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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where Should USTA Player Development Go From Here? My Thoughts

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.


Thom Billadeau said...

Colette, I think much of what you wrote is very thoughtful and comes from a unique perspective--an objective journalist. As I said in my letter to you which you published, I do feel, resolving the "tension" that comes from having USTA coaches (and therefor USTA players) will always be a problem. So perhaps in addition to those items that I said I would take advantage of, were they offered, splitting up responsibility for the various tasks makes some sense. Perhaps having one organization that is charged with the tournament schedule, administration, and rules--another organization that is responsible for creating a practice environment(s)--the training center or multiple training centers if you will, and a third organization that offers USTA coaching to talent they have identified through whatever means. If these tasks are separated, private coaches have access to the center or centers thereby facilitating practice environment and they USTA still gets to foster players they believe are worth investing in. It's just separate functions reporting to different people with separate budgets and separate missions. Having a firewall between these might seem layered, but the USTA is a big organization and certainly has its share of layered management structure. Certainly separating out the tournament management structure makes very good sense.

These organizations can collaborate, and certainly the private sector can participate in the collaboration as it pertains to the training center. If the USTA chooses to focus its funds only to those players that are coached by USTA coaches, at least we would be solving the problem of overlapping tournament administration and structure, running a training center, and coaching chosen players.

One last comment and this seems to fall both in defense of what has be done in PD as well as the future of what is done with PD. I think there has to be a separation between running a proper player training and development environment and whether we have successful professional American players. The world has changed and the US must understand that its prior place on the charts of the top 150 players is probably not going to ever happen again no matter how good a job we do developing players. There are more players from more countries participating in the game. This by definition will dilute the US dominance of the game. It's also obvious to anyone who has coached on the ITF junior tour, that in order to develop a good junior player, you must be playing more against the world and not only against other players in the States. Players and coaches need to see and experience what other countries are doing. To that end, in my view, we need more ITF events in the States so that players are playing against the world a bit earlier. Certainly, our Federation can and should facilitate this.

I hope we do get a good dialogue on this crucially important topic from all points of view. Thanks Colette for making the forum available for that to happen.

SeminoleG said...

First what is PD? Taking the kids with the most potential for???? The best athletes??? The best Tennis Players right now???? Three very different views.

Ditch the "one size fits all" not every Player that would fit "PD" needs the same support.

My daughter is not a PD kid, but PD has helped us more than some that attend the camps etc...
I for one use the USTA website, I've taken information from Sports Science, got my daughter evaluated by a Physical therapist, had a Fitness test. We have educated her on Nutrition and what her body needs. She is making good choices on her own and it has reflected in her fitness. I appreciate the resources and use it like a library. I've called some coaches @ USTA received good information, short simple conversations that save me TIME and $$$. BUT help develop my child. They are amazingly candid and honest (I believe) when asked specific questions in a forum that allows them to speak freely.

I did that on my own the USTA resources are there that was MY approach.

Others would like the same information in a Camp Webinar, series of educational forums. Maybe their coaches need the education, or the Fitness coach etc....

Multiple platforms for the same information during the calendar year, and reimburse a % of travel cost for those to attend.

Next the need to get kids of a similar level together more often. Practice, Matches, Tournaments????? That structure needs to be implemented across each section. I am in SoFla and we can get hi quality matches in the lowest level events. Other parts of the US do not have that luxury. She has played ~ 70 matches compared to kids with ~140+. I'd bet that 50% of those 140 are not close to the quality of our ~70. Fix that

So Florida, California, Southern kids seem to get hi quality matches so WHY have USTA PD CAMPS for those kids? If so bring kids from smaller sections to these areas 3-4 days at a year.

Tournament Structure and Fees - BROKEN! Why are 12 year old tennis players going to Palm Springs?Boca, and all those other places for Level 2 events? Bring the kids together 4-6 times a year let them play in a Compass/Round Robin/ or NEW style events to get the best playing kids on THEIR level.

I'd like a system WITHOUT rankings! USTA could hold several EVALUATION camps rate kids A,B,C,D then have events that A kids play A kids, B kids play B etc.... Only when a kid in a lower Rating wins % of events they are Graduated UP. Conversely when an A kid looses % matches they migrate down.

You could have 128 draw event separated in 4 separate 32 draw (A,B,C,D) I think playing the best on their level will improve them all. I think Texas does something like this takes the lower half of the draw and has a separate event with less points.

What has to change i'll let the EXPERTS drive that.

Tournament/Competition COST$$$$

Fees should be reimbursed for parents kids that complete a series/combination of USTA sponsored events.Tournaments/Education/Camps/Seminars/Webinars. So if a kid played in 2 Super Nationals, 2 Level 2's, a Level 3 (at higher age), Sectional, State events. Online Webinars, 1 Camp, Questionnaire, etc... All those Fees should be refunded.

If you BUY into the USTA PD structure we will reduce your overall cost because our products will create a better and more educated player. In essence you are helping us help you. Investment by BOTH parties.

Officials - CHEATING is EPIC and the highest ranked kids seem to be the PRO's. Every match Guardian and player fill out online fairness evaluation. Evaluating how "Fair" their opponent called the match. Would you have sour grapes, yes BUT overall the CHEATERS would be easily identified. Counsel them and should it continue suspensions.

- Best vs Best (on their level) Practice and Competition
- Education/Resources multiple platforms
- Reduce cost to compete (Directly or indirectly with refunds/credits)
- Stress fairness by addressing Cheating @ the youngest age groups with real penalties

Paul said...

The USTA and PD need so many changes it is difficult to know where to start. I agree with most all of the comments above. We were so happy to leave the USTA system and go to ITF tournaments with our children.

I think the best thing that the USTA has done is the small court and under 10 tennis equipment. After that I think the USTA should look to ITF for guidance. Other than travel distance, most everything else is better at the ITF tournaments.

Little history said...

Great post Colette, you are singing my song to the letter. What I don't understand is how the ITF system is handling all these players bailing from USTA. Historically, you played ITFs after you were actually winning Level 2 or 3 nationals and going deep or even winning L1s. Aren't these tournaments getting watered down with unqualified players?

What some don't know is that just a few years ago the USTA killed off a very strong fall series of ITF tournaments in the US. This was actually the start of the restructuring downfall. This occurred because USTA didn't want to meet the lodging requirements that ITF requires. That allowed them to line the pockets of McEnroe and others even more, but also put into place this new structure and diminish the ITF backup plan for US players. It may seem that ITF runs their own show, but in the US, the USTA can shut them down and they did just that about 4-5 years ago. Those that can travel to ITFs are doing that, but it seems a lot of players that aren't at the true ITF level are playing them to escape USTA if they can afford it.

Em said...

I've posted this comment on another blog, but kind of late in the discussion, but it resonates with a few posts here so maybe somebody here has an answer for my question. How do we bring more ITFs to North America? That is in my opinion key to developing juniors here. So, I was curious about this success of Cilic, Djokovic, Ivanisevis in the past and if you look at it there are actually many players from not just Europe, but former Yugoslavia playing pro tennis, and many more when you count all of Eastern Europe. So, I counted that there are 4 ITFs in North America and 16 in Europe in September! I understand that we are three countries but it is still a huge continent with many junior players. This is extremely detrimental to our juniors. I went even further and counted that there are 2 ITFs in Serbia, 2 in Bosnia and 1 in Croatia in September, all parts of the regions many of these players come from. Population according to Wiki is Serbia over 7 million, Bosnia 3.8 million and Croatia over 4 million. Kids can travel to any of those by car in 4 to 8 hours! Here in US we often have to drive longer for a sectional tournament. There is no wonder why junior tennis isn't producing desired results here; we are stuck in a system where only a few kids can actually play good tennis. So, does anybody know how to bring more ITFs here? Thanks.


tigertenis said...

USTA junior system has and always be a feeder program for US Colleges. USTA needs to involve college's. Every state in the US has a college with a tennis team. Involve them in opening their practice facilities, courts, traning rooms, etc. to the local juniors. Grow the game, U10 tennis could be implemented at all elementry schools, major investment, but USTA will expose kids to tennis at an early age.

Mr. Tennis said...

Throw out the top-down model put all the money into:

A. Growing the sport (more participation programs, reducing the costs of those programs, more court construction and upkeep in communities)

B. Let private coaches and parents coach and have ONE small committee decide who gets what travel money to help them.

Do those two things and the problems are fixed to the extent they are fixable.

Jeff said...

Has anyone taken the time to go back and see what system was in place years ago when the USA was producing some of the top players in the world?

Colette Lewis said...

People do that all the time, but with the game changing so much in the past 5-10 years, I'm not sure how useful it is.

shawn said...

1) ITF's in the summer, and I'm talking about juniors.
How many are there between July and August, a time when kids are out of school? And remember, I am asking the question of the United States, a big country, how many ITF juniors are there for July and August?
Answer - ONE.

2) Why do other countries run ITF junior tournaments better than we do with refs?
Answer - our refs are too busy texting.

3) Why does this country seem to have one of the worst cheating problems in junior tennis, especially Florida, ironically the home of the USTA PD.
Answer - Lack of any funding by the USTA for tournaments and the refs.

4) Why does the PD staff have any say in the restructuring of the US tournament structure when their players are exempt from it with the wildcard.

5) Why if the USTA is a not for profit organization they couldn't pay for some good juniors who can't travel to national tournaments. That was the reason for cutting the tournaments as not everyone could afford it. Well, the USTA is a not for profit, act like one then and fund the junior players who can't afford to travel and give the tournaments $ to pay for refs . STOP LINING YOUR OWN POCKETS WITH MONEY.

6) There has been an uproar for years about salaries at the USTA. Pat Mac is not the first one folks to take a million dollar salary. Does anyone remember the person before him?

love-tennis said...

The new manager has to get tennis into the schools so that it's a regular rotation of P.E.class like basketball is. Incentives and equipment need to be offered to the principal and P.E. teacher. The gym can easily become a court with the volleyball nets lowered. A volunteer organization of tennis players could come and help during tennis time. I know that they try to do it now but it is way too small of an effort.
That is how to grow the sport and thus get the better players.

tigertenis said...

@love tennis, you got it rignt. Growing up Minnesota, Our winter PE, hockey. U10 tennis is so easy to set up on any black top play ground.
Simple idea, but USTA just doen't get it!

Ken Ouellette said...

Ok. So as a parent and a lifelong USPTA Elite Certified and USTA High Performance Certified Coach of a player that has excelled from 12 and under when he was seven years old to a #2 National NCAA D1 ranking and now an ATP touring professional having reached career high #269, here are my thoughts.

1.) PD has done a good job of identifying VERY young talent and supporting them. Many of them are doing quite well and hopefully will pan out to be excellent professionals if they push through quickly. If they don't, then college should be their choice. Specifically, I am thinking of players like Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka, Michael Mmoh, Francis Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz. If they can push through, then turn pro. Some of their peers have already turned professional and they will find that playing against men every week is much tougher than playing against boys. It is a very long journey to the top unless you can push through quickly. The average age of a top male professional tennis player is now 27 years old. The game has gotten much more physical and the chance to make it big before you are 21 are slim at best.

2.) I believe that PD has seriously dropped the ball in the college arena. Guys develop later these days both physically and mentally. If a 16 to 20 year old doesn't break though, many will be done before reaching full development. There are not many like a Tim Smyczek that have the staying power and desire to keep playing professionally when there is no money unless you are in the top 100.

3.) When we were kids, we played tennis all day! Not so any more. Everything is structured around the dollar bill with clinics and lessons. Nobody plays anyone anymore. I would play sets all day long. Now kids only come to clinics and lessons. Everyone is scared to play the kid on the next court. Why would you travel around the world when you cant beat the local kids. And believe me, Im right! I see players going to different countries to play ITF events and they can't hit their way out of a paper bag, but they can win a qualifying match in Puerto Rico so they think they can be pro's!

Ken Ouellette said...

Continued from last post.

4.) PD should take a leadership role in making sure that the best United States College Players have a shot when done with College. Players like Steve Johnson and John Isner pushed right through Players like Jean Yves Aubone, Greg Ouellette, Jason Jung, Nick Meister, Dennis Nevolo and now Marcus Giron have earned the right to have support. A big miss by the USTA powers to help players who are physically and mentally ready for the challenges of professional tennis. Like I said, if the young gun can push through quickly, i'm all for it! But, if not, to turn pro because you may have done well at junior grand slams could be a game breaker. Lots of respect to Noah Rubin and his team for making the college choice for a year to see if he really is ready for the pro's. It is a grind that most can't endure unless you've signed a lucrative contract, early success is attained or the USTA has made you a poster boy and granted wild cards into main events. And I mean main events like 250's and 500's, not futures and challengers.

5.) Something needs to be done to increase the prize money at all levels of play. For Serena to make 4,000,000 in one major event and another player makes 1,300 for winning an event is embarrassing. The tennis powers that be should be ashamed of themselves. I personally know a Paint Ball Professional that earns over 100K a year. At #250-300 a USGA ranked player is a millionaire. The same level at #250-300 ATP you are a hundredaire! That is a real black spot on the sport. The burger flipper at McDonalds makes more per year. Why would anyone want to pursue a career as a playing professional. College is the obvious choice for all but a few and the USTA hasn't supported the few.

6.) I live in Florida and have studied tennis as a coach and a parent for the better part of three decades now. My knowledge base and perspective is hard to find. I would move to Lake Nona to become involved with the missing ingredients of USTA's PD Programs.

Rory said...

The USTA is the cheapest and stingiest organization when it comes to supporting its own tournaments. Hire more refs... Take the money out of your own personal pocket and spend it on our tournaments. You know... the US.

DaveKB said...

This is somewhat off topic, but it does relate to the broad development of more players. Pro tennis is now dominated by big guys with huge serves and/or forehands. TV commentators marvel at those 140 MPH serves. IMO McEnroe, Connors, and Borg would have been journeyman pros in today's game.

The technology of the new racquets and strings has allowed this to happen.

The real problem with tennis is that, if you are a male that is 5-9 to 6-0, you basically cannot (at least the odds are very slim) become a top pro.

In most cases you can look at a 10 to 12 year olds parents and grandparents and unless they are tall the kid has almost no chance to become a top pro, so might as well just not invite the little guys to the USTA development program. Smaller guys can play in college and they may get to the 200's, but in general he cannot make a living with virtually no money being paid to such players.

OK, there are some exceptions like Nadal and Ferrer, but the up and comers all seem to have booming serves. Isner is a great example. He has become a top 10 to 20 player with really just one weapon, which of course is his serve. The rest of his game is probably top 500 if that. If he holds serve at around 90% of the time, which he does, he really cannot lose a set, so he he just plays, holds serve and usually wins the TB. If he can get a break he wins that set.

The vast numbers of tennis players in the USA and everywhere are smaller people. The scoring in tennis facilitates the dominance of the serve, plus you conveniently get a "do over" if you miss your first serve. This enables the big guys to hold serve upwards of 90% of the time.

This year I attended three ATP events Washington (3 sessions), Winston Salem (QF's) and the US Open (2nd week three sessions) and I found that the actual tennis was boring to watch, because everyone just held serve and the returner usually got one or maybe two points per game. Long or even medium rallies with 6 or 7 hits were rare. The crowds were abysmal in Washington and in W/S, which surely will not survive much longer. I mean who really wants to watch two guys boom big serves at each other. This is not what top pro tennis is supposed to be, but it has become just that.

I think more people with average size would be able to reach the top with some rule changes. This is the development aspect. The first possibility would be to slow down the ball, so that the top serve for men is about 110 MPH. Then the ball gets returned and there are more rallies and the smaller speed guys with solid ground strokes would have a chance to win. If the ball was a bit slower going to the net more often might even become a viable winning strategy. Right now going to the net is almost a sure way to lose the point. With the spin and angles you can hit the old chip and charge no longer works.

I wonder what would happen to the power game in tennis, if you only got one serve? My guess is that those booming serves would slow down and more rallies would occur and then the ball could stay the same, which is OK for ground strokes and then the average sized guy would have a chance to win.

These days, unless you as a father are not 6-2+ and his mother is not 5-8, you are probably wasting time and money if you think your son can become a top pro. Basically, the USTA is trying to develop too many normal sized guys and they have no chance.

Lastly I have read many of the comments and especially the Bryan brothers dad's ideas, which are very good, but just remember that his twins are 6-4 and play the power game. Had they been 5-11, we would have never heard of the Bryan brothers or their dad in all likelihood. Both brothers tried singles first, but could not make it. They went to doubles and the rest is history.

Slowing the Game Down said...

Dave: you raise some interesting points, but a lot of them are outdated. First of all, pro tennis has already been slowing the game down for the past 20 years with slower balls and slower courts. Had they not done this then the game would have been much more big guy/serve dominated. They decided to slow the game down when in one Wimbledon final in the 90's the average point was less than two shots.

In fact, many have complained that the conditions are too slow. If it was so serve dominant than why can't the biggest guys with the biggest serves like Karlovic, Querrey and Isner stay in the top 10?

And, why is 5 ft 9 in. Nishikori and 5 ft 6 in. Ferrer solidly in the top 10 now?

You also have 5 ft. 0 in. Cibulokova at the top 5 of the woman's game when she's not recovering from injury.

Why do you think backcourt players such as Nadal can win Wimbledon now (unheard of in the 80's and 90's as even Borg served and volleyed on grass). This is also a primary reason that no one serves and volleys anymore, even guys like Federer who used to serve and volley.

Also, you contradict yourself by saying that the Bryan Brothers are 6 ft. 4 (actually Mike is 6 ft. 3) but couldn't make it in singles. According to your "analysis" they are tall enough aren't they? It is also not clear that Bob couldn't make it as he was top 100 in singles when he decided to concentrate on doubles and he has some regrets about that.

Scanlon said...


Increasing body size is a general trend in pro sports. In int’l rugby these days, all the best to your health if you want to line up as a centre if you’re not 220lb+. Guards in the NBA are becoming undersized if they’re 6’4 or less. With fewer PEDs in baseball, more of a premium is being placed on size than ever before. Look at what Bumgarner did in the playoffs; the man is a physical beast and that played a huge role in his durability and success. In hockey, even a “shorter” guy like Crosby, at 5’11, is 200lb these days. In 1975 he’d be playing at 180.

The good news for shorter tennis players is that skills/attributes like ball striking and service return have become more important in recent years. Fitness/endurance/speed have also become paramount, which favours smaller players. Current players like Nishikori and Halep are good examples of where tennis might be heading. Agassi and Henin were in that mold.

I’m not saying that smaller players will become the norm, but you’re already seeing evidence (especially on the women’s side) that smaller/faster/more coordinated/fitter players can stand with the big power hitters fairly well. Sharapova probably doesn’t intimidate as many players today with her height/power as she did 8 years ago – more balls are coming back at her. Raonic, even with a match-winning serve, has had to bust his hump becoming a more well-rounded player just to hang in the top 10. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have had to work so hard 10 years ago to make the ATP Finals.

So perhaps larger size will become more of a liability in pro tennis. In years to come, even more of a premium will be placed on fitness/durability, speed (court coverage), coordination (ball striking), service return, consistency. That’s good news for guys who are 6’1 or less and girls who are 5’9 or less.

What’s discouraging for those shorter players, though, is that maybe the guys who are 6’2+ and girls who are 5’10+ will somehow find a way to improve those “small player attributes” even more than the shorter players. In other words, maybe the taller players will close the gap on fitness, speed, coordination. There’s evidence that that’s already happening, too. This scenario seems more likely, considering the money at the top of the sport is growing and the competition for that money is getting more fierce. In 20 years, you’ll probably see many more guys who are 6’3+ that are super fast and can grind you down with consistency (i.e. Andy Murrays everywhere).