To mark International Day of Education 2024, the ITIA spoke with two leading junior coaches to discuss the role of education in developing the tennis stars of tomorrow.

Roberta Burzagli and James Connelly are currently the lead coaches on duty for the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Touring Team, competing at the Australian Open.

The ITF Touring Team provides support, coaching and greater opportunities for promising junior players from around the world, and is financed by the Grand Slam Player Development Programme (GSPDP).

The GSPDP has provided an invaluable platform for players who may not otherwise have been exposed to elite international competition in their formative years, and the star-studded list of alumni includes Ons Jabeur (ITF Touring Team 2008), the first Arab tennis player to reach the final of a Grand Slam tournament, and Grigor Dimitrov (ITF Touring Team 2004-2006), who won the 2017 ATP Finals and peaked at no.3 in the ATP rankings.

Connelly, who holds responsibility for the boys’ ITF Touring Team, describes how the role of a juniors’ coach can extend way beyond the white lines of the tennis court.

He said: “We try to develop the behaviours off the court as well as on the court, as much as possible.

“Coming from different cultures, the cultural norms and social norms are different. So that's maybe your obstacle at the start. I think it's been good to have some good discussions on what is good behaviour, what are the habits that they need to build if they're going to have a long career in tennis, and also the habits of travel and scheduling in a team.

“Even things like doing laundry together, being patient, you know, what's normal for adults is still something that is becoming normal for them.”

Touring Teams attend events throughout the tennis calendar, often aligning training blocks with important competitions across the junior season, including Grand Slams and prestige events like the Orange Bowl in Florida.

As part of their holistic package of education, players on the Touring Team are required to attend one-to-one anti-doping and anti-corruption education sessions with ITIA staff, further preparing each person for a life in the professional game.

Burzagli, whose association with the ITF Touring Team spans two decades, and dovetails with her work as the Brazilian Billie Jean King Cup captain, believes that the integrity education provided for each individual is an essential part of their journey.

She said: “Well, I think it is very important information for them. The kids, when we tell them you have a meeting, they're maybe not very keen, but after they start to listen, then I think they interact quite a lot. Those education sessions are very important.”

The education sessions usually take place in person during the players’ Touring Team scheduled blocks on tour, and they are complemented by mandatory online integrity education modules, which, since 2023, junior players have been required to complete before being eligible to register for ITF competitions.

While nothing can serve as a substitute for experience of that first anti-doping test, education and discussion with former professionals, like Roberta, helps to dispel myths around the process.

Burzagli, who represented Brazil as a player in the Federation Cup (re-named the Billie Jean King Cup in 2020), said: “Sometimes it takes a long time [a player’s first anti-doping test], because they're not used to testing and they get a bit of shame, so it's tough for them, but I think it's also part of the process and also they have to learn, because in professional tennis they will be tested many times.

“I think that learning about all the processes and all the substances and the things that they have to care about and be aware of, is very important.

“I think, we can see in many, or most cases of doping, it's because people were not aware of things - so it's very important for them to know what they can and cannot take.”

Mirroring the Grand Slam schedule of the senior ATP, WTA and ITF tours also offers Touring Team players the rare opportunity to witness professional tournaments behind the scenes, which, of course, includes doping control, as James explains: “We watched a match, one that ended 6-0, 6-0  to one player, and our kids are firstly talking about that, how it can happen at the pro level too, and how players have to develop resilience to go again.

“It’s then exactly the same with doping, they're well aware that the pros are getting dope tested. Seeing that it's normal for older athletes, then the earlier you start the process, the easier it is for players to understand what will be expected of them.”

Veterans of coaching on the ITF Touring Team, James and Roberta enjoy the annual reward of watching the next crop of junior talent flourish across the course of their season’s mentorship.

Roberta said: “I've seen many players that are now at professional level come through juniors and I think, as James said, here they learn not only tennis but also outside the court and they exchange cultures, other languages, and experiences.

“I think tennis teaches you so many things, not only inside the court but also outside the court, and integrity is one of the good things that you learn from the sport, and you can take it to your own life.”

Published 24 January 2024 12:00

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