Tom Perrotta writes about tennis. While covering the 2013 French Open for the Wall Street Journal, Tom has written about familiar names such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams. But he's also brought us the story of 12-year-old Adam Neff, which he shared with Bill Littlefield.
BL: Tom, Adam trains on a red-clay court, not in Paris, but in Bradenton, Fla. Can you tell me about that court and the facility that surrounds it?
TP: Yes, the facility’s in his backyard and his parents built it in the last few years. He has a red-clay court, he has a hard court like the courts they use at the Sony Open in Miami, and they’re building a U.S. Open replica hard court, too. He also has a gym and lots of equipment like a [Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning] pod and all sorts of high tech stuff to help his development.
BL: What's that?
TP: The CVAC pod’s a very new thing. I can’t say that I absolutely, 100 percent understand it, though I did try it to out to see what it was like. The theory is that it benefits your blood’s ability to take in oxygen and recover better. I went in it for a little while just to try it out and your ears pump a lot. That’s about all you notice.
BL: You didn't notice that you became a better tennis player?
TP: [Laughs] I did two five-minute sessions, which you have to start with, and no, I didn't become any better at tennis.
BL: Why did Guy and Ann Neff, Adam's parents, decide to build a tennis facility in their backyard?
TP: It’s an interesting situation. I’ve not seen anything quite like it. Going to a tennis academy is very expensive, and I think this in some ways turns out to be a financially smarter move because they live really far out in Bradenton. They're not really close to anything. They’ve got a lot of land. The cost of sending one kid to an academy - and perhaps another because they have a daughter who plays and a younger daughter who might play too - can add up fast, and they really didn’t want him living away from home.
BL: I understand that when you were speaking with Adam's family his father said, '"He's my buddy. I don't want him going off to an academy," even though there is an academy or six within the same sort of general area code.
TP: Yeah, there are some close by. He could commute there if you’re talking about [Nick] Bollettieri’s academy there which is not all that far away. That sort of changes the dynamic of the academy though somewhat. A lot of those places, especially if you’re a top player, would prefer that you live there and get extra attention from them all the time. But they also looked at an academy in Europe. It’s always a tough choice. Every top player, almost all of them - Djokovic, who is the best player in the world now, Andy Murray, lots of them - have gone to live somewhere else at what amounts to a pretty young age ... 14 ,15, 16. Maybe someday he’ll have to do that because he needs more practice partners, but the hope is that he can bring in people to play where he is rather than going somewhere else.
BL: Is young Adam good enough to warrant all this training and this facility?
TP: I think you can ask that question about anyone. Is anyone good enough? He’s one of the two best, if the very best 12-and-under player in the country. He’s quite a good player. That doesn’t always mean you’re going to be a professional or the best player at 18 [years old]. There are lots of people good at that age that didn’t become great pros, so it’s very hard to tell.
BL: Adam told you that he'd like to become the No. 1 tennis player in the world someday. Were you able to get a sense of whether that was really his goal or was that the goal that his parents had for him?
TP: In all this I was struck by how much it really does seem to be his goal and not his parents' goal. His parents weren’t tennis players. They're doctors. They're very well educated. They're very big on his education, they really stressed that. And the kid is a very mature kid for his age: speaks well, very bright and really is into it. You know I saw him for a day and a half, and it’s hard to learn much about a person in a day and a half, but he has a lot of fun on the court.
This segment aired on June 8, 2013.