Tennis: Prodigies given new lease of life

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The Independent Online
BY RAISING from 14 to 16 the minimum age for competing at Wimbledon and the three other Grand Slam championships, the Women's Tennis Council has taken an important step towards reducing the incidence of 'burn- out' among teenage prodigies, writes John Roberts.

Though it will take until 1997 before the major championships close their gates to players between 14 and 16, the parents and agents of future money-making youngsters thereafter will have to put their ambitions on hold.

The new rules are due to come into force next year, but with provisos concerning precocious talent already in the pipeline. Martina Hingis, the Swiss junior champion of Wimbledon and the French Open, is due to make her professional debut in Zurich on 3 October, a week after her 14th birthday. She will be exempt from the rule change.

Players who become 14 next year, or who are aged between 14 and 17 at the time the rule becomes effective, will be treated as if they were a year older, until they turn 18.

This means that Venus Williams, an American 14- year-old who has still to join the tour, will be eligible for Grand Slams after her 15th birthday. Anna Kournikova, a 13-year-old Russian based at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Acadamy in Florida, would be eligible in 1996.

A decision to phase in players on a graduating tournament schedule, restricting the number and quality of events they are allowed to play, will also preclude under-16s from championships such as the ones at Eastbourne and Brighton.

The changes follow recommendations by an age elibibility commission which met in London during Wimbledon. The testimony of witnesses, including players, listed the major stresses on the tour as: 1, parents and family; 2, travel; 3, loneliness; 4, the media; 5, competition; 6, agents.

Two years may seem a short time, but that is all it took for the American Jennifer Capriati to change from a lively 14-year-old, capable of advancing to a Grand Slam semi-final in Paris, to a stressful, unhappy celebrity for whom the sport had become a treadmill.