The Role of Junior Success in the Development of Professional Tennis Players

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Excellence in sport has been conceptualized in terms of outcomes (competition results) of performance and measured in the form of rankings, medals, records and victories (Penney, 2000). In this research, junior success is measured by athletes’ best competitive results (e.g., medals, rankings, competition results) at a junior age. In the last two decades, a contention was raised regarding whether competitive success achieved at a junior age correlates with success achieved as an adult. A number of studies have suggested a low correlation (e.g., Barreiros, Côté, & Fonseca, 2014; Brouwers, De Bosscher, 2012; Güllich & Emrich, 2014), while some other studies argued that success in international junior competition is an important indicator for senior success (Hollings, 2006; Scholz, 2006; Reid, Crespo, & Santilli, 2009). Given these increased debates and insights, there are several gaps that need further exploration. There is limited age-specific information, and how the role of junior performance changes over time in developing senior success remains unknown. Furthermore, most of these studies are quantitative and did not consider the impact of other influencing factors, e.g. technical, tactical competencies, environmental factors, for the development of senior success. Reasons for the high dropout rate of successful juniors as well as reasons for successful junior players continuing to be successful at a senior age were not reported in any of these studies. There is little evidence of an integrated approach (i.e. with other factors) in examining the role of junior competitive performance when evaluating an athlete’s potential for senior success. Additionally, though a couple of sports (e.g., Athletics, cycling, swimming, football) have been examined, some sports were hardly studied, e.g., combat sports, or racket sports. Due to the different criteria in evaluating success, accessibility to competitions, and ranking system, the fact is that developmental pathways may vary by type of sport. Consequently, there are calls for research involving these sports in a sport-specific context to understand the sport-specific needs, characteristics and reliability of using junior success to develop senior success (Martindale, Collins, & Daubney, 2005). To address these research gaps, this dissertation aims to explore and understand the role of junior success in tennis, specifically, apart from performance results, what other factors are important in the development of senior success. In Study 1, the longitudinal developmental trajectories of 82 top 10 professional male and female tennis players – between 2007 and 2017 – were examined in relation to performing age and rankings (broken down by ranking milestones). Gender and generation differences were studied. Findings revealed that achieving success at the highest level of junior competitions appeared to be a commonality of the top professional players regardless of gender and generation. However, many middle-ranked players, e.g., players ranked between top 50 and top 100 were not necessarily achieved success at a junior level. They also showed that most top professional players started their participation in professional tournaments shortly after their first international junior tournament and invested in both junior and professional tournaments within the same calendar year. Study 2 expanded the data from the top 10 professional tennis players to the top 300 from 2008 to 2018. Player developmental career trajectories in relation to starting age and ranking progression were compared by player career peak ranking level (i.e., top 10, top 11-20, top 21-50, top 51-100, top 101-200, top 201-300) and by gender. Findings revealed that although higher-ranked players attained each ranking milestone at a significantly younger age than lower-ranked players, ranking results at a junior age (<18 years) are not fully reliable in predicting a player’s future potential. It was shown that age-based ranking results have a relatively high value in predicting future ranking of higher-ranked (e.g., top 10) and lower-ranked (e.g., top 201-300) players, but not for players whose peak ranking were in between, with more than 60% of them not distinguishable. The top 51-100 ranked players actually having the lowest predictability. Both Study 1 and Study 2 revealed a large number of false talents and outliers regarding the performing age and transition time between ranking milestones. Study 2 further identified a low predictability of the transition from junior success to senior success. These quantitative findings, however, were limited in the understanding of the reasons and mechanisms that underpin these phenomena. Subsequently, for Study 3, we opted for a qualitative approach. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 34 international high-performance tennis experts from 22 countries. The quantitative role of competitive junior success in developing elite senior success was expanded with the qualitative insights from these international high-performance experts. Five key complementary factors were revealed as integral to a player’s development and attainment of long-term senior success: (1) possessing multidimensional and integrated player competencies; (2) developing and utilizing individualized game weapons drawing on strengths of player competencies; (3) the right fit of competition strategies; (4) the impact of maturation (biological and cognitive) on player competencies and performance; and finally, (5) the level of environmental support. A decision-making framework that integrated performance and these other critical factors was developed by the researchers to guide tennis practitioners – including coaches and related policy and practice – to better support the future selection, development and junior-senior transition of emerging tennis talent. In conclusion, by exploring the role of junior performance and by mapping the essential factors in an integrated approach in developing senior success, research findings highlighted that junior competitive performance plays a dynamic role and may vary by level of competition, competitive level of the player, as well as by gender in developing senior success. Our research findings also suggest that when using performance to evaluate player potential, one may need to understand the sport-specific demands, characteristics, gender differences, constraints and facilitators of both individual, environment and system factors. In the last chapter, applied recommendations are provided for federations, coaches, clubs and parents to maximize each player’s potential to develop a successful senior career.
Date of Award15 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorVeerle De Bosscher (Promotor) & Johan Pion (Co-promotor)


  • tennis
  • junior success
  • senior success

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