Today marks the first anniversary of Patrick McEnroe's hiring as General Manager of Elite Player Development. In honor of that, the USTA conducted a conference call with McEnroe and invited its media partners to phone in questions to him. I had a short list of questions I wanted to ask, and I waited patiently as many of the top tennis journalists in the country--Bonnie Ford, Doug Robson, Tom Perrotta--posed questions about what direction the USTA Player Development was heading under McEnroe's watch. For whatever reason, and there was a technical glitch at the beginning of the call, I was never called on, and after an hour the conference call ended with two of my three questions unanswered. (Richard Osborn of Inside Tennis asked a version of one of them; it's the fourth question down in this transcript. I also had thought about asking about the World Team Tennis Junior Team, but Richard Vach of USTA Florida covered that question too.)
A bit frustrated, I emailed McEnroe with the two questions for two reasons, 1) to make sure he knew that I was on the call, and 2) to find out where college tennis fits in the USTA's plans, and if there are more National Coaches positions to be filled. I was expecting a return email in a few days; less than 15 minutes later, McEnroe called me.
I was impressed that he took the time to do that, and I think the conference call and the call to me demonstrate that he has enviable communication skills. We had a much more far-ranging conversation than would have been possible in the conference call format, and, although I didn't record it, I will paraphrase what he told me.
He said he believes that college tennis has a major role in player development, especially for boys, although he did say that the increasingly physical nature of the women's pro game now may lead to more girls taking that route as well. He was supportive of Chase Buchanan and Evan King's decision to attend college, and promised that Lauren Embree would stay on the USTA radar while at Florida. As a graduate of Stanford, McEnroe obviously knows the value of an education, and can speak with authority about the contributions that college tennis can make. I have heard parents over the years saying that the USTA has discouraged their children from the collegiate path. I can honestly say that I have never heard any USTA employee even imply that. Several times McEnroe mentioned there was more than one way to skin a cat, and to dedicate all the time and resources to looking for the needle in a haystack that is a Grand Slam champion is not going to work. Instead, the USTA needs to improve coaching, improve outreach and spread that message through the regional training centers. The USTA wants Top 100 players, believing that the competition from a cadre of those is the best way to produce a champion.
Before I get to the other topics I discussed with McEnroe, I want to link to Bonnie Ford's story today on espn.com about Jose Higueras. Higueras is obviously one of the cornerstones of McEnroe's development philosophy, and Ford does a great job of conveying the depth of wisdom that is behind all his years of playing and coaching. Higueras had no advantages and no education growing up in Spain, but he reached No. 6 in the world despite those impediments and a late start.
"That's why you never hear me say, this guy has no chance or that guy has no chance, 'cause that's what they used to tell me," Higueras said.
Although McEnroe was clear that he has instructed Higueras to keep the aggressive nature of U.S. tennis intact, he does believe that the game now requires more stamina and more nuance, which are enhanced by clay court play. "I want to sort of clear up for people," McEnroe said. "Some say, You're trying to teach our players to be clay-courters. No, we're not. I've actually had this conversation with Jose numerous times. I always remind him. I say, Jose, most of our great American players essentially are attacking players. We don't want to take away that as our mentality of players. So we want to keep that. But at the same time we want our kids to be able to learn how to build points better, how to use all the court better, and, yes, how to be fitter. If you play on clay from a younger age, you will automatically become fitter because you have to hit more balls and you have to create more opportunities rather than just going for broke all the time."
Back to the other private question. McEnroe told me that the USTA is probably not done hiring National Coaches.
I asked him about the NCAA champion US Open wild card, which he firmly said was discretionary and would be given out or not based on whether the winner (presumably American) performed well over the summer.
Then he asked me what else I might be hearing, and after all the recent comments on this site about the lack of a USTA junior "team" in Paris and Wimbledon, I mentioned that to him. He said that every American in the main draw at those two junior slams would be looked after, watched over and helped by either a national coach or someone else from High Performance. Then he thanked me for mentioning that, and said he would remind everyone on his staff of his wishes in that regard.
There has been a lot of criticism of the USTA here lately, and I post the comments, although I rarely agree with them. I can't speak to the USTA's finances and the salaries it pays, but I do not believe National Coaches are overpaid, nor do I believe that anyone at the USTA is there because of the money. I believe McEnroe when he says:
"...we feel being over-the-top inclusive and communicative is the way to go. If we're open about what we're doing and what we want to do, that doesn't mean we're always going to agree, that doesn't mean that people are going to agree with everything we do. You certainly can't please everybody. But we're genuine about this. I mean, myself and Jose, we're doing this because we're passionate about it and we feel like there's a chance for us to make a difference. That's the bottom line. We've got great people working on our staff, as I said. These people are very dedicated to helping kids. It pretty amazing to see. I'll tell you, it's pretty amazing to see some of these coaches we have and the lengths they go to to help the kids, because it's a full-service job. You've got to communicate with the kid. You've got to communicate with their parents. You've got to communicate with their coaches. That's a by-product of working for the USTA, because you've got to go above and beyond. We're perfectly happy to do it because we realize that the reason these people are coming to us, they're not coming to the USTA for help because of Patrick McEnroe or Jose Higueras. They're coming because the USTA has the resources to help."
Tuesday, May 12, 2009