I recently received an anonymous comment, which went unpublished under my current policy, about Craig Tiley, the Director of Player Development at Tennis Australia. Prompted, I presume, by this recent story in The Age, headlined "Top Juniors in Tennis Feud," Tiley's management style is blamed for forcing top Australian juniors to pay for their own training with Jason Stoltenberg, who is not affiliated with Tennis Australia. In the story, Stoltenberg quotes Tiley as defending his position this way: "All he basically said is, 'Look, we financially support programs that we have full control of. If kids choose to work with you, that's their decision. But they need to know we're not in a position of wanting to support them if they do it.'"
The anonymous commenter said this is suicide for Tiley's career, pointing out that the parents do the real hard work early on and then must submit to Tiley's decrees for the most important decisions they face. I actually prefer the model the USTA is talking about that offers support to juniors at other academies, and, I would hope, with other proven junior development coaches. But I understand Tiley's position too. Why take the responsibility if you don't have the control? If he is going to be judged by the results of his program, it doesn't make much sense to support others who don't adhere to his philosophy (I have no idea if this is the case with Stoltenberg).
And speaking of supporting juniors, there is an open question as to what influence, if any, a federation can actually have. Certainly the previous rise of the Russian women, and the recent emergence of Serbia as a cradle of tennis Grand Slam champions doesn't support those who feel federation assistance is critical.
In this excellent interview in The Independent, Svetlana Kuznetsova talks about the Russian path.
“We look at other countries and they have it so easy,” she says. “In Britain, the first girl who hits two balls in, they give her everything. In Russia, to be a star you have to be in the top ten. Nobody knows you if you are not, so your goals must always be very high. I was talking to Maria Kirilenko (ranked 19th in the world) about this. She used to take the train and then the metro for three hours to practice. Then she'd hit for two hours and travel three hours home. My family didn't have much money either, maybe $300 a month. In the winter in Russia I played inside a balloon but it was zero degrees, and we couldn't afford to heat it. There was no money, no budget, only your family were helping you. It is still the same. If you go to a junior tournament in Russia, the Russian girls are so focused. In England it is completely different. It's like a holiday for them.”
And in this lengthy, nuanced story entitled "The Tennis School Conquering the World" in South Africa's Sunday Independent about Serbia's rise, we hear this:
The players are certainly not the product of a systematic programme of coaching and player development. Until very recently, the only tennis coaching schemes in Serbia were run by private organisations or by the clubs that have traditionally been the focal point for sport in the country. Djokovic, for example, practiced at what was the Yugoslav army's sports club, Partizan, which helped pay his travel expenses.
The Serbian tennis federation remains badly under-resourced, particularly in comparison with counterparts such as Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, which spent £32m (R500-million) on a move last year to a swish new tennis centre in south-west London. Not that fine facilities are a guarantee of success: while there was the now customary swarm of Serbs at the start of the French Open in Paris, Andy Murray was the only British player with a high enough ranking to play in the singles. By the start of the quarter-finals, the English-speaking world, including wealthy former tennis powerhouses like the United States and Australia, did not have a single representative left in the tournament, while the three leading Serbs all reached the semifinals.
Maybe squabbling over a federation's decisions and resources is counterproductive, given these examples, but I still think federations should play a role in providing structured competition and assisting in financing the travel required for that competition. I think the USTA does an excellent job in providing the first, less so in the second category.