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Sunday, May 8, 2011

No Americans in ATP or WTA Top Ten, Does Angry Birds Help Explain the Decline?

In the past week, I've seen one US tennis journalist after another come to terms with an historic first. When Monday's ATP and WTA rankings are released, there will be no American in the Top 10 of either for the first time ever (the rankings go back to the mid-70s). Even with the realization that it's the negative news that makes headlines (you didn't read headlines like "Golden Age of American Tennis" back in the 1990s, when the Agassi, Sampras, Courier generation was at its peak), this is depressing even if seemingly inevitable.

The New York Times Christopher Clarey has always taken an interest in player development and in his article on the dearth of top American players, he explores some of the reasons that have contributed to the decline of the original powers of tennis, especially as it relates to the United States. I have never met Doug MacCurdy, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association from 1998 to 2001, who is quoted extensively in Clarey's article, but I do agree that in this country, it's not enough to be like say, France, which has a host of fantastic ATP players, but hasn't had a Grand Slam champion since 1983 (Roddick was the last American man, in 2003). Clarey points out that as far as sheer numbers go, the US trails only Russia and Spain for the combined number of men and women in the Top 100s, but that's not acceptable, as MacCurdy says, "...for a place that likes gold medals only, that doesn’t satisfy."

Regular readers of this blog know I'm a big fan of Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. Coyle also has a blog where addresses and updates issues and theories he raises in his book, and in his latest entry he writes about the problem with US soccer as it relates to the widely popular electronic game Angry Birds. Coyle believes that tapping into the underdog mentality is important to success, and identifying with angry birds, rather than smug pigs, can be the difference in systems trying to facilitate great achievements. I'm not sure that I buy the underlining assumption that attacking is necessarily more desperate and innovative than defending (what if the pigs weren't smugly defending inert eggs but actual family members?) but I do think complacency is dangerous, especially when it's not acknowledged and resisted.

Yes, tennis is a more important sport in Europe than it is in the US, meaning that it draws some of the best athletes. It is less expensive there, the geography is less daunting and the competition from team sports (other than soccer/football, or course) is minimal. But those reasons shouldn't be used as excuses in this country; opportunity still exists here, and there are plenty of people in this country who feel like underdogs and can find the motivation necessary to excel.

For a British perspective on the decline of American tennis, see Mike Dickson's article in the Daily Mail.

13 comments:

Stephie said...

Great article. I still think that tennis (and golf) are some what "elitist" sports, if you will, in the U.S. It's very expensive to get American children trained in our country, whereas in places like Belgium, for example, they have two academies that their children can train for free if they have the interest and talent.

sportsmom said...

I believe it's a combination of size of the country, competing "cooler" & cheaper sports like soccer and baseball, and the extremely high expense of training a high level tennis player from early childhood that is more to blame than our kids' attitudes or sense of complacency. To create a great player, it takes thousands of hours of private lessons, travel to national tournaments that in the end regularly cost parents at least $1K each shot (airfare, rental car, hotel, tournament fee, dining out), time off from school throughout the school year (requiring home schooling in many cases, which then requires one stay-home parent), a community of other high-level players nearby to practice against (extremely hard to find in most areas of the US, so tennis academies come into play and --(besides the USTA Player Development which is a Godsend for a select handful of players) -- those will run you a good $35-$50K/yr) ---- I mean, honestly, I don't think there are many junior tennis parents out there on the "circuit" who are surprised there aren't more US players in the top 10. The USTA Player Development is doing a fantastic job now with what resources they have and perhaps the RTC's & the new emphasis on more regional tournaments will start to make a dent but it's going to be an uphill battle for awhile.

reasons said...

Well there are a number of reasons that US tennis is where it is, and I'm afraid until USTA stand up and be accountable I doubt whether this is going to change.
USTA is not happy a player is American, they want the player to have somehow come through the USTA system, not a Bollettieris or similar. Nadal is just Spanish isn't he?
Secondly they are now, more than ever trying to move all Futures and Challengers to green clay, when there is not an ATP event in the world on this surface. What are they thinking?
Next - 10 year old mini-tennis. Somehow we are the only country in the world with this program and based on USTA's performance over the last 5 years - I wonder. This program is a great starter program, but by the age of 10 some Spanish players have already played an ITF.
USTA get your head out of the sand and get with the program, or the next headline will read no US players in ATP or WTA in top 30!

getaclue said...

yea thats it get 10 year old playing itf tournaments!!!!

jptex said...

Please show me where there is a 10 year old Spanish player who has played an ITF. Thanks.

Also, we are not even close to the only country using smaller courts and graduated equipment (balls, racquets, etc). Newsflash, we stole these ideas from other countries.

I am far from a USTA National cheerleader, but come on man, if you're going to criticize them, at least know what you're talking about.

Knowyourfacts said...

Reasons, You were o.k. until the comment about Spanish kids playing I.T.F.'s at age 10. Thirteen is the youngest age you are allowed to play them.

sorry said...

The quickstart is a great idea for 4-7 yrs old. I teach Quickstart in South Florida. I find it is less challenging for the tiny ones and they have interest because they are accomplishing something by being able to feel they are playing tennis(they are to young to no any better). The price i charge is very cheap, the parents have no idea the expense that it is going to go with tennis as they get older, alot can only afford 1x a week.( the economy hit and people have cut back). Until tennis is not about $$$$$ it is only going to be for the people who have the extra money to spend. I know with my daughter 1 wkend tourny can be up to $800 for a designated or sectional. For the wealthy, they can buy a ranking to a certain point and then the talent is not there, it never was, they were chasing points traveling, seen it in some of the itfs

juniortennis said...

agree with sportsmom's comments on her take on lack of top us athletes choosing tennis .. dont see that changing because of the cost/missing school/ and travel vs. the chance to actually make money in the sport. many of these kids make a huge sacrifice on their high school education which they dont have to do with other sport in high school to get really good. i also blame the ITf for creating a system that requires system that gets 15 year olds traveling non stop around the world which is not necessary to develop your game. the whole process is really very unappealing and way to expensive and rips these kids out of the mainstream

stayathomemom said...

juniortennis

you make the common error of assuming any of the nonsensical worldwide travel for juniors is in any way necessary or even productive. it is not.

junior said...

I am sure "reasons" was kidding when he said in Spain kids play ITF at 10. For sure they play at 13 or 14. Everyone agrees that in the USA tennis is costly and complex. The USTA is groping for solutions and not succeding. No one is looking into changing the system. Here it is, pay for $60 for lessons, pay $100 for tournament entries, etc. Until the system promotes kids going to the tennis facility and spending the day hitting balls and having fun at minimum cost, nothing will change. Sounds all fashioned? Guess what, it worked in the past. But what can be expected from an organization as immovable as the USTA? Not much, mostly talk about opportunities.

been-there said...

My daughter just played in a level 2 RTC camp, sponsored by the USTA. I have to say I was impressed. Unlike the previous year's camp, because it was held very soon after the first one, it felt like it had continuity. They also brought in many of the same coaches from around the area. The court ratio was 3 to 1. It just felt good all over. The coaches knew the kids better too.

Most important, they kept the training appropriate to the age level of the kids. Part of the problem with tennis is that good really young kids (ages 10-11'ish) end up playing with the teenagers in regular tennis practice; there aren't enough of them to have their own practices in most academies, unlike a sport like soccer or basketball. Seeing them play with kids their own age, yet with a strong ability level was just fun.

Kudos to the USTA for this last weekend...

stayathomemom said...

60$ for a lesson from someone with one day of training. then travel the world. there's a formula for success. why can't the US compete?

The Dude said...

In the Eastern Section, $100-120 per hour tennis lesson. Then add indoor court time! Faggeddabboutit!