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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

McEnroe Talks About His First Year in USTA Player Development

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."


txcollege10s said...

Did anyone else notice that Ryan Harrison beat Taylor Dent today at the Sarasota Challenger? I know it is the battle of the bad backs, but Harrison seems to be playing well.

Karin Burgess said...

I too was on the call and was happy about what I was hearing. I hope that they move quickly to establish these training centers in a variety of places around the country -- not just in the already heavy with training center south. It is arduous and difficult for young players to grow their ability with a tournament system that involves a tremendous amount of weekend travel. To have regional centers where these kids can go to grow their game with like-abled players will be a true gift for the driven. They sound great and with Patrick at the helm I have confidence that they will happen.

justthefacts said...

On McEnroe's comment..."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"

Well, I hope that someone from the USTA communicates with those players in the main draw that they will be "watched over and helped" as not sure that some of those players have been contacted that a USTA coach will be there or, most importantly, what the plan will be if any. Seems it will be hard to coordinate with each player making thier own arrangements with thier own coaches. Well intented but may end up being more smoke and mirrors

John Carpenter said...

Ms. Lewis should be an advisor to the USTA. I think McEnroe is on the right track, and Higueras is also. It was Oscar Wegner who in his revolutionarly 1989 book predicted that the lack of US clay courts, particularly in California, would cause a downward USA trend given he knew that the modern tennis techniques he advocated ("waiting" and hitting across the ball rather than conciously through the target line)would one day dominate the higher levels of tennis. Lewis is as astute as usual and Oscar Wegner should be hired as a National Coach as the final piece of the USTA solution.

Austin said...


Just saw the Harrison-Dent result. Any loss Dent has in three sets doesnt surprise me, but its a confidence-building win for Harrison.

Don't B Fooled said...

As a mother, I have been in the middle of junior tennis for the last 7 years. I have traveled all over the country and been to every level tournament.

The USTA picked out thier "favorite" kids in the 10's and have been working with basically the same core of kids ever since.

The "others" may get some encouragement by way of CTC, Zonals or other team tennis experiences but that is about it. A few hours of some local USTA coach giving some tips..but that is about it.

Money for travel..NO, Money for coaches...NO, Money for gear, NO for lessons, NO. Am I bitter? NO, I get the system, I encourage my kid to play and life goes on.

Will the USTA produce top players, Maybe...but do not make it sound like the USTA is out there "helping" the average, above-average or even top 50 junior player out there...it just is not, and will not happen!!


If anyone

Tom C said...

I find it interesting that Patrick has had NUMEROUS conversations with Jose and has to REMIND him that most great american players are attacking players and we don't want to stray from that mentality. Also, Patrick has to REMIND his staff of his wishes while w/juniors at GS events. Why should Patrick have to remind Jose of his philosophy? And why does Patrick have to remind his HP staff of his wishes?

tennis said...

stop whining, the USTA cannot pay to help every scrub player who wants to play tennis. they can only help a certain amount of players, and they shouldnt waste it on average players, they need to spend it on players who can actually do something with the help.

and when you said, top 50 junior, what exactly did you mean??

Claycourt American? Hopefully said...

Austin, That was kind of a strange comment. For a kid that age to beat someone of that caliber on any surface is promising, especially on clay in 3 sets after losing the 2nd set. Dent beat 2 top 20 players last month in Miami before losing to Federer in the 4th rd. Harrison won again today in 3 sets on clay against a clay court specialist so maybe there is an American who isn't worried about playing on clay. That would be nice.

Tennis Fan said...

Tom C, you are very insightful and not caught up in the McEnroe name.

Patrick has to REMIND Jose because Jose didn't grow up in America. He may be a citizen now, but he grew up and trained in Spain. He is going with what he knows and is most comfortable. As for the staff, I'm not sure of that one. It may have to do with the fact that Patrick has come into a job, based on name, with no previous track record of having put together a succesful development/training program, coached at a junior level and developed any players. Being the Davis Cup Captain or Roddick's coach doesn't count.

One thing that I find perplexing is that USA tennis is in the hands of a man who is rumored to be only working 10 days a month due to his other commitments. If there is any truth that rumor, Patrick's statement of how long his plan will take should be pushed back quite a few more years.

Don't B Fooled said...

Tennis Said...

I don't expect the USTA to throw money at mediocre player, if that what you think top 50 are...but they should stop acting like they are looking out for the best interest for the top 50 kid's, they are not...top 5 yes but that is where all the $$ is going leaving the rest to fend for themselves.

They talk big, Regional Training Centers,or $$ to local acadmies but it means nothing and in the long run it is still the same kids over and over who benefit.

Look, the NBA, NFL and MLB doesn't foot the bill for their young players so I guess these tennis "prodigies" win in the long run...let's see if it can produce some winners.

And, I believe, Sam Querry was one that the USTA shunned until he started knocking "thier" kid's around when he it the 16's.

Chris Tucker said...

Patrick McEnroe sees bright future for US tennis????

Well, after one year as general manager, I am surprised to hear that statement.
Let's sum it up:

After making major changes in the fall and firing several coaches the results of the top juniors and junior pros have been disappointing to say the least.
And this after some great results before with our 14's and 16's boys and girls winning the international team championships!
Some of the junior pros seemed to make some strides as well...
Wouldn't it be logical to say that we would expect some of those to come trough the ranks and lead the ITF and future and challanger events???
What happened to these kids one might ask......

Of the kids that spent an extended time in Spain, we have to also conclude that the results of those kids after that training period have not been encouraging....

There are no kids on the horizon that are dominating in the juniors or pro circuit....

Most of our top players have been dropping on the rankings and starting to look at other interests...with no one in sight yet to take over...

There are quite some juniors and pros that do not seem to appreciate the new attitude and direction of McEnroe and Higueras and have chosen to train elsewhere...in some cases even in different countries.....

Patrick states that they are open on what they want to do, but there plan must not be, because nobody can find them....
And why then hold a conference call to explain when it is so clear what you are doing...
And why do you have to remind Higueras and your coaches on what to do if your direction is so clear....
Or is Patrick even wondering if this is going in the right direction???

Maybe everyone might think I am overly harsh with my comments...but then again, all I am looking at is the results and actions...
US tennis a bright future?
Please don't insult everyone's intelligence in stating US tennis has a bright future!
And stating that it is passion driving the both of you!??
If it really was passion, you would take this as a full time job and we would see a lot more of Higueras instead of him staying at home in Palm Springs!

And yes, I know, it takes time to build a program.
But you deffenitely would expect some plan...and some transparency in where this is going.

The USTA board will let Patrick McEnroe go a long way before anyone will step in and pull the brakes...

It has never before been a problem developing top juniors....(until now maybe)
The problem has always been with the transition to the pros...
But the USTA board has continually changed the program every 2 or 3 years....
There has never been a long term plan available to build on.
And then when it seemed it was going into the right direction...guess what, they changed it again!
And they continue to go with great ex-players to lead the program with no experience in building a program!
Some other leading countries have gone a different route and hired trained developmental coaches to lead their program.
The USTA board might be wise to study this..

Hopefully it will not be too late!
Otherwise it might be a dark future for US tennis....

Chris Tucker

justthefacts said...

To Chris Tucker

Agree with your assessment 100%. Of course McEnroe is going to put a positive spin on the future of US tennis after a year at the helm butthat’s exactly what it is, PR. The USTA should support player development, not try to take it over. The US it too big a country for that. Leave it to the coaches who have developed these kids and give these kids and their coaches support. And the USTA does need to be more inclusive, especially in support. And to “don’t be fooled”, not only does the USTA not support the top 50 players, they don’t $$$$ support all their top 5 players in each age group either

Chris Tucker said...

To Justthefacts

It sounds to me that the USTA (read McEnroe and Higueras) don't think to much of the juniors going to the Grand Slams this year if taking care of them is an after thought!
Maybe they don't think they are worth it to send a full team this year??

It sounds to me they are cutting down the grants and money so players become more dependant on the USTA...

Money is not always the answer to developing players, but it obviously does help if you don't have any at all to travel.
Suggestion: try a grant from the section....

Chris Tucker

justthefacts said...

To Chris...My take is the reason the USTA is not sending a boys team to the Jr Slams is a lack of a consistent vision. The organization probably spent $100,000 plus to send five kids and a couple coaches to Spain for 5 weeks for player development but see no value in the jr. slams as player development. Last year they sent 3 kids w/ 2 coaches. Yet this year they took a team of 4 players to Carson and the Easter Bowl and a bunch of futures but no jr. slams. The jr slam experience is invaluable for player development which is why all the US boys who qualified for the main draw are going over alone. The girls through are sending a team. It will be interesting to see what other countries with rich federations don’t send a team. I bet the USTA will be alone on that one as well, especially for a country that hosts a grand slam.

Chris Tucker said...

Inconsistent USTA Vision

You are right justthefacts, there is an inconsistant vision in the USTA leadership. This is not so surprising when you look at how the USTA is organized.

They change the board every 2 years, with every new president reinventing the wheel and trying to change the course to make their mark.
This all without longterm plans for player development and no developmental coaches...all ex-players mostly lacking in training and experience in coaching!

They change the player development program every 2 to 3 years, (although, they might need to change this one faster) without getting to the cause of why they are not successful!

The causes being:
1-limited funds for player development in the regions to run their own program in the sections with certified coaches!
Most leading countries have a substancial larger funding, specially percentage wise by overall budgert versus percentage of junior players in the country!

2-A national run professional coaches education with a 3 year, 3 levels certification (like elsewhere in the world)
(National coaches would have to certify as well and only hired with proven background in developing players)

3-A talent ID system in the section

4-A long term plan for player development to be posted on the USTA website for everybody to see.
A plan the board will invest in and build upon for the future.

5-Hire the best coaches, trainers, mental trainers available with the goal to be the best one can be!

6-And finaly, the cause has never been in the past to develop top juniors,(alltough even that seems to have come to a halt lately), the problem lies in the transition from Juniors to pros.
Changing coaches at this time can be devastating to the confidence of the players, when they have not stabilized yet!
This is also a time when players need to make decisions on turning pro and going to college.
The choice is fairly simple, but made difficult by management companies and the lure of fame by parents...
A lot of our young talents are confused and undisciplined and get a lot of bad advise and are derailed before they even get a chance to break through.
Most of the top juniors are coached by their parents with the lack of experience to guide them properly and become handicapped in many ways to reach the top.

I agree that there is a lot of wasteful spending going on, but remember, these guys have never had to watch a budget!
It would have been a lot cheaper to bring one of those coaches over to the US for that period of time!

When Patrick McEnroe says they will send someone to the Grand Slams to cover, you are right.
That is inconsistent with the girls
But don't think they will be there at the qualies!

And I feel you are right, the Grand Slams are good experience for juniors, to learn to handle the stress of playing at the big stage and learning to maintain their disciplines.

Maybe the board will figure this out someday and choose a professional approach....

Chris Tucker

justthefacts said...

To Chris

I really don't think it's all that complicated. The USTA should focus on supporting player development with the player's primary coach, especially as the kid is making the transition to pros, and invite the top kids to the Boca or Carson training centers periodically. Instead they are throwing the bank at the handful of kids in their program and none are on them are on the fast track anyway. Also, as for the US boys going to France the USTA should have sent 2 coaches and fpor the 5 or 6 main draw players and have the boys in the main draw pay thier own expenses but now all these kids are bringing their own coaches. USTA High Performance needs to think and operate more like a business and use the money they save for more player grants. Not that complicated at all.

Parent said...

I agree with Don't B Fooled. The decisions made in talent scouting and where the training and money are put to use don't make sense. From the 10s and 12s attention is given to quick, small players who get back every ball. The problem is that the bigger kids, who need more time to grow into their bodies, get ignored and have to try to fund everything themselves for the developmental years. After 4 or 5 years the results in the top players make 2 groups. One is a group of well trained, experienced smaller players who physically lack the power needed for the big leagues, and the other is a group of players with the size and power for a huge game, but who lacked the cutting edge training and constant supervision of traveling coaches during their development. The results are disappointing because the system hasn't identified players who are headed for a huge game in their late teens and early 20s. A bigger game style, by nature, takes longer to develop, especially for players who are growing into strong, powerful bodies. Often it isn't a 12s, 14 or even 16s ranking that tells the story. You have to watch the players and study their body types, strokes and athleticism. Who has the potential to play a huge game in their late teens and early 20s?

(Written by the parent of a 6'3" top 15 national player who got there with no help from the USTA Player Development - not even phone calls returned.)

The Dude said...

Parent, your perceptions are totally spot on.

The USTA wants to chery pick future champion by spotting winners in the 12s and 14s. These tend to be the mentally tough grinders who have no weapons to succeed at the pro level. Every parent who has been through the process knows that the 18s are all that matters as we have seen kids who were not in the top 150 in the 12s and 14s become top 10 in the 18s with a big game.

The essential difference is that other country federations (particularly France) allow the cream to rise to the top by allow open competition to ferment improvement all the way up in the age groups. The USTA spots their players too early, entitles them, turns them into grinders and defends their choices all the way up without allowing talented players in the 16s and 18s enter their support structure.

It's not surprising that this approach doesn't produce players ready for the tour. IMO, almost every spotted player that has remained in the program are grinders with few weapons and I have seen many aggressive talented players enter the program reformed into grinders, losing their mojo and leaving the program.

Most parents would agree that the USTA should broaden the sport, lower the fees to enter tournaments and allow the cream to rise to the top in a more fair and transparent support structure rather than the biased cherry picking sytem they have in place.