Every December, kids from all over the world descend on Florida for two of the biggest events in the junior calendar: the Eddie Herr International Tennis Championships and the Orange Bowl.
For many juniors it will be their first taste of international competition. The list of past champions includes Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova and Marcelo Rios.
The IMG Academy in Bradenton, which hosts the Eddie Herr event, is a huge facility but with eight age groups and 64-player draws there are more than 2,000 kids, as well as parents, coaches, scouts and agents. It feels very crowded.
Even for the under-12 age group there is a 128-player draw in qualifying. The main draw has 64 players but there are 128 kids trying to get one of eight qualifying places – that means that they have to win four matches just to get into the main draw. It’s crazy.
All the brands are there such as the racket and clothing manufacturers. For talent scouts, like me, there is a rivalry because we all want to sign the best players, but we still talk to each other – at least I do! There are plenty of agents as well – those who already represent players and some looking to sign new prospects.
Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl are an opportunity for junior players to make a billboard out of themselves, especially the younger ones. Most of the U18s and U16s are already known in the industry because they will have been playing the circuit but, for me, the more interesting age groups are the U14s and younger.
While it is a big opportunity for these kids it is also a big investment for their parents. It is a long way to travel from Europe and Asia and it is a very expensive trip, with no prize money on offer. For the U14s and younger, there is a week’s gap between Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl. There’s no point flying home, so players need to find somewhere to stay and a base wherethey can practise.
I have learned that it is important not to judge a player on the basis of one match, however. In 2013 I watched Alexander Zverev lose in the first round at Eddie Herr but the following week he reached the semi-finals at the Orange Bowl. He went on to win the Australian Open boys’ title the following month and two years later he is the youngest player in the ATP top 100.
I can learn a lot about a player during these tournaments. How they cope with the pressure, the jet lag and all the distractions is a good indicator of their mentality. Until the semi-finals there are no umpires – the kids have to make their own calls. There are USPTA officials but there are kids who cheat, and some who are encouraged to cheat by their parents. I have seen many incidents where the kids are screaming at each other on court, their parents or coaches are screaming at each other outside and there is a USPTA official trying to diffuse the situation.
For players on an adjacent court it is very distracting and I am looking for players who can stay focused in spite of everything going on around them.
Grigor Dimitrov won the boys’ U16 title at both Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl in 2006. He had such focus. Dominic Thiem won Eddie Herr U18 in 2010 and 2011 and also won the 2011 U18 Orange Bowl without dropping a set.
But for every Federer, Sharapova, Dimitrov and Thiem, there is a champion who doesn’t make it. For example, I worked with Tiago Fernandes at a training camp before he won Eddie Herr U14 in 2007. He went on to win the Australian Open boys’ title in 2010 and was the junior world No.1. Now he doesn’t play tennis anymore. Michelle Larcher de Brito won the Eddie Herr U16 title as a 12-year-old in 2005 but her highest ranking was No.76 six years ago. Great results at these tournaments are no guarantee of success at senior level.