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Tennis prodigy puts A-levels before glory

Sixteen-year-old Romy Hutchins is one of Britain's best young tennis players. Already among the top three in the country for her age, she has an excellent chance of fulfilling her ambition to become a professional. One day she could be as famous as her favourite player, Pete Sampras.

Yet remarkably for a sport noted for its "teenage prodigies" - Wimbledon women's doubles champion Martina Hingis, aged 15, being the latest - Romy will not be joining the full-time circuit next year. She will be going back to school to start A-levels.

"I would not want to go full-time yet," she says. "There is no guarantee that you will make it. I hope for a professional career, but we will see how it goes." Her decision is supported by her father, former Davis Cup captain Paul Hutchins, who disputes the widely-held idea that youngsters must concentrate exclusively on sport from the age of 12 if they wish to be champions.

Staying in school not only gives teenagers some qualifications to rely on, but actually makes them better players, he argues.

"Too many kids are playing too much tennis in school time. We are in danger of having a lot of youngsters who are not rounded enough to take the ups and downs of tennis. It is a very fickle world and only the best talent survives. "

Romy, a pupil at Wimbledon High School in south-west London, has tried to balance her tennis and academic study by taking seven GCSEs, instead of 10, and using the gaps in the timetable for training.

She spent a month in the United States at Christmas on a coaching course, but cut back on tournaments in the run-up to the exams to concentrate on studying. As well as A-levels in French and economics, she hopes to take a computer course, and is also interested in media studies. If a tennis career eludes her, she would like to work in the sports media.

She is fortunate that her father is closely involved in the Lawn Tennis Association's Rover programme, which provides coaching and financial help for 150 outstanding teenagers.

The association has a policy of working with the player's own coach, rather than uprooting pupils to a centre of excellence. It also tries to educate parents about the level of commitment involved and the chances of success.

Even so, the pressure on young players can be enormous, with the parents themselves often to blame, Mr Hutchins says."The trouble with the world game is that, given how young everyone is, especially girls, too many parents and coaches are living in a cloud-cuckoo land [in the belief that] their children will be very good, very young.

"A lot of top women players - Graf, Sabatini, Capriati, Seles - have very strong fathers, and it comes across that you have got to be pushy and that sort of thing.

"A number of families are under financial and emotional pressure because of their ambition. Tim Henman's parents at Wimbledon showed a tremendous example by being solid and unemotional, but most parents at junior level are the opposite. It is an area which the Rover scheme always keeps tabs on."

Romy remembers hearing about a girl with bruises where her father hit her legs to punish poor performance. "Every parent wants their child to win, but some do get quite heavy," she says. "But at my level I don't think there are many parents shouting at you - it is more at 11 and 12."

To succeed, Mr Hitchins says, young players need a network of support. "To become good at tennis you have to play 80 singles matches a year and 40 or 50 doubles.

"Ninety-five per cent of the good players have some connection with tennis through their families. Unless the parents provide full-time commitment, I would say there is no chance."

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