The Racquet Scientist: Mona Barthel
If I didn't know better, I'd think there's a trend in the making here. Germany's Mona Barthel has become the most recent player to extol the virtues of remaining in school and resisting the allure of becoming a full-time touring professional at a young age.
Barthel is 21—an age by which many among the WTA's top cradle-to-grave pros (including Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and many others) had already bagged one or more Grand Slam titles. And in all honesty, Barthel hasn't come within view of even a fourth-round berth at a major. But that's partly because she stayed in school (although she did compress the typical German nine-year plan that precedes college into eight years) and didn't play full-time until after she finished her schooling, in August of 2009—at which time she was ranked well outside the Top 500.
"During school I only played tournaments during vacation, and so no one really knew I was playing tennis seriously," she said shortly after she slashed her way through qualifying and beat three seeded players to snatch the Hobart title from top-seeded Yanina Wickmayer back at the start of the year.
Barthel has continued to build on that unexpected success, with the aid of a big serve, excellent movement, and a fine head and heart for the game. She made the third round at the Australian Open (losing to eventual champ Victoria Azarenka) and played well enough in subsequent events to rise to No. 35—an enormous leap from her year-end ranking of No. 208 in 2010.
And just last week in Stuttgart, Barthel upset No. 15 Ana Ivanovic and No. 7 Marion Bartoli before she finally yielded in the quarterfinals to Azarenka—but not before Barthel had Azarenka on the ropes, up a service break in a third set that Azarenka eventually won 7-5.
"When I was able to concentrate on tennis (after finishing school), I have improved very quickly," she recently told tennisnet.com. "That was not happening at 18 or 19, like with many other players, but that's perfectly fine for me. It is a very strenuous job that we do, and it is certainly not easy, for girls at 15 or 16 without the parents alone to travel the world."
This is an approach and attitude that may catch on, should Barthel—or someone like her—achieve headline-worthy success. It's a big if, of course, but something similar happened out of the blue on the men's side of the game with John Isner. You'll remember that he chose to defer a pro career and went to college at the University of Georgia before he sallied forth. He's been successful, and has frequently defended that decision, arguing that college tennis taught him how to be a winner; unless your name is Federer or Nadal, what point is there in going out to get your head beaten in, tournament after tournament, when you're a callow and not necessarily wise 18 or 19 year-old?
Steve Johnson, another talented American player (see my Around the World post of yesterday), also recently chose to defer his pro career and stay in school for one more year (in his case, the University of Southern California—and who in his or her right mind wouldn't want to remain in that glamiversity forever?). That despite the fact that Johnson's coach at USC (and others) feel he's a sure Top 100 player already—and maybe much better.
Staying in school is a much harder idea to sell in the women's game, because women traditionally mature more quickly than men, at least in those ways that enable a 16- or 17-year-old girl to compete successfully against Top 10 pros. Because of that very real difference, you could say that Barthel has been the WTA equivalent of Isner. Can she change help our way of thinking about school, development, and career longevity the way Isner did?
More typical than Barthel is a young talent like Christina McHale, the 19-year-old American who left school in New Jersey at 15 to train at a USTA center and complete high school via an online home-schooling institution. At No. 36, McHale is just five ranking positions lower than Barthel, and she's gotten a big jump in terms of experience. It will be interesting to see how each of them progresses.