ACHARNES, Greece — Behold Dominik Defoe. Ten years old and barely taller than the web. Golden brown shoulder-length curls bouncing within the air as he chases and crushes tennis balls, which he does higher than simply about any kid his age.
Defoe likes to fiddle with the GPS in his mother’s automobile, so within the morning after they head to highschool, the phone directs them to Roland Garros, site of the French Open. He does it so often that his mother knows Roland Garros is 2 hours 47 minutes away from their home in Belgium.
Defoe was nearly in tears earlier this yr when he received one among the 48 invitations from IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, to attend the primary Future Stars Invitational Tournament at the luxurious Tatoi Club within the northern suburbs of Athens. The event, for girls and boys aged 12 and under, is each a tournament and a weeklong education within the life which may await Defoe and his rarefied peers, complete with seminars led by executives at Nike and the boys’s and girls’s pro tours, the ATP and the WTA.
The race to seek out the game’s next stars has come to this: With eight-figure fortunes potentially at stake, agents and scouts are evaluating and cultivating players even younger than 10 who are only getting began in serious competition. Future Stars is the latest and most extravagant recruitment effort for IMG, the corporate that essentially invented the sports representation business and dominated tennis for years.
“No one desires to have a tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds,” said Max Eisenbud, who leads the corporate’s tennis division. “I’d relatively wait, however the competition forced us into this case.”
For years, IMG’s agents collected future stars in two ways: Tweens and young teens (Maria Sharapova for instance) either showed up at its academy in Bradenton, Fla., once the premier training ground in the game, searching for one among the plentiful scholarships; or the agents showed up in Tarbes, France, for Les Petit As, the world’s premier tournament for players younger than 14. There, they often had something near the pick of the litter.
Through the past decade though, rival academies opened across Europe and IMG’s academy focused more on cashing in on families paying tuition relatively than making long-shot bets on teenagers. Also, in recent times, when Eisenbud and his colleagues made their annual trips to Les Petit As, they found that almost all essentially the most promising players had already signed contracts with other management firms, lots of them well-funded boutique operations that were offering generous financial guarantees, sometimes stretching well beyond covering the roughly $50,000 annual cost for coaching and travel on the junior circuit.
And so, in an indication of cutthroat times in tennis, IMG is aiming younger, even when prospecting preteen talent might be nearly unimaginable and highly fraught, risking increasing the pressure on children who already put plenty on themselves and, in some cases, carry the financial responsibilities for his or her struggling families.
If stars like Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, Grand Slam tournament champions who’re of their 20s, have needed to take breaks from tennis to look after their mental health, it’s not a stretch to think about the risks of raising expectations so explicitly for prepubescent children. During a chat for the women on methods to stay physically and mentally healthy, Saga Shermis, an athlete development specialist with the WTA, said she expected to see them on the tour in the approaching years. It will probably be lots.
“At this age they’re still learning,” said Adam Molenda, a youth coach with Poland’s tennis federation, after watching two of his players, Antonina Snochowska and Maja Schweika, rally for an hour on Monday. “You never can say who will make it. Life is stuffed with surprises.”
Grace Bernstein, a young Swedish standout, floated across the court and blasted balls against a boy as her mother watched from the fence. Whether she plays tennis or cards, Bernstein competes relentlessly, said her mother, Catharina, a former player whose singles rating peaked at 286 in 1991. She plays at an academy run by Magnus Norman, once the world’s second-ranked men’s singles player. She can be a top soccer player.
“She goes forwards and backwards, but for now it’s tennis, so she plays tennis,” Catharina Bernstein said.
For some, fame and fortune really can seem inevitable. Eisenbud famously signed Sharapova when she was 11 years old after watching her hit for 45 minutes with an intensity and flawlessness he had never before seen. Carlos Alcaraz, who turns 19 on Thursday and is already the most well liked young player in the boys’s game, was deemed worthy of investment as a can’t-miss 11-year-old, too. On the other hand, Eisenbud was sure the primary player he signed, Horia Tecau of Romania, was destined for greatness. Tecau became a top doubles specialist but never cracked the highest 300 in singles.
Eisenbud hatched his plan 18 months ago for a lavish competition with most expenses covered and all of the perks of knowledgeable event — ball kids, chair umpires, immaculate red clay courts, Beats headphones and swag from Nike for all the children.
“We would like to treat them like skilled athletes,” said Elli Vizantiou, the chief executive of the Tatoi Club.
Not entirely forgetting they’re kids, there was also a treasure hunt, group dinners each night and a tour of the Parthenon. IMG brought in Alcaraz, fresh off his win within the Barcelona Open final, to play an exhibition against Hubert Hurkacz, the 14th-ranked men’s singles player.
Assembling the Future Stars field required months of interviews with coaches and tennis federation officials all around the world, evaluating resumes and tournament results, and scouring videos, searching for the magical combination of athleticism and skill. Making a globally representative field was essential, too. Finding a future top 50 player from a rustic or a demographic group that has never produced a tennis star might be groundbreaking and incredibly lucrative.
Players had to come back with a chaperone, which most often was a parent, and a coach, giving IMG the possibility to construct relationships..
Credit…Gary I. Rothstein for The Latest York Times
Eisenbud encouraged the coaches to pepper the Italian coach Riccardo Piatti, who led a training seminar, with questions, describing him because the “best” on the planet.
Piatti spent Tuesday morning with a watch on Tyson Grant, a top under-12 player whose family he has been working with for nearly seven years. Piatti also oversees the coaching for Tyson’s 14-year-old sister, Tyra, who’s already an IMG client. Tyson and Tyra’s father, Tyrone Grant, is almost 6-foot-8 and played basketball professionally for a decade in Europe. With good genes, an early start and guidance from a renowned coach, Tyson Grant might be an honest bet.
Just a few courts over, Haniya Minhas was ripping one among the nice young backhands, which she begins with the nub of her racket handle nearly resting on her back hip.
“My favorite shot,” she said. “Everyone tells me to increase my arms, but I like the best way I do it.”
Minhas, 11, is Pakistani and Muslim. She plays in a hijab, long sleeves and tights, and already looks like a billboard within the making.
She has been winning tournaments since she was 5 years old. Her seek for suitable competition has taken her from Pakistan, where there may be little support for ladies’ sports and where she competed against and beat the entire boys her age, to Turkey. Her mother, Annie, said she and her daughter need to prove that somebody who looks and dresses in a different way from most players and is from a rustic that has never had a tennis star can beat anyone. They expect to sign with an agent when Haniya turns 12.
“We try to vary the pondering,” Annie Minhas said.
Teo Davidov has a neat trick. Davidov, arguably the highest boys’ player under 12, lives in Florida. His parents moved from Bulgaria to Colorado a decade ago when his father won the green card lottery. Born right-handed, he hits forehands on each side and might serve with either hand, too. His father and coach, Kalin, began attempting to make Teo ambidextrous in tennis when he was 8 years old because he was hyperactive. Kalin thought that stimulating the best hemisphere of his brain, which controls attention and memory, and the left side of the body, with left-handed exercises, would make him calmer.
“Hopefully it also helps his game,” said Kalin Davidov. The technique is devastating for now, but a top player has never succeeded by playing that way.
The Davidovs first got to know Eisenbud and IMG three years ago, after Kalin posted a video of his son’s double-forehand game on Facebook. Soon, the phone rang. Babolat, the French racket maker, is a sponsor.
Michael Chang, who won the French Open in 1989 at 17, got here along with his daughter, Lani, who displayed an awfully familiar-looking drop shot and buried her nose in a Rick Riordan novel on the shuttle bus between the courts and the hotel. Chang said the circuit for young juniors has transformed since his childhood, with much more travel and international competition.
“They’re getting a taste of what it’s like,” he said.
Gunther Darkey, a former middling pro from Britain, brought his son, Denzell, a top prospect and one among the few Black elite juniors for the Lawn Tennis Association. Alcaraz has a 10-year-old brother, Jaime, who was adequate to receive an invite. So was Meghan Knight, the daughter of a well known cricketer from England.
“You’ve got to be the form of one who from 9 years old can improve consistently while taking losses every week for 10 or 15 years,” said Seb Lavie, who brought two players from his academy in Auckland, Latest Zealand.
Dominik Defoe insisted he is ready for whatever it takes to make it. He was just concerning the smallest of the 2 dozen boys. He still plays with a junior-size racket and struggled to maintain up with Grant in his first match. His opponents all attempt to hit with heavy topspin to bury him within the backcourt. He swats the ball back on a brief hop before it kicks above his head.
Defoe, who’s fluent in 4 languages, promised himself as a toddler that he would win the French Open. He has built his existence around giving himself the very best probability to make that occur.
He attends school within the morning for math and language lessons, but he works independently on the remaining of his studies to release more hours for tennis. Studying the professionals closely, he decided to not have one favorite but built a composite player who has Dominic Thiem’s forehand, Nick Kyrgios’s serve, Novak Djokovic’s backhand, Rafael Nadal’s attitude, Roger Federer’s net game and Felix Auger-Aliassime’s footwork. He practices mindfulness by writing in a journal.
“He told me once we were coming here that this journey was like a train ride,” said his mother, Rachel, who was his first coach. “This is only one stop, one station. Then the train goes on.”