The days of junior sport only just being about fun are well and truly over. Well of course as children start out it is all about fun, but a quick look behind the curtain and a little into the future and you will see that for the most ambitions youngsters and those that have the inner drive to succeed and compete that things get serious very quickly.
Tennis is played on a global level and is now played all over the world. So many different countries, so many different locations and so many different systems.
When it comes to producing players on the world stage the junior development pathway will vary from country to country and continent to continent. World rankings at the top of the professional game change all the time and it is interesting to see how athletes and players have come through the ranks and the development pathway they have had access to.
The question and talking point that continually gets raised is what is the best direction and junior development pathway that a player can progress through to maximise potential.
Financially viable spots on the Professional Tour are limited. What gives me a shot to get into those spots?
In terms of junior development look no further then the European Junior Tour structure.
Tennis Europe is a juggernaut. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour consists of almost 500 events each year for players aged 12, 14 and 16 & under staged in almost all of Tennis Europe’s 50 member nations. 20,000 eligible players from around the world were registered to play in 2022.
After playing national junior events in their home countries, talented young players can proceed to compete internationally on this European Junior Tour. The Players begin their pathway with Category 3 events and work their way up to competing at Super Category tournaments (likened to the ‘grand slams’ of the 14 & Under circuit), the European Championships or the Junior Masters.
The best players from the European Junior Tour then transition and join the ITF Junior Circuit (between age 16–18) which allows them to compete for the Junior Grand Slam titles, establish a world junior ranking and give them a chance to get an ATP or WTA ranking. The ITF Junior Circuit is thus basically the player pathway between the junior game of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour and the elite levels of professional tennis of the ATP.
So in comparison what takes place in Australia and how can the junior athlete navigate it???
In 2023, the Australian Junior Tour has more then 200 Tennis Australia endorsed events. They are held all across the country and provide the junior player with opportunities to compete for qualifying spots throughout the year for the end of season junior Tour Masters which takes place in the city of Melbourne. There are also Masters events held in each State.
The qualifying age categories for the Junior Tour events and the Junior Tour Masters are in the 12U, 14U & 16U ages. The player’s best 8 results in Singles & Doubles count towards the player’s Points Race total.
Each event on the calendar is designated as Australian Junior Tour events and carries points designations. This is consistent with the naming conventions found within the ATP and WTA tours.
National 1000: 1000 points
Signature 500: 500 points
Premier 250: 250 points
Junior Series 125: 125 points
Each level of tournament is weighted in regards to the amount of points awarded with the very best juniors in the country competing in the National events with a thousand points up for grabs for the winner. The Junior Series events with 125 points to the winner is the entry level and starting point for aspiring juniors.
So how do the two compare and what works and what doesn’t?
On average per year qualified research and studies have show that from the 12’s age division through to the 16’s age division competitive junior athletes who have Pro Tour tennis in mind need to be playing on average 100 competitive matches per year. The match count needs to be ticking over on a regular bases.
In Tennis Europe there is also the advantage of playing regularly on clay courts where 50% of Pro Tour events take place. All these are factors that need to be taken into consideration.
Top 100 players and Australian stars Alex De Minaur and Alexei Popyrin spent a lot of time in Europe during their junior development. It has obviously held them in good stead for their professional careers. But there is no right way or wrong way.
There is the way you do it and the approach that you take. Wherever you are whether in Europe or in Australia you must compete and compete often. You must be resilient and hit the practice and training court often and you must refine your game week in week out.
A look at the ITF junior World Rankings and the ATP/WTA Tour Rankings will tell you that players from all different nationalities are represented. A truly world game. A global game and the direction that you take must be the fit for you. Now go find a court and get moving.