There are two significant questions related to USTA Player Development that I'm going to skip over in this post. The first is the governing structure of the USTA itself, which I discussed last week. The second is whether the position of General Manager of Player Development is one that needs to exist at all. But assuming it is going to be filled and the new hire in the position will be reporting to the new president and board of directors, I'll proceed with what I think has been accomplished in McEnroe's six years at Player Development, what needs to change to improve its effectiveness and what skills and experience the new General Manager should possess.
I ask that you remember that I am not a coach, a parent, a player or a tournament director who has any direct contact with Player Development's policies and decisions. I talk regularly with all of those people at high-level junior tournaments, but my views are from the perspective of a journalist, not a "customer." I will say again what I have said for the decade I have been covering junior tennis for this website--all of us want the same thing: a strong and viable American presence in the global world of tennis.
Here are the positive steps I've seen introduced or emphasized in the past five years, in no particular order of importance:
1. Talent identification is more organized and systematic, with more regional camps and more travel by USTA staff
2. There are more invitations for a wider array of players to training camps in Boca Raton
3. The outreach to private coaches has improved, with invitations to Boca with their players and to other focus group meetings to brainstorm
4. Recognition that some private sector coaches who develop national-level players but are not famous have wisdom to offer.
5. Establishment of a National Collegiate Coaching position
6. Increased opportunities for juniors and young pros to train and play competitive matches on clay
7. Introduction of Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenges for slam wild cards
8. Providing US Open Junior wild cards to 18s Clay Court and Easter Bowl champions
Here are the areas where I feel Player Development has fallen short:
1. PD allowed the USTA junior competitive structure be radically altered without advocating for the best interests of elite national players. PD has long recognized the various development paths, but has consistently abandoned its own system as a viable means of providing top-level competition. This goes not just for the tournament structure but the ranking system as well. When your federation's ranking system is not trusted by college coaches nor understood by those who are competing in the system, it has failed.
2. PD's voice must be heard on the topic of minimum prize money for Futures events on the USTA Pro Circuit. To allow $10,000 Futures tournaments to continue to exist without any increase in prize money for 20 years demonstrates a lack of big-picture thinking. It would cost $115,000 to upgrade the 23 men's $10Ks to $15Ks. A less complicated and cheaper action item would be hard to find.
3. Too much money is going to too few juniors. Selecting prospects is what competition is for. Anointing players based on potential and providing them with everything is risky at best and a waste of PD resources at worst. Better to give 100 kids $1000 than 1 kid $100,000.
4. USTA tournament fees are too high. $120 for a top USTA event vs $65 for a top ITF event (which unlike the USTA, provides hospitality) doesn't make any sense. If that gap can be justified, provide a breakdown of where the tournament fee dollars go. Adequate, well-trained officials should be the top budget priority. Earmark funds to that end if necessary.
5. There's not enough USTA PD presence at National/sectional tournaments and major college events. This is not a reference to the national coaches who travel with USTA players (see below), but to those in PD who do not have responsibility for specific players. They should be at as many tournaments as possible, representing the USTA and listening to tournament directors, players, parents and coaches.
6. Team USA, the recent initiative to view all American players as part of the USTA, is sabotaged by the presence of USTA National Coaches as private coaches for "their" players at tournaments. It's only natural they want to see the players they are coaching daily in competition, but should a federation aim to have it both ways? Seeing three or four PD employees at the match of one junior they work with, and none at the majority of matches featuring American juniors, sends the wrong message to everyone, widening a gulf they maintain they want to close.
7. The emergence of social media has provided all organizations, big and small, a means to quickly and cheaply disseminate information and engage its constituency. Player Development has failed to take advantage of this opportunity to reach out to parents, players, coaches and fans.
8. Town meetings, webinars and focus groups are valuable, but if the USTA does not regularly and clearly communicate what it has heard and what it intends to do about what it has heard, it does little but feed the cynicism many feel. The USTA will always be a target for anything and everything that goes wrong in junior tennis in this country. That cannot blind it to reality that some criticism has merit, suggestions from the field are often valuable and its power has genuine consequences.
I'll close with a list of what attributes I would like to see in Patrick McEnroe's replacement. My dream General Manager of Player Development would:
1) have a background in coaching juniors and either a player they coach, or a son or daughter in the system
2) be familiar with the demands of the current pro game, whether as a coach or player at that level in the past decade
3) be well-versed in the current advances in coaching and sports science
4) have a love of the game that extends to sectional/national junior tournaments
5) demonstrate an ability to convey to the USTA president, board and all USTA members the goals and mission of Player Development, a plan to reach them, and a means to determine if they have been met
6) possess business and marketing skills to attract sponsorship and support from commercial interests
7) inspire loyalty, leading to reduced turnover
8) be delighted to live in Lake Nona, Florida
It's very unlikely any one person would fit in that box, and I've probably missed other important aspects of the job, simply because I don't know what it has been or am failing to imagine what it could be. But if you have other ideas on how the USTA could improve Player Development, pass them on. It does matter.