The curse of the Next Big Thing label

Picking sport’s winners and losers when they are so young is a mug’s game

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” Cyril Connolly was writing about authors, and said they needed three-to-seven years of maturing after they are first hailed as great in order to “live down their promise”, but it applies in every walk of life. Some of those young meteors who burn brighter than everyone else at the dawn of their career soon fizzle out.

Sports writers always want to spot the Next Big Thing. Sometimes they come off, often they are like Freddy Adu. The Ghana-born footballer was hailed as the next Pelé when he was 14, appearing in an ad with the Brazilian after he signed for DC United, the youngest player with a major league professional contract in any American sport. Soon afterwards, he was the youngest goal-scorer in the history of Major League Soccer.

Sports writers always want to spot the Next Big Thing

Eighteen years, 15 clubs and only 27 goals later, the 32-year-old is a lost soul. His last club released him in February, saying he lacked the mental strength to play in the Swedish third division. It turned out there was much of nothing about Adu.

The first time I heard of Rory McIlroy was in 2004, when another journalist told me at a cricket match about a 15-year-old golfer who was going to be the Irish Tiger Woods. McIlroy had been in the Europe team that won the Junior Ryder Cup that year and in 2005 would set a course record of 61 round Royal Portrush, a venue for the Open Championship. That was half his life ago. Having won four major titles and been world No 1, McIlroy has fulfilled most of his promise, if not yet all.

On that same Junior Ryder Cup team was an Essex teenager who was also going to be huge. Oliver Fisher was mentored by Nick Faldo and at the age of 18 became the youngest British golfer to graduate from the European Tour’s Qualifying School. He has since won one fairly minor tournament. By October this year, he was 187th on the European order of merit and the world No 634. He was the future once.

At golf’s Qualifying School, held in Spain in November, you watch them on the way up and the way back down. So too at Roehampton in June, where tennis players have been going since 1925 in the hope of qualifying for Wimbledon. It is where dreams — and often rackets — are shattered.

Two years ago, I watched Donald Young sink into melancholy as he lost in straight sets. At 16, the American had been the world’s best junior player; at 18 he won the boys’ title at Wimbledon; now 29 and ranked No 200, he was someone’s whipping boy. He trudged away, his mother, who had coached him since he was 3, walking 30 paces behind carrying bags of clean kit now not needed. Sic transit and all that.

Yet that same day I watched the bright-eyed, long-limbed 15-year-old Coco Gauff become the youngest player for 50 years to qualify for Wimbledon. “I can do anything I want to,” she boasted and promptly beat Venus Williams, her heroine, on her way to the fourth round. Gauff is now in the world’s top 20, where she seems set for years of battle with Emma Raducanu, another teenager who this August became the first player to win a major tennis title having had to qualify.

Picking sport’s winners and losers when they are so young is a mug’s game and perhaps it is cruel to inflict such a label on them. So much can go wrong. It is hard not to feel regret when someone you once rated departs with promise unfulfilled. I felt that at the end of this year’s county cricket season, when Varun Chopra announced he was retiring at the age of 34.

Fifteen years ago, I watched the Essex batsman captaining England under-19s against India. The home side was full of promise, including Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Steven Finn and Adam Lyth, who would all play Tests for England (and Rashid would win a World Cup). Yet it was Chopra, with two hundreds and a fifty in three matches, who stood out.

That year Chopra became the second youngest to make a century on his Championship debut and seemed set to follow Alastair Cook, another young Essex meteor, into the England side. It never happened. He retired with a modest average of 34.

Sometimes promise takes a long time to emerge. Back in 2006, that summer when Chopra burnt brightly, Kent had a player called Darren Stevens. He’d been a professional for almost a decade and was settling into the role of journeyman, solid without troubling the national selectors. He averaged 38 with the bat and 35 with the ball in 2006: fine, but not special.

It is hard not to feel regret when someone you once rated departs with promise unfulfilled

Yet something happened when Stevens turned 40 and started being offered one-year contracts. He suddenly became the best all-rounder in England. In 2017, he took a career-best 62 wickets; in 2019 he made a career-best innings of 237; in 2020 he was named one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, the oldest since 1933.

He finished 2021 averaging 43 with the bat and 19 with the ball — no one since W.G. Grace has done so well at such an age — and even made an unbeaten 47 in the semi-finals of the Twenty20 Cup, supposedly the young man’s format.

At 45, Stevens is no longer a journeyman, but a hero. And he has another one-year contract for 2022. Proof that you are never too old to be the future.

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