To become the best tennis player in the world, it is assumed that one should specialise in the sport from an early age. It is not until you look in more detail that this is often not the case.
Multi-sport participation has been a heavily debated subject. Supporters say that playing a variety of sports at a young age helps develop more skills in children. On the other hand, critics maintain that everybody is different and therefore you can’t apply the same theory.
Roger Federer’s rise has seen him become one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The Swiss world No.3 has won 93 titles on the ATP Tour, including a record 19 grand slam trophies. Federer didn’t start playing tennis until the age of eight. His mother encouraged him to play a variety of sports growing up, which he continues to be thankful for.
"I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved," Federer said about his love for sports.
As a child, Federer also played badminton, basketball and cricket. He credits all of those sports for enhancing his coordination.
Rafael Nadal grew up balancing tennis with football. The ten-time French Open champion was once a striker who played in a junior team that won a Spanish inter-league championship. According to his long-time coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, he didn’t focus on tennis until the age of 12. Seven years before he won his first grand slam title at the 2005 French Open.
"When he was four or five, he would come two days a week to the club and play, but he always preferred football." Toni told The New York Times in 2005. "Until he was 12, he played more football than tennis."
Federer’s and Nadal’s examples are supported by the experts. In 2015 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released a report on youth development. They stated that coaches should avoid sports specialisation at an early age because ‘diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity.’ Furthermore, a study by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that ‘kids’ who specialises in sports are at a 50% greater risk of developing injuries.
In 1988, a study on 10 elite Swedish players by R.C. Carlson found that non-expert players started to specialise in the sport at the age of 11 compared to 14 for the experts. Proving the early specialisation is not effective.
There are exceptions to the theory. For example, both of the Williams sisters started to play tennis at a young age. It could be argued that this means that it depends on the individual and their upbringing. Although, Dr Nicole LaVoi from the University of Minnesota believes it is a rare occurrence. Dr LaVoi is a former USPTA tennis teaching professional
“These are the .001 percent of highly talented athletes, where that pathway to elite performance worked but for every Serena, Venus or Tiger Woods you have thousands of other kids this model does not work for them.” She said last year.
Players such as Federer and Nadal will be always be remembered for how they dominated and promoted their sport to a wider audience. The question is would they have been able to achieve this if they didn’t play other sports at a young age?