|The draw boards at Kalamazoo|
I'll save the wild card discussion for another time, but it's probably a good time for me to add my two cents on the back draw controversy, which has produced comments both reasonable and emotional to a previous post last week.
But before I provide my thoughts on the more subjective facet of the issue, I'd like to start with some numbers.
In the 187 feed-in matches scheduled in the 16s during the 2015 Kalamazoo tournament, 10, or 5.3%, were not played. In the 187 feed-in matches in 18s this year, 28, or 15%, were not played.
At random, I selected two other years for comparison, to see if this year's numbers are higher, possibly representing a trend. The answer is yes. In 2000 and 2010, the number of 18s feed-in matches not played were both 14, or 7.5%. In the 16s, the number of feed-in matches not played were 5 in 2000, and just 3 in 2005.
Obviously, from this admittedly less than rigorous research, the 16s value the points and the matches the feed-in provides more than the 18s do. In my experience, there are as many reasons for withdrawing from the feed-in tournament as there are players, but here are several common ones.
1. an injury suffered during a main draw match
2. a chronic injury that may be aggravated by two matches a day
3. onset of illness or an illness that began during main draw and worsened over the course of the tournament
4. a player in his last year at Kalamazoo who is heading to college in a few days or weeks
5. high school classes have begun in a player's community
6. travel considerations, including expenses associated with staying
7. family emergency
8. a desire to focus on doubles, particularly in main draw if singles loss is late in the tournament
When I first began working at the tournament as a volunteer in 2000, I had the same stance I'm hearing from many of you on this issue. No player should pull out unless they were basically in a cast, walking on crutches to see the tournament doctor who was, and is, required to sign their medical release.
But sometime seven or eight years ago, I spoke to one of the best player development coaches I know about playing consolation matches (at the Junior Orange Bowl event, which has far more walkovers, with international players returning to their home countries for the Christmas holiday). He said something so simple and wise that I've never forgotten it: "It's another match in your development."
|Sam Riffice 18s 6th place, Zeke Clark 18s 5th place|
I now look at a withdrawal from the back draw through that prism, thinking, I guess John Doe or Mary Smith didn't need that match for his or her development. That relieves me from judging the legitimacy of their injury/illness and allows me to instead focus my attention on and appreciation for the players who have deemed the back draw a place where their development can be enhanced. Players like No. 9 seed Sam Riffice, who played nine matches after losing in the second round, winning eight of them, and No. 16 seed Zeke Clark, who won nine matches after also losing in the second round. Players like Danny Thomas, who was in the 16s doubles final, but played two back draw matches the day after he finished as the runner-up in doubles. Players like unseeded Sean Hill, who accepted a wild card into the 16s and finished fifth in the tournament.
|Danny Thomas 16s, sixth place|
I hear often that college coaches look at the back draw to learn about a potential student-athlete's competitiveness, concentration and commitment. (It's ironic, and I'm sure disappointing to them, that many of their recruits, once signed, are no longer interested in competing in the back draw). I've narrowed down participation in the back draw to this: an indicator of who really enjoys playing tennis and competing, without all the carrots and the sticks that may obscure that simple desire to just play.
|Sean Hill, 16s fifth place|
Major league baseball, or baseball at any level, is different from the days before pitch counts, when a starter went out every four days and tried to pitch a complete game. The possibility of overuse injuries in tennis must be taken into account now, and match counts must be monitored, particularly when a major tournament is just weeks away. Professional players are all about optimizing their schedules to peak for major tournaments, and there's nothing wrong with top level juniors and their coaches doing that as well.
That's a long-winded way of saying that sport science evolves, and in the end, except for the notable and important exception of doubles, tennis is an individual sport. The drawbacks of the lack of a team infrastructure are many--cost not the least of them--but one of the benefits is a player/coach/family's authority to make the final determination if a competition is productive or detrimental. Those decisions may not always match our own personal perspectives and values, but they must be respected, as they are the ones accountable for the consequences.
To correct a few of the misconceptions out there regarding players who are coached by the USTA. None of their expenses were paid by the USTA for this tournament, and no USTA coaches were responsible for any of them while they competed in Kalamazoo. (This might not strictly apply to the newly organized Team USA members, many of whom played in the 16s). Wild cards pay tournament entry fees, just like any other competitor, at all tournaments.
I do think the USTA should insist that wild cards they select for USTA national tournaments play the back draw as a condition of receiving that opportunity, and would hope the player's failure to do so would be considered when receiving requests for future wild cards from that player.
And one final suggestion: get rid of the 18s third place match in San Diego and Kalamazoo. It's a relic of an earlier time, when the Hard Courts marked the end of the junior tennis season. And after losing out on a trip to the US Open, neither player needs another match, and one of them certainly doesn't need another loss.