Mia Smith’s parents have bet their house on the 12-year-old’s tennis talent.
Dawn and Chris Smith sold their home in Tunbridge Wells, 33 miles southeast of London, last year to enroll their daughter at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. After a sponsor dropped out at the last minute, the family decided it was the best option to help Mia become a top tennis player.
‘If we hadn’t given her this chance, we’d have always looked and said ‘What if?,’” Dawn Smith, 45, who moved to Bradenton, Florida, in August to accompany her daughter, said in a telephone interview. “There is such a small window of opportunity in tennis. You can’t come back to it, whereas with education, you can.”
Nick Bollettieri had spotted Mia Smith and urged her to join his school, which has produced 10 top-ranked players, including former Wimbledon champions such as American Andre Agassi and Russia’s Maria Sharapova. Still, a stay at the $68,495-a-year academy he founded in 1978 and sold to IMG in 1987 is no guarantee of greatness.
Unlike a decade ago, most tennis pros now typically won’t reach their peak until they are in their 20s, driving up expenses for parents and tennis associations. Teenage Grand Slam champions have become a rare sight as the game has grown in depth and players have become physically stronger.
Top of Tour
At the pinnacle of the sport at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where top seed Rafael Nadal’s quest for four major tennis titles in a row was ended by a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal loss to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer today, the men’s and women’s champion will earn a record $2.2 million, out of a total pot of $25.1 million. On the ATP Challenger Tour, which is one level below the ATP World Tour, prize money averages between $35,000 and $150,000.
Switzerland’s Roger Federer, the winner of a men’s record 16 majors, has earned more than $61 million in prize money in his career. Victor Hanescu, the world No. 50 from Romania, has made $2.8 million since he turned pro in 2000.
“I believe in Mia,” Bollettieri, 79, said in an interview. “She moves well, she serves well. But we have to be patient. Our objective is to take Mia to the next level. But first she’s got to get bigger and stronger, and that will take a few years.”
Bollettieri arranged for a 30 percent discount on the academy’s fee for Smith and has coached her an hour a day for free, a service that usually costs $800-$900.
“The academy is a different level to anywhere else I have been,” said Mia, who displayed a stylish single-handed backhand in a tennis demonstration video with Bollettieri. “It is tough and I love it, everyone is working hard together.”
It may cost up to $150,000 in total to prepare a junior player for the pro circuit, according to Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development at the U.S. Tennis Association. That includes travel, coaching, conditioning and food. The British Lawn Tennis Association estimated it costs around 250,000 pounds ($400,000) to develop a winning player from age 5 to 18. The International Tennis Federation said it may cost at least $35,500 annually for a 17-year-old male junior player on the international circuit to compete and train for 20 weeks a year.
The Smiths said they have only enough to fund this school year. Chris Smith works at a flower stand in Wimbledon train station, while Dawn isn’t able to work while living with Mia in Florida.
They are seeking a sponsor to help cover the $80,000 cost of the next academic year, which includes living expenses off- campus for Mia and her mother. The family’s two other children are in college.
“It’s not like we have an endless supply of funds to keep it going,” Dawn Smith said from Florida. “I wanted to demonstrate that we are committed and maybe somebody else will help out as well. Hopefully, it doesn’t come across that we’re deluded.”
The cost of raising a tennis player can be “prohibitive,” Judy Murray, the mother of 2010 Australian Open runner-up Andy Murray and a tennis coach based in Dunblane, Scotland, said in an interview. Her eldest son, Jamie, is also a tennis pro, ranked 64th in the world in doubles. Judy Murray drove the boys all over Britain in a van in their teens because there wasn’t enough competition back home in Scotland.
‘Really, Really Scary’
“I started to really log everything that we were doing in terms of spending,” she said. “It got really, really scary when you start putting down everything, from every single re- string to every time you fill the car up with petrol, every entry fee, every meal, every overnight stay.”
American Tracy Austin won the U.S. Open as a 16-year-old in 1979. Switzerland’s Martina Hingis had won three Grand Slam titles at that age, in 1997. Boris Becker won Wimbledon for the first time in 1985, when the German was 17.
No male teenager has won a major since then-19-year-old Nadal took his first French Open in 2005. The highest-ranked teenager on the men’s ATP World Tour is 19-year-old Grigor Dimitrov at No. 105. The Bulgarian has won $179,924 since he turned pro in 2008. Dimitrov last season won three consecutive Challenger titles. He lost in the second round of the Australian Open to Wawrinka, the No. 19 seed.
On the women’s WTA tour, age restrictions and more depth have helped to produce a top 10 without a player under 20.
“Everybody’s gotten stronger and bigger,” nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said in an interview in New York. “You won’t see a Tracy Austin coming up now at 5- foot-6 and taking over at 14. The game is too physical. There are many more good average players out there that hit the ball really hard.”
National tennis association programs such as that led by McEnroe in the U.S. are the most cost-effective way to become a tennis star. Parents who opt for a private tennis academy face tuition such as that at IMG Bollettieri, where a high-school student boarding full-time will be charged $68,495 for the 2011- 12 year, according to its website.
McEnroe took over the USTA’s player development in 2008 and encourages talented teenagers to go to college. He said it makes more sense financially for most players.
“Even if you have all the talent and all the ability in the world, at 17, 18 you just don’t have the physicality to make it week in, week out,” McEnroe, who played at Stanford University before turning pro in 1988, said in an interview. “You get a degree and you play college tennis, which is a really fun environment. You can work on your game without the ‘I have to put food on the table’ pressure that comes with the tour.”
The Smiths want to keep going until Mia reaches 13 or 14, when sponsorships generally start for more talented players.
“There is no magic wand out here,” Dawn Smith said. “All we’re trying to do is facilitate the fact that she is in the best place in the world for her tennis at the moment, with a great coach.”
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