19 years old, tennis is not really a sport for teenagers anymore. The average age of winning your first major and entering the top 10 has been increasing, breaking through past 25 is increasingly common. Players simply have more time now. Their teenage years are no longer in the prime of their careers.
The concept that a sport should have a duty of care towards its participants has never always been welcomed, with a traditionalist macho mindset clinging to the idea that you should deal with the strain or quit. This was an unacceptable attitude with adults – with children it is downright unethical.
A more enlightened era has started to challenge the notion that a sport can longer treat athletes as profit generators with no concern towards their wellbeing. Tennis, then, needs to be proactive, and not wait for another Valieva-style scandal to force change. It is time for tennis to look at raising the minimum age.