As Navratilova implies, the age issue in tennis is not just about youth; it's about education, too. Sampras turned pro at 16, Graf at 13, and neither has seen the inside of a classroom since. How well-rounded can they be? McEnroe, whatever his faults may be, is an articulate man with a wide range of interests partly because he had a brush with college, spending a year at Stanford. Evert was forbidden by her parents to turn pro until she finished high school. Like McEnroe, Connors spent one year in college, at UCLA, and Arthur Ashe actually graduated from UCLA.
"School is where you go through the final stages of your character development, but these kids don't," says Ebersol, who thinks that the players' lack of social skills keeps them from connecting with fans. "At 12 they're off on the junior circuits, where every little need is pampered."
One player in particular who has suffered for his callowness is the 22-year-old Sampras. He's No. 1 in the world but has been received coolly by the public. If Sampras plays long enough, the public may discover that he is an engaging, shrewd young man. But he might have connected with more people already if he had spent more time interacting with his non-tennis-playing peers. Sampras's existence thus far has been solitary.
"It's one regret I might have," Sampras says of leaving high school. "Going to school is part of growing up, developing. Going to parties, getting in a little trouble, all of that helps make you a broader person." He pauses. "Also, I might have a good friend. You know, I don't have a really good friend."
2) Put a lid on the free stuff.
True story: A top-ranked player on the women's tour, a teenage millionaire, was given a Lexus by a sponsor to drive during a tournament. She liked the car. She liked it so much that she asked if she could keep it. No, said the incredulous sponsor.
Fact: During tournaments every player on the men's circuit receives free accommodations, often in cushy resorts. Starting next year, women will receive free accommodations for at least three days during each tournament.
The practice of lavishing amenities on tennis players begins when they are children and builds from there. U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson thinks the ever-increasing luxuries are one reason education is no longer valued by parents and coaches, who are eager for immediate returns on their investments. "Why isn't a college scholarship a good return?" says Gullikson.
Dr. Julie Anthony, a psychologist, tennis coach and former player, sees in the tour an unwholesome culture in which basic values degenerate. "There is no one teaching the players that they have a responsibility to anyone but themselves," says Anthony. "When you deal with teenagers, you're talking about essentially selfish organisms. They're obsessed with themselves, their hair, their skin, their weight. Then you put them in an environment that does nothing but feed their self-absorption. You're going to create some real prizes there."
Gullikson spent two years coaching Capriati. One day he presented her with a book. Capriati, 15 years old at the time, glanced at the cover. It was a guide to good manners. "Read it," Gullikson said. "You could use it."