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.
Monday, September 20, 2010