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Monday, September 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on USTA Player Development


It's been a couple of weeks since Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras held a press conference at the U.S. Open to discuss USTA Player Development, and in the past few days, I've had an opportunity to review the transcript and the material that was distributed. The biggest news that came out of that press conference, of course, was McEnroe's decision to step down as Davis Cup captain after this past weekend's tie with Colombia, but player development still received most of the attention. The complete transcript is available here.

I've been following player development closely for the past five or six years, and not just U.S. player development. Although hampered by my monolingualism, I try to keep up with what is happening on that front around the world, and I am increasingly convinced that players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the Williams sisters and other multi-slam champions have little relation to their federation's philosophy or checkbook. But if you believe that federations have a role to play in promoting the game at the grass roots level and giving promising players a structure in which to develop, the conversation on how that is progressing seems a valid one.

As I mentioned over a year ago, I think Patrick McEnroe and Jose Higueras are on the right track. The Regional Training Centers have been a great innovation, and to have a dozen of them already in place, with more to come, suggests that the much-derided USTA bureaucracy is not all that formidable when a politically adept leader knows what he wants. An example of the positive impact an RTC can have was demonstrated this summer with Robin Anderson. Rather than require that Anderson work in Boca or Carson, the USTA provided the funding for her to train this summer at the RTC in College Park, Maryland, which is closer to her home, and where she can live with relatives. Joining her at College Park is Alex Vuckovic, a former Princeton player, who has worked with her the past year.

The USTA's emphasis on developing working relationships with private academies and coaches has been mentioned frequently in the past two years, and most of the coaches I've spoken with have seen improvements in communication, although most would like to see even more interaction. Perhaps McEnroe's resignation from the Davis Cup captaincy, which he framed as a decision based on family and on more time to devote to player development, will result in more face-to-face discussions with coaches about the USTA's coaching philosophy and direction.

College tennis has become a priority for USTA Player Development, and there are countless indications that this isn't just talk. All four NCAA champions of 2009 and 2010 were given main draw wild cards into the U.S. Open. The summer collegiate teams, the pro transition camps, the national junior team's dual matches, the sponsorship of ITA events, the campus showdowns, college showcases, the list of ways the USTA has supported college tennis goes on and on. Twenty-five college coaches attended a conference in Boca Raton this summer, and both Higueras and his staff and the coaches appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas. This weekend I'm attending the Napa Classic, a college invitational tournament that will include, for the first time, eight USTA-selected juniors among the 32 participants. (More about that later this week.)

It's fair to ask whether John Isner is primarily responsible for this increased attention to college tennis, but as a former college star who can recognize the increased physicality and maturity demanded on the tour now, McEnroe has to be given credit for seeing the advantages of the college route. In fact, the one-page graphic in the material distributed at the Open, which is entitled The American Pathway, put it very simply: QuickStart Tennis-> Junior Competition-> Collegiate Varsity Competition->Professional Tennis.

The increased emphasis on clay has been much discussed, but it's clear that McEnroe is not interested in clay per se, but in the opportunities it provides to hone skills that will work on all surfaces. The downside of clay courts is of course, the expense of maintaining them, and that underlying cost will mean most parks and clubs will be setting up QuickStart on hard courts, not clay, or for the purist, Har-Tru.

The commitment to earning wild cards is another trend I'm in favor of, and I think deciding a U.S. Open, French and Australian main draw wild card this way is appropriate. But tournaments cost money, which means this is a more expensive way of determining a wild card. And that brings me to a final point.

For many years, there were major complaints about the lack of money the USTA devoted specifically to Player Development. Before McEnroe was hired, in April of 2008, the decision was made to fund the Boca Raton academy, and since that time there have been many complaints that the USTA is spending too much money on player development, or at least too much money on a few select players. (For more along those lines, see Charlie Bricker's article on World Tennis). These are valid concerns, and asset allocation is always a topic for debate, whether it's a household, a business, a school, a non-profit or a government. I would prefer to see tournament fees reduced, or more money dedicated to officiating or more subsidized travel/housing at tournaments, which would benefit more players, not just a select few. And I believe the Boca experiment, while done with the best of intentions, probably wasn't an initiative that could ever produce a viable return on investment. Player Development needed a permanent home, and housing for camps, but the RTC format makes infinitely more sense to me.

I speak to parents who are still unsure of the USTA's direction and motives. While you may argue that its philosophy is wrong or its implementation is faulty or its money is wasted, I don't understand those who question their motives. Don't we all want more great American tennis players? (Maybe not, Bill Dwyer of the Los Angeles Times thinks that's all overblown.) Don't we love the sport and want to see it thrive in this country and the world? If we could start in agreement on that, future conversations on player development might lead to more productive exchanges.

11 comments:

Becky said...

Collette,

Any thoughts of the college park fab 3 splitting up and Junior Ore now training in Florida??

Colette Lewis said...

@Becky:
I had heard that Ore had left College Park, but wasn't sure where he had gone. Is he at an academy in Florida now?

Amtex said...

Wow, what a great summary. I have also followed junior development for years. In the end I think we still need to concentrate on getting as many kids as possible to play tennis over other sports at a young age. Making the tournaments more affordable would be a big help in keeping them into the sport. I also agree 100% that the high performance end will not pay off. Putting huge money into a few kids is just to narrow a focus. Growing the game will deepen the talent pool. I think an American champ is more likely to come from a deeper talent pool than the USTA trying to hand pick a champ out of 30 kids in high performance.

chalkflewup said...

Colette is spot on with her assessment. USTA will GROW the game. It's not just the high performance program. Quickstart is a needed component and it will pay huge dividends over time. This is a full court press and not a one bullet solution. Enjoy the ride!

wi tennis said...

Colette, Great summary! I agree 100% about reducing tournament fees, or getting them free, if you prove that you truly can't afford it.

Housing at tournaments is huge, too. Also, I feel that people are not communicating and helping each other to reduce costs. Parents taking more than just their kid to a tournament. Parents/Kids inviting other kids to stay with them at hotels or with family friends. It happens sometimes, but many parents have become so cut-throat that they don't want to help each other out.

I disagree with more officials. I think that kids get tougher by learning how to work out things on their own and deal with adversity. Now-a-days, they always go running to parents, coaches, referees. Sure, they might lose a match once a year because a bad cheater, but big deal in the grand scheme of the world! I think the playground atmosphere produces great, tough players. How many top basketball players went to an academy? How many top baseball players? Football? Soccer? Bollettieri always said that Agassi, Courier, Sampras, etc got better by battling it out on the back courts with no coaches, referees or parents. (We know it wasn't his coaching, haha) I think that this is true. I'm a product of the playground, too! Also, I believe in karma for the cheaters.

Great work, Colette.

just saying said...

It's OK for Van Overbeek to miss school this week to play a futures in Costa Mesa, but Florida doesn't want him to miss classes to get the experience of playing the US Open Jrs?

getreal said...

I could not agree with you more that success of “players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the Williams sisters and other multi-slam champions have little relation to their federation's philosophy or checkbook.” It’s a real positive that the USTA is revamping junior competition so juniors spend less time/money traveling outside their sections and focusing more on college tennis, particularly considering the depth of the men’s game and the odds of teenagers popping though. Still I’m not hopeful about American tennis returning to its glory days on the men’s side not matter what the USTA does because the sacrifices are too huge when upside/odds of making it are completely against you. That’s why most of our best athletes will continue to chose other sports where they can develop their skills while attending regular high schools and be a part of a team. The bottom line is that junior tennis more than any other sport is a black hole in terms of money, time commitment, loneliness and disruption for the entire family and, most importantly, can end up being a real burnout for these kids because they are ripped out of the mainstream for most of their teenage years.

tennisfan said...

to Just Saying,

van Overbeek was not awarded a wild card into US Open JRS. That is why he did not play. Amazing how he placed 2nd at Kalamazoo weeks before but USTA still did not give him the WC.

The Fan Child said...

I love the college angle, because I think parents will find dedication to tennis won't be as risky when it may lead to a college scholarship. It might not be the answer for everyone but it will more than likely lead to greater participation.

Love the RTC emphasis as well.

It sounds like Pmac has his ears to the ground. He's very well educated on the other American sports and I think this will ultimately help him to bring tennis out of that "obscure" realm.

Thanks for your report Collette!

some information said...

brinttennisfan

do not blame the usta for not giving Bob a wildcard into the us open juniors if you do not know if he applied for one or not. Please do not assume because he did not apply for one.

Ken Arnoldson said...

Come on now...tennis kids are not "ripped out of the main stream". The vast majority go to school and travel to tournaments on weekends. Even the academies have socials and proms. Homeschooled kids are most times exposed to all sorts of social outlets. A social tennis kid is every bit as engaged as any other kid. Heck many, many shy kids are isolated even though they are attending huge high schools. Outgoing kids or shy kids are what they are, tennis or no tennis.