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Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Interview with Todd Martin; French Open Junior Acceptances

I had an opportunity to conduct a one-on-one interview with Todd Martin at last month's Easter Bowl, and although it is available at the Tennis Recruiting Network, I've decided to publish it in its entirety here on zootennis too. Martin is going to begin devoting more of his time to tennis teaching, beginning with a local program in the Jacksonville Florida area and several training camps for players from throughout the county. As Martin says below, he is not ready for a full-time boarding academy yet.  

Martin has always been considered one of tennis' statesmen, and the care and thought that go into his answers demonstrates why. 


Two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin retired from the ATP tour in 2004, but he never left the game. The 41-year-old, who reached No. 4 in the ATP’s rankings in 1999, has remained in the tennis spotlight, serving as a coach to both Mardy Fish and Novak Djokovic, and competing on the two major senior tours.
He has continued to play in charity events and exhibitions, and the former ATP Council President recently accepted a position on the USTA’s board of directors.
Martin, who grew up in Lansing, Michigan and still oversees his charitable foundation there, played for two years at Northwestern University before he began competing professionally.
He now lives with his wife and three young children in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and in the next several months Martin’s tennis involvement will take a new direction, as he begins organizing his own junior academy at a club in the Jacksonville area.
At the Easter Bowl, I had an opportunity to sit down with Martin to discuss his coaching philosophy and many of the current issues in junior development. His thoughtful and informed responses follow:
Colette Lewis: When did you decide that junior development coaching was what you wanted to pursue?
Todd Martin:  From way back in high school I knew I wanted to teach, I just didn’t know what I wanted to teach. Throughout my playing career I learned very clearly that teaching tennis was what I wanted to do. I’ve had some pretty interesting stints coaching professionally, but I think my skills are better suited for younger players and more of a teaching role.
Q. How do you see your program evolving in the next year or two?
A. My vision is to build a great local program, like the one I grew up with in Lansing. There’s a chance to really improve a child’s life by being a good teacher, but with a program, you have a chance to really improve the sport and grow the sport, and that intrigues me and motivates me.
The first year I’ll also put on five to ten training camps for kids from out of town, to put them through the kind of training they should be doing. I think everybody benefits from having other eyes and other voices to communicate with. In the long run, I’d like to build it into a full-time academy, but in the beginning, I have a good bit to learn and I want to learn in a manageable volume. Before I have kids with me 40 weeks a year, I want to be better educated.
Q. What will be the program’s structure?
A. I’ll have a full pipeline. From a business standpoint, the only way to build a good business is to have a feeder system. I’m a big believer in Quickstart if it’s done the right way. The best way to teach kids is to have them fully engrained in the sport for their size and their age and progress them accordingly.
The training camps would be provided ideally to national-level players from all sections, and be age-group specific.
Obviously, with the USTA’s comprehensive coverage of player development in the top echelon, I’ll be looking primarily at kids who are just not quite reaching that level.
The differentiator, in my opinion, is that if five or ten kids come to see me, they’re going to see me on the court on a daily basis, it’s not going to be a diluted service. As intriguing as business is, I’m much more a teacher than I am a businessman, and I look forward to being on the court and educating players and also their coaches a little.
Q. Who is your mentor or model for this approach?
A. Rick Ferman taught me a lot about tennis and a lot about life. His values aligned with my parents’ values incredibly well, so when I showed up for tennis I was expected to be disciplined, I was expected to demonstrate respect, I was expected to squeeze the sponge dry, do my best every time out. And I was also expected to enjoy what I was doing, and Rick did a great job of making it fun for all of us.
Lots of times kids are taught to be a student of one, while Rick taught me to be a student of everybody. Rick was and is a great programmer. So when I look at doing a local player development program, I lean on Rick a lot. My other mentor is Jose Higueras, who I worked with as a professional. Jose has boundless knowledge and a great method of application in a training environment. So what I will be doing is blending what I learned as a child from Rick, as an adult from Jose, and what I’ve learned from a lifetime of playing the game and teaching the game.
Q. What major changes have you seen in tennis since your days as a junior?
A. I’m a huge beneficiary of the fact that there’s money in the professional game of tennis, and I won’t make any bones about it. But it was never a motivation. And it certainly wasn’t a motivation for my parents.  They were generally opposed to me playing professional tennis. Not because they were opposed to money, but they wanted me to be educated. In the end, they wanted me to be happy, do what I wanted to do and chase my dream, and were very supportive.
It began before my generation, it grew during my generation and it’s much worse now. And it’s in all sports, it’s not just tennis. Parents are motivated by money, and it might not just be professional tennis, it might be a college scholarship, a return on investment.
Q. What would you say to a parent who came to you and said I want my son or daughter to be a grand slam champion?
A. I had a conversation with a father, who played collegiate tennis when I did. His daughter is very successful in the 12-and-unders. He said she’s in regular school, we have her hitting after school, occasionally before school. And I told him, you’re one of the first parents that the first thing I haven’t wanted to tell you is to scale back. I still told him to scale back; if it were my child, I’d scale back a little bit at that age. Because really what’s most critical for them is to get good late in their teens or early in their 20s.
In order to do that, science has proven, history has proven, that those who bud really, really early often are challenged to sustain it late in life. So if someone came to me and said that, I would say, I think that should be a dream, for them, but let’s set realistic goals for the child and work constructively toward them. With goals comes pressure. I think you have to dream big, but I think your goals have to be really obtainable. And the goals have to come from within the child.
Q. What’s the most important lesson you learned in junior tennis?
A. There are just countless lessons you learn on the athletic field in childhood. For me, one of them was perseverance.
I was a very average junior tennis player. The only year I made any national event in the first year of my age group was my first year of 18s in Kalamazoo. I came to the Easter Bowl as maybe a 14-and-under, and I was the guy who was just thrilled to get a game. I was the turtle, all the analogies, but that perseverance benefitted me throughout my career. I hit college and I didn’t have immediate success, and when I turned pro, I toiled for two years before I even had an inkling that I belonged. So perseverance, then hard work, focus. I love the focus tennis brings out in me. I wouldn’t have that in any aspect of my life if it weren’t for tennis in childhood.
Q. What do you think is behind the decline in American tennis?
A. I think oftentimes the simplest answer is the most accurate, the one that gives the best explanation.
The sport’s just way more global. Beyond that, you have sports science that has caught up globally. We’re still incredibly innovative, but people talk about the hunger of the child, I think there’s incredible hunger in other parts of the world for the science of sports development. Since the sport of tennis is incredibly popular in other countries, I think some of the best scientists end up in tennis, and I think more great athletes end up playing tennis.
Q. How do you feel about college as a step in player development?
A. Let me first say that there’s no one right way to go about it. But absolutely, positively, for the lion’s share of everybody in the United States who wants to become a professional tennis player, skipping the rung on the ladder that is college tennis is counterproductive.
There are obviously guys who skipped college, hit the ground running and that was the right way for them.
But in the US, kids don’t come out of the womb destined to be professional tennis players. Therefore, they’re raised to be adults­—self-sufficient, self-providing—at the age of 22, not at the age of 18.
There’s a huge difference culturally between our country and other countries, and I think that’s where our young talent has run into pitfalls for years and years now. We’re no stranger to great junior tennis players, but we’re a stranger in having them transition from seniors in high school to successful professionals, if they don’t take that step of college tennis.
For me, the beauty of college tennis was that I grew physically, I grew emotionally and I grew socially. And for me, and this wasn’t the case for everybody, I learned how to play against adult men, as opposed to playing against kids all my life.
It’s a maturation stage that most Americans, especially, need. A lot of foreign-born and foreign-raised tennis players need it as well.
Q. Are you interested in coaching college tennis?
A. The simple answer is sure. It’s an incredible age to work with. I would love that aspect of it.  But the reality of it is I don’t see it as being the tennis education that junior tennis is. It’s an interesting part of the developmental pathway that really intrigues me, but it’s my belief, and I could be proven wrong, that I need some time forming games before I’d want to get away from that.
If you ask me that question tomorrow, I might have a different answer.
Q. If you could change any one thing about tennis, what would it be?
A. I would love for it to be more accessible for kids and for the first touch of instruction to be really good, and then let them learn for themselves a little bit. There’s a lot more over-coaching that occurs than under-coaching. Kids are really, really clever, and they can learn themselves with a strong rudder. They don’t need someone steering the ship every bit of the way. The ocean’s big, they can go off course a little bit and get away with it. And in fact, they learn from that. I think the best coaches learn from watching their players go off course. Because sometimes going off course takes them to another course with a little smoother water.
There’s a lot of things the guys do now that just never would have been taught. They were against the rules when I was growing up. But it’s a much better way to do things.
Q. Do you have any comments on Wayne Bryan’s views regarding the USTA?
A. I don’t.
Q. What do you think of the changes in the USTA’s junior tournament structure?
A. I’ve been a very interested observer. I’m very encouraged by the progress that Junior Competition [committee] has made. The only way for our sport to be healthy, for us to develop consistent champions, is to grow the base of players. For a thousand kids to have to come to Palm Springs in the spring and then do three or four other national tournaments throughout the course of the year, we weed out the base of that pyramid. And that’s not where you want to do the weeding. I’m evidence that a player developed locally, districtly, sectionally and regionally can become a successful worldwide competitor.
As much as my parents were capable, in a way, of affording the national circuit, I only did two a year when I was young. I stayed in countless Red Roof Inns that we drove to and they were able to manage the expense of this passion of mine reasonably well.
It was a meritocracy and then some back then, and now, frankly, it’s become a resource-ocracy, and I think the junior comp changes take a step forward, in a reverse direction, to bringing the game back locally.
To do it now, in advance of what, hopefully, optimistically, and probably, will be a boom of tennis players from 10 and under tennis, is properly proactive and I think we’ve got great things ahead of us. 
The ITF has released the acceptances for the French Junior Championships, which begin on June 3.  There are five US boys in the main draw: Mitchell Krueger, Mackenzie McDonald, Noah Rubin, Spencer Papa and Alexios Halebian. Thai Kwiatkowski, Stefan Kozlov and Austin Siegel are in the qualifying.  Connor Farrer is the next player in, but when I spoke to him at the Easter Bowl, he had his wrist in a cast and told me he probably won't be able to play again until Kalamazoo.  As is often the case at the French, the field is as good as it gets in junior tennis, with the boys ranked 1-29 all entered, and the cutoff for main draw at 47.

The girls draw is rarely as straightforward, but the cutoff is even higher, at 45.  Three girls--Donna Vekic, Daria Gavrilova and Annika Beck--received direct entry based on their WTA rankings, which must be inside 350 to make the main draw. Eight US girls received main draw spots: Taylor Townsend, Chalena Scholl, Allie Kiick, Sachia Vickery, Kyle McPhillips, Krista Hardebeck, Jennifer Brady and Christina Makarova. There are no US girls currently in qualifying, but Stephanie Nauta is next into qualifying.

Townsend is the only reigning junior slam champion in the field, although the other three are still age eligible. Australia's Ashleigh Barty (Wimbledon), Tunisia's Ons Jabeur (French) and American Grace Min (US Open) did not enter. 

The complete lists are available at the ITF junior website.


tenniscoachFLA said...

Todd is yet another academy guy clutching at straws. No one has a clue how to develop Grand Slam champs. They usually come from parents, local coaches, other family members.

Telling a parent to back off training is misguided. Some top pros trained fanatically from age 5, others played other sports and did not take tennis seriously until 10-12. Again, no one has a formula.

He is mistaken about how to interpret the statistics. Sure kids who are great at tennis early many times fade later. But most of the top players were great at tennis at a young age. The ones that faded did so for a variety of reasons. But the fact is if your kid is not showing extraordinary tennis promise and training very, very hard at age 12-13, they will not win any Grand Slams later on.

I would advise parents to save the money on these big name guys and academies. Work with local coaches if you are not a tennis expert. Develop fundamentals and a love for the game. If your kid is one of the rare, rare players destined to be a money making pro, it will happen. It will come from within, not because Todd Martin or any big name works with them.

I doubt anyone can name any current top pros who were the result of some big name former player training them at a young age.

chalkflewup said...

Thanks for publishing the interview with Todd -- great read! He is a tremendous tennis mind and one of the true gentleman in our sport.

If a parent is interested in working with Todd Martin, they should give it a go and then decide if it's a good fit. Todd has been to places where 99% of the tennis coaching population has not (top 10 in the world, center court, Davis Cup, etc...). He belongs in tennis and I'm certain he'll make a positive impact to our sport.

Anothertenniscoach in fla said...

Chalkflewup, What does having been in the top 10 and played on Center Court have to do with it. Its about whether or not the person can teach and develop players. Have they ever done it. Soooo many ex players who were top 30 in the world think their physical ability automatically made them smarter than the guys who actually do the teaching and developing. The comment about telling parents to back off and not have the kids play so much at a younger age is absolute nonsense..It told me right then and there he has no clue about developing kids to the highest level... The whole comment about science proving kids that are very successful at a young age dont end up being the successful ones as they get older is a complete joke. I know first hand from being in the business the last 40 years both as a player and a coach that is absurd. Like so many explayers, at that level they mistake physical ability for knowledge... As for the Quick Start program he endorses.. Again, proof positive hes never developed players.. It is a joke to have anyone past 6 years old playing with those softer balls and on a smaller court.. Spend many,many years doing the actual work, then give an opinion on it.

Interested Observer said...

I agree there is no formula for developing Grand Slam champs... why would anyone expect there to be given the number of variables ? I don't think this is what Todd M. is saying. It is just common sense that kids develop at different rates and, any one who truly knows anything about sports knows that a transcendant talent may not become apparent until the right circumstances are present. You see it all the time watching junior tennis, a 12-14 year old who is "the big althetic kid" wins the tournament and is highly ranked even though you know that this kid's game is just not going to translate to the higher age groups. Conversely, you see kids of normal athletic ability (i.e., of the running and jumping variety)lose tons of matches b/c they are physically young and they are not yet old enough for the advanced game that their are trying to play to actually be effective. So I concur with what I think Todd Martin is saying, because of the focus on developing players who are big winners at a young age, we are missing out on alot of kids who may truly be creative shot makers. If you've not developed physically, that type of game won't win int he 12-14s, where the big kid wins syndrome is so apparent. Also, think about a few of the top U.S. pros over thel ast few years, such as Todd M., Isner, Blake and certainly Fish. I'd bet all these guys would certainly consider themselves much better pros than the were juniors, at least in the early stages. These guys just kept getting better. Think of all the truly greats (Brady, Federer, Gretzky), none were eye popping athletes in a traditional sense. They all have (had) transcendant talent that need a long time to develop in order to come to the fore.

Martin fan said...

Todd Martin is a very smart man who will succeed in any endeavor. Anyone that doesn't think Todd's experience on tour will help him to develop kids is mistaken. Todd is a sponge when it comes to knowledge and has a great way with kids. Todd will change and adapt his program in his philosophy as time develops.

I don't blame the Florida coaches for bashing Todd....you are afraid of his potential success. Rather than bash the guy, coaches should embrace a competitor that will conduct business with class. I guarantee Todd won't bad mouth other coaches.

Post again in 5 years when the program is established. Todd appears to be doing this for all the right reasons and I have no doubt he will be successful.