The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, April 7, 2020

Wimbledon's cancelled and we discuss the Age Eligibility Rule | Interview: the future of Irish Tennis is female thanks to Gráinne O'Neill

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The WTA and the Age Eligibility Rule

When the COVID-19 pandemic first cancelled the BNP Paribas Open, one player was more inconvenienced than others: Coco Gauff. The American was saving her last tournament of her 15th year for Indian Wells specifically, avoiding WTA action since the Australian Open. For a 15-year-old, a player can play up to 10 WTA tournaments in a birthday cycle, as well as the WTA Finals or Elite Trophy and Fed Cup, if they qualify.

The WTA’s Player Development started the AER in 1995 to protect young players from burnout, injury and abuse. Many call it the “Jennifer Capriati Rule,” named after the American who quickly shot up the WTA rankings as at age 13, before burning out five years later and getting arrested for drug and shoplifting charges. With the AER enforced in the WTA Rulebook, with each new birth year, the player gains tournaments until her 18th birthday, where there’s no limit. There’s also stipulations on wildcard allotment and player development learning requirements, but players can also receive merit increases dependent on age and results on the ITF Junior Circuit and WTA Tour.

A hot topic in this discussion is what if the AER limits a phenom’s growth and potential? Roger Federer, who plays on the ATP where there is no AER, is one of many critics of the AER, citing Martina Hingis as a prime example of minors flourishing when their ready, as well as inserting pressure on the players to perform well in their allotted tournaments. However, players like Hingis and Serena Williams were grandfathered in and didn’t have to adhere. Maria Sharapova was the last teenager to win a Grand Slam when she won Wimbledon in 2004.

I don’t think the WTA is limiting players growth with the AER, but extending it. Look at the cases like Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Jelena Dokic. Both were touted juniors predicted for WTA dominance. Abusive fathers and injuries derailed their full potential and constantly asking the question “what if?” You could even argue with teen sensations Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger thriving at young ages, but the game wasn’t as physical back then, nor was the media as polorizing. The WTA players are hitting harder than ever and require so much movement and physicality, as well.

With the AER hitting it’s 25th anniversary this year, it’s a great time to ask, “is the AER worth it?” In one short word: yes.

According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006, “statistical analysis of WTA Tour players’ careers found that premature retirements (players leaving the Tour at or before age 21) decreased significantly from 7% before the AER to less than 1% afterward, and median career length increased by 43%.” The WTA is a product that has thousands of players of all ages and walks of life under its umbrella. 99% of the players on tour aren’t junior phenoms and have their own path to success. The WTA also meets every year to discuss the AER and if tweaks need to be made. Gauff’s 2019 success was a driving force behind the most recent addition of merit increases.

Getting rid of a rule for the 1%, in a climate where there is so much scrutiny on print and social media, doesn’t grow the sport. It hurts it.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Vania King was supposed to finish her playing career in Charleston, but COVID-19 prematurely cut those plans. This week’s must-read is the WTA’s profile and interview with the two-time Grand Slam doubles champion.

As mentioned last week, Wimbledon announced that the 2020 Championships have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the first time it’s happened since WWII in 1945 and the last time Wimbledon was cancelled during peace was in 1877. Players took to social media to express their disappointment of missing what many call the Mecca of tennis, but understand there is a greater purpose. As a result, the WTA and ITF have postponed playing action through July 13th.

The WTA continued rolling our their In the Moment series with the founders of the WTA, the Original 9. This week’s interview speaks with Peaches Bartkowicz, who never doubted the tour would fail despite opposition from most.

Via the video game Tennis World Tour, the Mutua Madrid Open will be hosting a virtual tennis tournament where the players will battle it out online. Fans can watch and interact during the game and proceeds from the event will go to COVID-19 relief efforts, as well as towards a fund to help impacted players.

Simona Halep sat down with Eurosport’s Tennis Legends vodcast to discuss various topics, including being a now-two-year champion at Wimbledon.

The former World No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion gave fans a look into her home routine as she self-isolates:

#CoachVenus: Venus Williams is staying active at home and has been leading Instagram Live workouts with home products, such as champagne bottles. Sister Serena and mom Oracene have made some cameos and doing the workouts aside Venus.

Staying homebound with fiancé Jozy Altidore, Sloane Stephens had a Twitter Q&A with fans with the chat discussing Netflix, idols, puppies and more.

US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, sidelined since October with a knee injury, shared a day from her Self-Isolation Diary to Fashion Magazine.

Tatjana Maria announced this week she was expecting her second child and will be taking a break from the tour. She, one of nine active mothers on tour, plans on returning after maternity leave.

In coaching news, 2019 WTA Coach of the Year Craig Tyzzer was the most recent interview from the WTA’s Coaching Dossier. He discusses his background and philosophies and how he best works with World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. Also, Sandra Zaniewska discussed coaching Alize Cornet in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as participating in relief efforts

Cameroon’s Lorie Lemongo is stationed at the ITF/CAT High Performance Tennis Centre in Casablanca, Morocco and is one one two players blogging for the ITF about being quarantined, but also navigating tennis training.

Australian Open junior doubles champion Alexandra Eala sat down with the ITF to discuss being a Filipino player and the pride of waving the flag from a small tennis country.

2017 USTA Girls National champion Ashley Kratzer was provisionally suspended by the ITF after testing positive for the growth hormone GHRP-6. Kratzer, who has been ranked as high as No. 200 in 2018 and currently sits at No. 498, has only played one match since September – at January’s WTA $125k event in Newport Beach where she tested positive.

Tweet of the Week

I’m making the executive decision to only post Kristie Ahn TikToks while we self-isolate because, well, she’s taking over the tennis world.

Five at The IX: Gráinne O’Neill

Gráinne O’Neill is the new National Coordinator for Women at Tennis Ireland. A junior national champion, she moved on to play for four years at The Ohio State University, captaining the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship and Elite Eight finish at the NCAA tournament. She talks with us about her new role and how she will use her experience to foster more female players and leaders in the Irish tennis community.

Joey: You were recently named the National Coordinator for Women at Tennis Ireland. Can you explain your duties since this role was just created.
Gráinne: My role began in Mid-February so I have tried to hit the ground running since I started. I have met with many of our key stakeholders in Tennis Ireland along with other National Governing Bodies of Sport in Ireland to learn from their experiences. The first step in my role is to conduct research with existing tennis leaders in Ireland and I had arranged to hold focus groups around the country, piloting my first one before the COVID-19 outbreak began in Ireland. From then, I have set up a national survey and invited all Irish tennis females to participate in. That was last week so the survey is still open to complete and from the answers given, we can decide what the next steps will be to focus on.

Joey: You were a collegiate player at Ohio State. How has your experience in America and in the NCAA system geared you up for your role?
Gráinne: Absolutely, well first and foremost, moving to Columbus by myself when I was 18 was a huge change but one I am so grateful for. It opened my eyes to the opportunities sports can offer for us. I had such a wonderful support structure, from my teammates, coaches, trainers, advisors, lecturers and the Buckeye community as a whole which I think is so important to grow as a person. So really I would love to be able to be provide a support base to any female tennis player in Ireland, build fun, engaging programs and increase the number of coaches to allow girls to flourish and maximize their potential in the sport.

I was so fortunate to have had Melissa Schaub as my Head Coach. During the NCAA season I was excited to note how many female head coaches were running great programs in their colleges. In my role, I hope to encourage Irish female coaches to aspire to be top coaches in their clubs, regional performance squads and at a national level.

Joey: A significant portion of your role is to build a larger number of female leaders in the Irish tennis community. Women make a small portion of professional coaches on the WTA Tour. How do you see yourself knocking that glass ceiling and being a leader in producing opportunities for women? 
Gráinne: For me, I look at it as small changes lead to bigger outcomes. In my role, I hope to run a female-only coaching course and upskilling workshops. Once that has been implemented and ran, as I’ve mentioned in my previous question, I hope we can inspire those coaches to reach for higher goals. It’s not just in coaching. In Ireland, while some clubs/ branches have gender balance on their committees, there is still some clubs with a gender imbalance. We are planning on offering training and advice to women to encourage them to run for committees and be leaders in their clubs. I believe it is only through development from the grassroots that we can even hope to break through the glass ceiling and start to see major change.

Joey: Ireland only has two players currently ranked: Georgia Drummy, who is playing at Vanderbilt and Sinead Lohan, who graduated from Miami and recently began her professional career full-time. What are some ideas or initiatives Tennis Ireland needs to implement to foster a deeper pool of WTA players?
Gráinne: The crutch of the matter is, we are limited unfortunately with our resources and funding in Tennis Ireland. We are grateful for all the funding we receive from Sport Ireland (our main national governing body), however, it can be tough deciding where the funding is allocated. Georgia and Sinead have both worked extremely hard for what they have achieved to date, we are so proud of them representing our country at such an elite level. We will continue to support and promote them in our country, with the hope they can inspire young girls to take up tennis competitively.

Joey: Where do you hope to see women’s tennis in Ireland a year from now, as well as 5 years?
Gráinne: There’s four areas we hope to see development for women’s tennis in Ireland in a years’ time. The first being active participation, an increase in women playing via a national participation program. The second being coaching/officiating, more female coaches and officials via female-only courses and workshops. The third being leadership and governance, via training and guidance, Lastly, visibility for the sport via an increased focus on promoting on our social media channels and media outlets across our country. In five years, I hope we have built on these initiatives and increased the number of women playing professionally on the tour.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala,@ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by The IX Team