In 1971, Larry Linett, a tenacious baseliner from Albany, N.Y., was ranked number one in the East in the Boy's 12-and-Under Division. A talented lefty from Douglaston, N.Y., John McEnroe was ranked number eight, in that same age group. Six years later, as McEnroe was winning the French Open mixed doubles, advancing to the semifinals of Wimbledon and winning an NCAA singles title for Stanford, Larry Linett was finishing a standout season, at The University of New York at Albany.
While both of these players achieved success as juniors and as adults, their earlier success cannot be completely correlated to their ultimate achievements.
Talent is a given in the formula for tennis greatness. It gives players a head start and limits terminal success. Everything else in between—training, experience, court vision, fitness, conditioning, poise, courage, ambition and desire—are the variables that interact over time to influence the finished product.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book, Outliers, believes that opportunity is perhaps the most significant variable which promotes achievement.
He cites the groundbreaking study by Anders Ericsson which talks about the 10,000-hour rule for mastery. Gladwell explains that 10,000 hours of practice are needed to master a skill and such opportunities for this practice are unique. The Beatles became masters of their musical skills by playing countless hours in small, smoky, German clubs before conquering Liverpool and then the world. Bill Gates lived within walking distance of one of the world’s most advanced computers which he was able to clandestinely access, and he had more access then perhaps anyone at such a young age in the world.
I am often asked by parents to evaluate their young child’s talent. This is a difficult task first, because at a very young age, it is impossible to distinguish between talent and precociousness. In other words, at the age of 10, a child may be an early developer or may be a true prodigy. By the age of 14, it is possible to look back and know, in hindsight, which was the more true statement, but at the age of 10, it is simply a guess and those who claim otherwise are probably "selling."
Talent judgment is also a misleading exercise, since it is not the definitive predictor of success anyway.
Give a young player the opportunity for growth, encouragement and structure, and they will be as good as they can be and the experience will be both positive and worthwhile.
The achievement of a high ranking may matter to the player, but quickly becomes just a number in a book that a few people look at.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.