Young, gifted and British: Teenagers flourishing in Florida
For years Britain seemed incapable of producing promising young tennis players. Then along came Andy Murray. Now, amazingly, we have a 17-year-old boy who is ready to follow in Murray's footsteps. Even more amazingly there is a 17-year-old girl who is just as promising. Paul Newman reports
Wednesday 14 February 2007
Naomi Cavaday is so tired at the end of each day that she goes to bed at 8pm and sleeps for 11 hours. Graeme Dyce lives in a dormitory, starts work in the gymnasium at 7.15am and trains all day, even in the full heat and humidity of the Floridan summer.
Neither would have it any other way. Britain's leading junior tennis players, both 17, are learning their craft at Nick Bollettieri's academy at Bradenton. The veteran coach's graduates include Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, with Nicole Vaidisova and Jelena Jankovic the latest protégés to reach the world's top 10.
Cavaday, who was hand-picked by Bollettieri after he watched her at Wimbledon last summer, had her first spell there in December and returns later this month. Dyce had his initial taste of the academy two years ago and is now there on a full-time scholarship.
"Nick Bollettieri himself sets the standards," Dyce said. "He's up and working by 5am each day. He's 75 yet he seems to be going for 24 hours a day. He's amazing." What is Dyce's typical day? "We're in the gym by 7.15, warming up and running or stretching. We're on the court from 8 until 10 with the coaches, working on our game. Then we'll have a fitness session for maybe an hour and a half. We also lift weights for a couple of hours a week and sometimes we go running round the soccer fields or do sprints.
"In the afternoon we usually play matches. The coaches look for us to put into practice things we've been working on in the mornings. At the end of the afternoon we'll do stretching and more physical work. There's usually one day in the week where we'll take it a bit easier, because it would be pretty tough if you were going at it all week." He added: "It's an atmosphere that you want to work in. I've got a lot of respect for my coach. I listen to everything he says. You want to work hard."
Dyce, No 30 in the world junior rankings, won the Australian Open boys' doubles championship last month in partnership with Finland's Harri Heliovaara to become the first Briton to wear a Grand Slam junior crown since Andy Murray lifted the US Open singles title three years ago.
The time that Bollettieri has devoted to Kent-born Cavaday, who is No 26 in the girls' world rankings, indicates how highly he rates her. "I just wasn't expecting as much time from him personally," Cavaday said of her initial four-week spell there. "He gave me two or three hours without fail every single morning, one-on-one. Sometimes he'd give me two or three hours in the afternoon as well. To be getting that attention from the best coach in the world was unbelievable."
Cavaday has been working at Bradenton under an arrangement between Bollettieri and Roger Draper, chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association. Although Draper has made sweeping changes to the LTA's personnel and structure in the hope of ending years of British under-achievement, the likelihood is that the best young players will still go abroad to complete their tennis education, even after next month's opening of a £40m national tennis centre at Roehampton.
Murray, the only world-class Briton to emerge since Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, based himself at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona from the age of 15. It was at the same age that Dyce decided to broaden his horizons. Juggling his schoolwork and sport had become difficult as he had to take buses to different parts of his home city of Edinburgh to attend a gymnasium and to train at a tennis centre.
Long nights and cold days were not conducive to outdoor work in the winter, though an even bigger problem was the lack of training partners, despite the recent flow of Scottish tennis talent. "Andy Murray left, Jamie Baker left, Alan Mackin went to Queen's and was hardly around," Dyce said. "There was just nobody there."
Judy Murray, Andy's mother, who coached Dyce from the age of eight, advised him to look abroad. He visited the Sanchez-Casal academy but preferred Bradenton. "I just decided that Bollettieri's suited my personality best," he said. "I enjoyed the atmosphere and the American attitude. Language was a big thing for me [compared with Sanchez-Casal]. I also had some friends already at Bollettieri's, so it was good to go somewhere where I knew some people.
"When I first got there, my coach told me they didn't care about my ranking or anything I'd done before. He said I just had to win matches at the academy, win sets in practice sessions and work my way up. It was made clear that if my level dropped then they would drop me. However, provided I played well, I'd keep progressing."
The LTA and Sport Scotland provided help with Dyce's initial funding, but Bollettieri was so impressed that he gave him a full-time scholarship and put him in his "Top Gun" group of youngsters, who often act as hitting partners for leading professionals like Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse and Max Mirnyi.
Dyce's coach is David "Red" Ayme, who worked for several years with Haas, the current world No 10. Dyce also hit with Murray when the British No 1 spent time at the academy in December and worked with Brad Gilbert, his coach. He shares a room with Zach, Gilbert's 18-year-old son.
"It's quite a boost for your confidence when you have people like Nick Bollettieri and David Ayme saying they thought I had something and wanted to see my name up on the wall along with the other guys," Dyce said. "Hitting with the big guys on a regular basis helps you do everything a lot better. You can learn a lot just by watching them and being around them. They're at the top of the game and that's the level we're trying to get to. My whole level just jumped up."
Dyce will start playing more on the senior circuit this year - he has played in only one tournament so far - though the Grand Slam junior events are a major objective. Cavaday has been competing against her elders for more than a year and gave Ai Sugiyama, the world No 21, a run for her money in the first round at Wimbledon last summer, after which Bollettieri invited her to Bradenton.
Sharapova and Vaidisova were at the academy over the winter and Cavaday, who recently started working with David Felgate, Henman's former coach, had the chance to practise with Tatiana Golovin, the world No 20. With no British women ranked in the world's top 150, it was the sort of chance she does not have regularly at Queen's, where she has been part of the LTA's elite squad.
"It would be nice to have someone from Britain in the top 50 to go and hit with sometimes and get that experience," Cavaday said. "I just can't get that in Britain - but I can at Bollettieri's. That's a huge thing for me. The facts speak for themselves. So many successful players have come out of his academy.
"The facilities are unbelievable. There are 50 courts, indoor facilities, a huge gym. You go in the gym and there are basketball, baseball and soccer players working out in there. They bring their own work ethic. But the biggest difference between the academy and anywhere else I've experienced is Nick himself. He's always on court, always smiling, always positive."
What does Bollettieri himself make of his young Britons? He likes Cavaday's ability to hit "just about any shot in the book" and says she is "a fighter to the bitter end". He thinks her partnership with Felgate can pay real dividends, though he says she needs to work on her fitness and her attitude. "At times she's too negative," he said.
Bollettieri says Dyce is "a street fighter" and has been impressed by his progress. "Physically he's a big boy who is still developing," Bollettieri said. "He's very serious and totally focused at all times. He's improving every day."
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