WATCH—Academy Life: The Piatti Tennis Center

One of the perks of being a tennis fan is the chance to see fresh new faces, and fresh new games, on a nearly weekly basis. Throughout the season, the sport’s prodigies and wannabes wow us with their raw talent and youthful fearlessness, and make us wonder if we’ll be seeing them on our TV screens for years, or decades, to come.

We wonder, but we can’t know. For every meteoric riser like Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal who reaches tennis Valhalla, there are a dozen others who vanish without a trace. Often, a player you think is destined for the Top 5, one with a blazing forehand and blind ambition, ends up being Top 30 instead. Not bad, but not the future of the game. Over the past 15 years, we waited so long for an heir to the Big 3 to arrive that many of us thought the era of the teen prodigy was over. Then, over six months, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz remade the sport. What did he have that no one else did?

Which brings me to another set of questions that I’ve often wondered about: What do professional talent spotters look for when they assess young players? Which traits matter and which don’t? If you have a child of your own who shows promise, what should you watch for and encourage? I talked to a few coaches who make these critiques for a living at the USTA, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, and the Emilio Sanchez Academy in Naples, Florida.


Alcaraz, then 16, pictured after winning ATP Challenger match at Seville in September 2019.

Alcaraz, then 16, pictured after winning ATP Challenger match at Seville in September 2019.

When I brought up the subject, each took a deep breath before speaking.

“It’s complicated,” said Ola Malmqvist, director of of coaching for USTA player development.

“That’s kind of a loaded question,” said Lawrence Kleger, co-director at the McEnroe Academy, with a laugh.

“There are a lot of different layers to it,” said Troy Hahn, USTA national men’s coach.


Personality, athleticism, size, speed, desire, eye-hand coordination, explosiveness, competitiveness, self-control: There are dozens of factors that go into making up a player. Many can be seen right away, but many of them can’t. Some of the most critical, like patience and the ability to handle pressure, only become clear over time. Even early success can be misleading.

“You can’t just look at whoever wins,” says Emilio Sanchez Vicario, a former Top 10 player and head of the Sanchez Academy. As a junior in Spain, he says, he was kicked out of an academy for being “too fat.”

“But when I started to grow, I started beating everybody.”

Whether you’re a parent trying to gauge how far your child can go, or a fan trying to decide who the next big thing will be, here’s a list of traits to look for, and others to ignore.


Alcaraz became the first teen on the ATP Tour to reach world No. 1 as a result of his 2022 US Open triumph.

Alcaraz became the first teen on the ATP Tour to reach world No. 1 as a result of his 2022 US Open triumph.

Start With the Intangibles

“I want to see someone who can’t wait to get on court,” Kleger says. “Who can’t wait to get to the ball and hit it.”

Tennis takes years of steady, often mind-numbing practice to learn. To put in that kind of effort, and bounce back from the losses that will inevitably come, you have to love it. You have to want to get on court without anyone forcing you to be there.

For Richard Ashby, a national women’s coach at the USTA, perseverance is an essential trait, even at a young age.

“Do they lose and then go out and work on their game right away?” he says. “Do they take ownership of what they do? I love to hear a player come to me with a goal for their game and ask, ‘Can you help me?’”

“You need to love it,” Ashby says, “because tennis is a long journey.”

If you want to know the value of enthusiasm, look no farther than Alcaraz.

“You could see that winning spirit in him at 15, 16,” Sanchez Vicario says of his fellow Spaniard. “He has that smile, and he looks like he’s having fun. He loves what he’s doing, and that helps him keep improving.”


You can’t just look at whoever wins. Emilio Sanchez Vicario

Athletes Wanted

Once upon a time, being a world-class tennis player didn’t necessarily mean being a world-class athlete. In a war of baseline attrition, consistency and determination were often enough to win the day. That’s not true in the first-strike, serve-and-forehand era which we live in now.

“You’ve gotta be an athlete,” Hahn says.

When Hahn watches young prospects, he looks at how they move to the ball and set up for their strokes. So much of high-level tennis today is about running around the backhand to hit forehands, which requires an ability to move explosively in all directions. Hahn likes young players who have competed in other sports, and not just specialized in tennis, because he believes that improves all-around athleticism.

“I like to see the path you take to the ball, the set-up,” Hahn says. “Can you hit in difference stances?”

Ashby tries to visualize how a young player’s style might work in older age groups, when the opponents are stronger and the game more aggressive.

“You look for something exceptional, a weapon that’s going to win points for them even at a higher level,” he says.

While tennis is constantly becoming more demanding, Malmqvist says the physical traits of a young player can be deceptive, because they may not have developed muscles yet. Speed, however, still kills. Every coach I talked to emphasized that when they analyze a player, they do it from the feet up. According to Kleger, if you can get to the ball, he can take care of the rest.

“You can see pretty quickly, ‘OK, they’re never going to move that well on a tennis court,’” Kleger says. “Give me someone who can move, I’m going to make you into a decent tennis player.”


There's no denying the pure athleticism Coco Gauff brings each time she steps out on court.

There's no denying the pure athleticism Coco Gauff brings each time she steps out on court.

Fighters Needed

As a one-on-one sport, tennis selects for (a) competitiveness, and (b) inner drive. The desire must come from within, and it’s usually present early on.

“It’s what’s inside that’s most important,” Ashby says. “But it’s also toughest to gauge the mental part.”

The only way to gauge it for sure is to see players in competition.

“John [McEnroe] can scan a kid before they play a point,” Kleger says of McEnroe’s ability to spot talent. “I need to see how someone does when the gun goes off and they compete. Tournaments mean a lot more than practice.”

But while coaches like to see a killer instinct, they also like to see that a player can control it. Young players are often bursting with emotion on court; it’s the ones who show a knack for channeling it, for staying positive, for not getting overwhelmed, who will have the best chance of future success.

“You have to compete,” Hahn says, “but can you balance the positives and negatives, and not get too high or low?”


“John [McEnroe] can scan a kid before they play a point.”

“John [McEnroe] can scan a kid before they play a point.” 

Technique Can Be Deceiving

Few young players have polished, let alone flawless, form. Finding the right grip, the right backswing and follow-through, and especially the right service motion, takes time, and isn’t just a matter of raw talent. But coaches and scouts know that, and they know what to look for instead. Technique might not be innate, but the ability to make clean contact with the ball can be.

“Hand-eye coordination is important, obviously,” Kleger says. “You might have a player whose strokes don’t look good, but their contact is amazing. Then you know you have something to work with.”

Speed kills, we said earlier, and that’s just as true for the arms as it is for the legs.

“Racquet speed is big now, and so is a live arm,” Kleger says. “You want to see that pop on the ball.”


Every coach I talked to emphasized that when they analyze a player, they do it from the feet up.

Differences Between Boys and Girls Have Narrowed

When Malmqvist assesses top U.S. teens, he says he wants to see girls competitive at the junior Grand Slams when they’re 16, and boys when they’re 17. Physically, girls develop earlier, and boys can grow later.

As for the traits that coaches look for in the two genders, those have grown more similar in recent years. In the past, boys favored their forehands and leaned on their serves for free points, while girls favored their backhands.

In the aftermath of Serena Williams’ career, and with the rise of tall, powerful athletes like Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, that has begun to change, and so has what coaches look for and emphasize. Explosive quickness and a live arm are just as important for girls as they are boys.

“More women are playing forehand-dominated tennis,” Ashby says. “They need that serve plus one, just like the men.”


Fritz cracked the Top 5 on February 27, 2023.

Fritz cracked the Top 5 on February 27, 2023. 

There’s Room for Late-Bloomers

“Did you know he was gonna be that good?”

Kleger says he hears that question a lot about his high-level players. Usually, he has the same answer.

“No, I didn’t know he was gonna be that good!”

Kleger says he’s “modest with his predictions,” because kids can surprise you. Malmqvist is the same way.

“When I saw [Roger] Federer when he was 17, I didn’t think too much of him, because he acting like a jerk,” Malmqvist says.

“Taylor [Fritz} was a late-bloomer, Jen Brady, Danielle Collins were too,” he says of three Americans who have all gone on to reach the Top 10. “There are exceptions to every rule.”

Sanchez Vicario remembers seeing s skinny British kid named Andy Murray walking slowly around a court in Barcelona and thinking, “This guy can’t be any good.”

No coach can see what’s inside a kid right away. That can hold true even for a once-in-a-generation talent.

“I knew he was going to be good, we all did,” Malmqvist says of Alcaraz. “But did I know he was going to be THIS good, No. 1 at 19 good? No.”