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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Kalamazoo's Super Sweet 16s: the College Coaches - Guest Post by Jonathan Kelley

by Jonathan Kelley, On The Rise Tennis

The Boys 16s final might have been considered the welterweight undercard before the heavyweight throwdown that was the Boys 18s final at the USTA National Championships in Kalamazoo this past August. The young men playing the on the final day in Kalamazoo – Alexandre Rotsaert and Patrick Kypson -- surely had it in their minds that one day soon they'll have the kind of success as the young men who followed them on center court – Stefan Kozlov and Frances Tiafoe – both of whom had won Grade A junior titles and reached the late stages of junior grand slams, not to mention ATP Challenger Finals.

(Of course, the analogy is inexact, as welterweights don't go on to be heavyweights, but let's go with it.)

Most of the kids playing the 16s are between 14-16 years old. Some players will start playing the 18s well before they turn 17, if they’re advanced enough to hang with the generally bigger, stronger, and faster older guys. While the 18s winner, Frances Tiafoe, received a main draw wild card to the US Open men’s singles tournament, the 16s winner still gets a significant prize – a main draw wild card to the US Open boys’ singles tournament. But that person also gets a lifelong sense of pride in accomplishment as being the national champion. It’s telling that when I interviewed a number of current and recent college players for a “Memories of Zoos Past” video, several discussed playing the 16s with the same passion and intensity as they did playing the 18s.

This was my second year in Kalamazoo. Having had relatively little experience watching junior tennis, I was excited last year to see the likes of recent junior Wimbledon champion Noah Rubin and finalist Stefan Kozlov. But upon watching them, I came away impressed by the ball-striking ability and relative power of 16s guys like John McNally, Sam Riffice and Connor Hance.

This year, I wanted to learn more about what I was watching when I was watching the 16s. What were they working on, and what were the many, many college coaches looking for when they were scouting these potential future college players?

Colette Lewis, proprietor of this site, has been watching the Kalamazoo 16s for a few decades now. One match in particular stands out: the 2006 final between Brennan Boyajian and Ryan Thatcher. “That was the year that the 18s final wasn't played due to Jesse Levine being ill,” she said, which gave Donald Young the walkover. “Fortunately the 16s final that year was Thatcher vs Boyajian, in which Boyajian saved match points and it went to a 3rd set tiebreak. Just an amazing match. Most memorable since I've been coming here.”

Lewis said, “A lot of times there's one boy who will be super nervous and can't just get through it, so unlike the 18s where you get a chance to get settled into the match [due to it being best-of-five sets], with best-of-three sometimes it's too late.”

She put that to playing in front of such a large crowd. “For 99% it's by far the most people they've ever played in front of. The only other example would be Le Petits As. Especially this year when all the 18s are pros, everybody's back here."

For part 1 of this series, I talked to three college coaches, who were there scouting potential future players in both the 18s and the 16s tournaments.

In part 2 Sunday, you will meet the players who made up this year’s Boys 16s semifinals.

In part 3 on Monday, I will discuss what I learned from two top junior development coaches.

The college recruiting process is a big deal for American junior players. Although most of the top 18s players at the 2015 Zoo took the pro route, that’s an anomaly compared to prior years. “The signing process is getting much earlier that it used to be,” Lewis told me. “The coaches have to know who the players are, and whether they like their game or not, even before they can talk to them. They have to do a lot more scouting of the 16s than they did even 10 years ago.”

Brad Dancer, head coach at the
University of Illinois
Brad Dancer, the head coach for the University of Illinois men’s tennis program, agreed. “Twenty years ago I think everybody's looking at the 18s,” he said. “The summer before their senior year, coaches would kind of start to evaluate them and so forth, and now you've got all these freshmen and sophomores that are being looked at and scouted and recruited. So it's really the timing of things. 16s are under a lot more scrutiny than they were even 6-7 years ago.”

Originally from Michigan, Dancer first came to The Zoo as a fan at 8 or 9 years old, then as a player (he was “tight as a drum” the first time he played and “probably didn’t play very well – but I wasn’t a very good player, so that probably had something to do with it”) and now as a recruiter. “It’s an awe-inspiring place,” he said. “All the excitement and all the buzz … not only do you have all the great players playing, but you have the college coaches, the private coaches, academy coaches, USTA coaches – so there’s a great energy here.”

I asked him what he looks for when he watches the younger set. “With the 16s, it's just one more venue to try to evaluate them,” he said. “The nice thing is you have so many of them in one spot, which is why you get so many coaches here. You get to look at the whole lot. At Illinois, we’re looking at a couple of things: Do they have a chance to be a great college player, have great college results? And we also have a chance to network, find out a little bit about their character. We talk to other coaches in their section and just people that know these guys. You always hate when you see someone only 1 or 2 times, try to make an evaluation. It’s always nice to have 6-7 times to evaluate them.”

I also asked him about the difference in levels between 16s and 18s. “A lot of them maybe haven’t gone through the big strength phase yet, and so technically they’re probably pretty sound; they hit the ball pretty clean. Sometimes as these guys get older they lose a little bit of that cleanliness of stroke production maybe. So one of the transitions – some of these guys that are really smooth hitters in the 16s, they have to really continue to monitor their technique and make sure they hold on to that as they move on to the 18s and the men’s game.”

UCLA head coach and 4-time
Kalamazoo champion Billy Martin
Billy Martin is head coach at UCLA and two-time double winner of Kalamazoo (18s singles and doubles in 1973; 16s singles and doubles in 1971). When I talked to Martin, he was watching the back draw – the consolation bracket – and I asked what he looked for specifically in those matches. “I think maturity, movement, and good, basic fundamentals,” he said. “Certainly you can look at the kids who are top ranked and they're gonna be pretty darn good, but when you're watching the back draw and trying to see who else might be sneaking up in a couple of years, that's what I'm looking at.”

How do you measure something like maturity?

“I think it’s more maturity on the court. How they control themselves mentally, how disciplined they are in between points, changeovers, maybe watching them prepare for a match. Are they really stretching themselves out? You hope they have pretty good discipline if they do possibly come and play for my team or I'm sure any other team. That comes down to good coaching, wherever they've been -- academy, mom and dad, a local pro, whatever. Whenever somebody comes in with that kind of discipline it makes our job that much easier.”

Kalamazoo is often the first time a lot of young players have played for such a large audience, and especially for such a large group of college coaches. Does that put any kind of pressure on them?

“Absolutely. Even recruiting locally, in Southern California, I feel like it always does put a lot of pressure. They're thinking more about impressing the coaches instead of being focused on their match. That's why sometimes the first time I've watched a kid - especially if he knows I'm coming - I kind of dismiss it maybe a little bit because generally they're going to be a little nervous, especially those that aren't maybe the top, top kids.”

University of Oklahoma head coach John Roddick
Like Dancer and Martin, John Roddick, head coach at the University of Oklahoma, also played Kalamazoo, reaching the finals of the 16s singles in 1992 (losing to Paul Goldstein 6-4 in the 3rd) and the semis of the 18s singles in 1993. His brother, Andy, was the 16s finalist in 1998, losing to Alex Bogomolov, Jr. 6-3 in the 3rd.

Older brother Roddick said that reaching the 16s final showed him that he had “a chance” to be a really good player.

“I knew that I was on track to have a chance at being a very good player. But you’re not where you need to be. You’re one of the best players in the country, and that’s all it shows you, and I think that’s the way you need to look at it. When you’re 16 and making the finals here, if you want to be a professional tennis player, you have a long ways to go. I think I knew that as a player, I was surrounded by good people, and had a very good awareness of that.”

I asked about his brother, who went on to become the most successful American pro to emerge in the past 20 years. “I’d gone to college by that point. We just kind of knew the path. He was on track, he was getting better. I think at that time he was a little bit better player than I was at the same age, even though we had similar results. We kind of knew he had a chance as well. But even after that, he took a massive dip and had a big growth spurt where he had some injuries. There's just so much that goes into being a world-class player. Especially the second time around, we knew what to do and how to do things, and where we were.

“You have to be really honest with yourself,” he continued. “Are you ready? Winning this tournament - it's a really great tournament, but you have to compare yourself on a global stage, not a national stage. And having said that, this is probably the best field I’ve seen at the 18s in a really, really long time. So these guys are really good.”

Roddick’s advice to those playing 16s for the first time here: “Don’t get too high with every win or too low with every loss. Tennis isn’t boxing where you need to go 41-1. You’re going to take some losses and it’s about consistently winning and getting better over time. You want to win every match and that’s the goal but you’ve seen very few years on the ATP Tour where the #1 guy doesn’t lose 10 or 12 times in a year. It’s about dealing with losing and adversity and if you can deal with that, you’re going to be really good at this game, but if you don’t deal with it, then you’re not.”

In Part 2 on Sunday, the 16s Semifinalists

In Part 3 on Monday, I interview two top junior development coaches.