Too Young to Go Pro? Will Tennis Prodigy Donald Young Join the Constellation of Stars That Shone Brightly but Burned Out?

By Clarke, Caroline V. | Black Enterprise, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Too Young to Go Pro? Will Tennis Prodigy Donald Young Join the Constellation of Stars That Shone Brightly but Burned Out?


Clarke, Caroline V., Black Enterprise


There's a secret that every statistician, CFO and Weight Watcher's representative knows: Numbers tell a story.

Take, for example, the career of tennis phenomenon Donald Young Jr. He started playing tennis at 2 years old. When he was 10, he worked as a ball boy at a seniors' tournament, giving him the chance to hit a few rallies with John McEnroe. He earned the tennis legend's ultimate praise--a comparison to himself.

In 2003, Young became the first African American to win the prestigious 16-and-under Orange Bowl and went on to win the Easter Bowl 18 singles crown at 15, surpassing the earlier achievements of tennis greats McEnroe and Pete Sampras in the same competition.

Last January, he became the youngest male to win a junior Grand Slam crown when he captured the boys' title at the Australian Open, a win that also made him the youngest player to be ranked No. 1 among juniors in the world.

Perhaps the most impressive number in the telling of Young's story is his age--he turned 16 in July. However, the real buzz surrounding Young is the age when he turned pro: he was only 14.

By then, he already had nearly a decade of competition under his belt as well as a lifetime of being coached by his parents, Donald Sr. and Ilonah Young, both of whom played college tennis. In no time, he landed lucrative contracts with Nike, Head, and sports management giant IMG.

His stunning level of play and precocious professional launch prompted Newsweek magazine to place Young on its 2005 list of individuals to watch, alongside Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and Avon CEO Andrea Jung.

New Rules, New Priorities

Sponsors compete to sign a small circle of star players to exclusive contracts, which requires them to spot talent early and move in fast. The lure of sponsorship dollars is becoming increasingly hard for top young players to ignore, especially since the costs of training and competition continue to mount. In addition, a U.S. Tennis Association rule change now allows professionals under 18 to continue playing junior tournaments, while being underwritten by deep-pocketed sponsors who bank on their future success.

So, like many NBA hopefuls graduating high school, the most accomplished young tennis players--despite full scholarships--are beginning to wonder if it makes sense to attend college when they could earn a living playing tennis instead. The idea that gifted athletes hone their games in high school and then college before going pro seems to have gone the way of rotary telephones and vinyl LPs. These days few tennis hopefuls finish college. Even the cache of an Ivy League degree can't compete with the lure of the pros. James Blake left Harvard for the pros after two years, but is returning to college after a tough year spent recovering from an injury and the loss of his father.

While the primary goal of a young player may be to win a Grand Slam, the ultimate dream is to make enough money from competitions, sponsorships, and international fame so they will step seamlessly from tennis into other business opportunities without ever having to earn a degree. While it may be an unattainable dream for most people, the Young family and their inner circle of sponsors and agents are investing in Donald Jr.'s dream coming true.

"You go to college so you can get a degree and come out and make a living," says Katrina Adams, a former Women's Tennis Association tour player who is now an analyst for the Tennis Channel. "Well, you can always go to college. College is always going to be there and if you have an opportunity to earn good money while you're young, you'll be able to pay for college when you're ready to go."

In the mid-'80s, Adams, 40, made a different choice. She started playing tennis in a summer program run by the Chicago Boys and Girls Club at age 6. The program was technically for 9- to 18-year-olds, but Adams was allowed to tag along with her older brothers and she quickly outshined them and their peers on the court. …

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