Sunday, June 14, 2020

Pro Tennis Returns to Europe with Top Stars Competing in Both Near-Normal and Wacky Events; DeHeart Writes CEO Dowse Regarding Recent USTA Layoffs

Novak Djokovic was back on the court this weekend in Belgrade, and although no ATP points were on offer, there wasn't much to suggest that the Adria tour he organized was being held in the midst of a global pandemic. There were no masks or social distancing in evidence, and the kids day, press conference and crowds were mostly indistinguishable from a normal ATP 250 tournament, and there were even ballrunners handling towels for players.

The only obvious difference from an ATP event was the format, which was a Fast 4 round robin, and Djokovic found himself on the wrong side of that feature, losing to Filip Krajinovic and then failing to advance via the tiebreaker that decided who would meet Dominic Thiem in the final. Thiem went on to beat Krajinovic in the final 4-3, 2-4, 4-2 to take the title.

Although that part of Europe seems to have been less affected by the pandemic than many other places, including the United States, the Adria Tour has already encountered problems, with the Montenegro leg in Week 3 canceled due to that country's rules regarding certain international visitors.

Reuters has all the details on this first week of the four-week swing here. For more on the varying standards for health and safety at these exhibitions, see this article from tennis.com.

A wacky rendition of a pro tennis event began in Nice France today, after the opening day of the Ultimate Tennis Showdown was rained out on Saturday. Patrick Mouratoglou has turned his Academy in Southern France into a laboratory, with nothing nearly as conventional as Fast 4. Below are today's results, with the scoring structured like basketball, and something called UTS cards, which remind me of the special cards in UNO, available for use by players during the match. Mouratoglou has said that tennis desperately needs to change to attract new audiences and wants to try different ways to make it more appealing for those who don't want to devote more than an hour or two to watching it. I'm not in agreement with Mouratoglou on this issue, but I will admit that now is the very best time to present some alternatives, with fans and players both having little at stake in these events.

For more on today's action, see this tennis.com article.

Former University of Illinois All-American Ryler DeHeart was one of the USTA National Coaches who lost their jobs this past week in the USTA's downsizing. One of the 110 national employees who were let go or took buyouts, DeHeart had been on the job for less than a year, after serving as a men's assistant coach at Alabama and Florida State. Although most of those who were let go have not publicly commented on their departure, DeHeart posted his letter to new USTA Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director Michael Dowse regarding this restructuring, and he does not pull any punches in talking about his decades of experience with the organization.
During my blue collar journey I received very little help from the USTA. In fact, I remember having this conversation with Kent when he started working with the USTA back in the day and giving my honest opinion about the things that they could improve because frankly I thought they did a pretty poor job helping American players especially those that went to college. 
My experience back then was not a good one and I had a negative opinion about the organization and unfortunately I don’t think I was in the minority.
When Kent asked me to come and work with him I was reluctant, but for years I had seen a change and like I said, with people like Kent and Martin leading you could tell things were different. 
When I arrived to the National Campus and PD office, I realized I was right and was so impressed by the way everything was done and how they had managed to create such a family feel and environment and that Martin didn’t just say that we were a family and team, you could tell he meant and believed it.
DeHeart goes on to blast Dowse for dismantling the program and for not seeking alternative solutions to these deep cuts.

The full letter, which is from DeHeart's Facebook page, is here.


Kimberly Klein said...

That letter is a bit strange considering Martin is making $600000/year. I would think more of the 'family' could have been retained if the executives did not have such enormous salaries.

Jon King said...

Ryler Deheart needs to educate himself before writing such long letters. He praises Martin Blackman and Kent Kinear. Martin makes $600000 and Kent makes about $225000. Does that seem reasonable while the local USTA tournaments have gone to plastic medals instead of trophies? While cheating is growing due to the pressures of UTR?

Ryler is missing the real problem and the salaries of his former bosses are a big part of it.

Mr. Fernandez said...

Patrick Mouratoglou certainly likes attention. These ideas to change rules and give people a condensed version of tennis have been around for a long time. The reason less people watch tennis is because 20 years ago we did not have streaming, life like video games, esports, etc. to divide the viewing audience.

Stars drive tennis, whether they play short matches or long ones. People watch Serena and Fed. When the media picked up on the Co Co Gauff story, people watched her matches. Tennis needs to develop stars, interesting players that people want to watch.

The current system does not do that. Most of the girls for example play defensive, behind the baseline. Its easier to win that way when kids. They want to win at age 9 and 10. So their games never change much as they get older. And many are taught like Kenin and others to be robotic on the court. Quite boring to watch. Sloane Stephens looked to have star power but won a slam and from then on looked like she would rather be anywhere but playing tennis. Hard for fans to get interested.

The public won't watch players outside the top players no matter the rules. No different than the Lakers getting lots of viewers from outside their local area, while the Sacramento Kings do not. Tennis stars will command viewers.

Concerning that fired coach who wrote a letter to the USTA. Where does he think the USTA can get money to pay him? No tournament fees coming in, no one buying new memberships these days, and if the US Open happens it will be without revenue from tickets. I doubt the cuts at the USTA are done yet by a long shot.

SeminoleG said...

In my 25 year Military career, when you left an assignment the "Good" Commanders would ask for your Top 3 and Bottom 3. Things from your perspective that are Good, and things that need changing. I've been in squadrons with guys flying Million dollar Fighter Jets that have said we need more "Popcorn in the Ready Room," or guys that liked the Squadron Patch. Others wanted a software upgrade to the Anti-Radiation Missile systems. We all say what "WE" feel is important.
If WE focus on the Money and Salaries we will get pretty pissed off at ANY corporation.

The USTA structure was set well before many of the current folks stopped playing or coaching locally. Turning this cruise ship mid course takes time, time they may not have. We were involved with the USTA before Martin and today there have been some good advancements, BUT local Tournaments are still run by sections. Some are good and some are non-existent. The inherent flaw in the USTA structure (for PD) is the autonomy of the sections. That also leads to a gap of knowledge the national coaches had of the players that they see play rarely.

For Example:
-You could've been a Top 5 Player in your section, BUT not get endorsed to play national event without their approval. Some sections award travel funds to players to play out of section, others pay travel for team events. A complete Ad-Hoc structure that is solely dependent on where you live and not the GAME of tennis or the National Association objectives.
-Years ago there was an American Player at a Grand Slam SDF (before Martin took over) and NOT ONE USTA Rep was at the match. It was at the USOP and they were all over the grounds commentating and walking around with the established stars (they had no hadn't in developing) and not one USTA PD rep was court side in the Q or the 1st few rounds. A US Jr Grand Slam. Compare that to the French Open Jrs, and EVERY match a French kid was playing there was a Federation Coach observing.

I give these examples to show it has little to do with a few people but a structure that is inherently broke. When you look at the landscape and history I'm suprised the new boss did not "downsize" more, and wonder if this was just a convenient excuse for change. I would ask Ryler as a National Coach how many sections he visited or players he engaged with at local USTA events. Not players at National events or at the USTA Campus (another discussion)? His letter addressed a lot of the inner feelings at USTA PD, but mentioned little about the Kids. BUT this is bigger than him or Martin or PD.

So you take over a company and see a product that isn't producing much. YES it was the other guys that left the "Coffer Bare", but I just walked in today. You have a department that is "designed" to produce Top 10 players: Current results
ATP Men - 21,24,39 USA Rankings
WTA Women - 4,9,19,28(Developed outride the USTA) #13 Keys was a USTA Product.

What would you do?

USTA PD has too many "Tennis People" and not enough "Business People"

This is Bigger than Ryler and his letter shows how far they are from the mission. It is bigger than Martin and the other GREAT people at USTA PD. It is bigger than the salaries, it is a broken business model that lacks any internal energy to fix.

USTA PD has GOOD People that were dropped onto a rudderless ship. Hopefully things get better for them.

Jon King said...

It does not matter if there are good people or not at USTA Player Development. We coached on the same courts as Martin, played tournaments with his kids. Nice guy but his job is worthless.

There should be no USTA Player Development. Never should have been. This is simple. Just have fair and well organized junior tournaments. Thats all the USTA need to do in regards to player development.

If the tournaments were fair, kids would go for shots instead of worrying about line calls. Kids would develop better games. More athletes would not quit tennis due to cheating. The USTA junior rankings would have meaning instead of being worthless like they are now. The kids winning fair tournaments would be the best kids in the US. Those kids could then be helped by the USTA for international travel and expenses.

This is so simple. Had there never been USTA PD in Key Biscayne, Boca, then Orlando. Never been a single national coach. Never been Pat Mac making a million or Blackman making $600000. Every penny of the USTA Player Development budget been put into junior tournaments, monitors on every court, cheaters reported to a central committee and quickly weeded out....US tennis would have WAY more superstars.

The entire system was doomed to failure from the start. Trying to handpick kids based on rankings that rewards cheating. And paying big salaries to guys who would do the job for 1/5th their pay.

The fact is Pat Mac had friends at the USTA who hired him for player development with no experience. He wasted millions. Martin was friends with Katrina Adams who hired him for big money and gave big raises to Ashby and others.

Scrap US Player Development today. No more national coaches or facilities. The private coaches, parents, academies will develop players. Give these players fair tournaments to play in. The best kids rise to the top based on skills not cheating or point chasing. Then we get the best possible US players.

Alex Ho said...

Do you think defensive tennis is something new? Its not the "Current system" of kids that push, young kids have always pushed because it is effective to a point. To be honest, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Kim Clisters, Caroline Wozniaki..... played defensive tennis and used their speed and patience to win matches. I have never enjoyed watching Murray or Djokavic either, defensive counter punching tennis, amazing players but not great to watch. I personally think tennis matches are to long to watch, I flip back and forth and prefer to watch at 4 all, don't have patience to watch entire match, and I hate best of 5, and I am 50.

Baseball is struggling with the same problems, game is slow, no time limit for appointment TV. The grand slams are huge events as well as Masters 1000 tournaments but most other touraments are under attended.

Also there has always been cheating, once you get to a certain age and level its not as much of a factor, really getting tired of every post being cheating.

Mr. Fernandez said...

Thats simply not true Alex Ho. The cheating did not used to be much of a problem and at the national level it got even less. But all the kids and parents now need the highest possible UTR for college recruiting. So the cheating has increased a lot over the past several years. My guess is your kids are older and have not been in the USTA tournaments the past 2 years.

It is a growing problem. SeminoleG told his story about his daughter being cheated at the nationals. We have seen an increase at sectionals and nationals the past 2 years before the virus.

Patti in Cali said...

My guess is the player development issue will self correct. Revenues will be way down and the USTA forced into more downsizing. My guess is the USTA will emerge only interested in the US Open. I doubt there will be much budget for national coaches or player development at all. Tournaments are mostly handled on the local and sectional level. I would doubt the days of half a million dollar salaries for anyone but the CEO and a few of his buddies are going to last much longer.

SeminoleG said...

@Jon King, I think you are wrong. You do need someone to oversee "Player Development" but it SHOULD look very different. I've been in this system a long time (10 years), and considering where my daughter is in the system I've seen sweeping changes ammonite to little but confusion for the consumers. Someone has to manage the structure, and people in the field need to access and validate that the "Structure" is working. I have dealt with PD and the people you mention have had a BIG hand in many of the players you see today. Yes the USTA did not develop them, but the national coaches in California, and Florida have helped many transition from a Jr game to a Pro game. You do not have visibility on what they do to help many you see that are coached by "Fathers" that never played tennis. You actually think the USTA played no Role?

Player Development works in other countries. US Soccer shows what a poor development system gets you. Not about the people but the "Machine"

France... Many years ago the French Federation would travel with a slew of young Boys, groups of 8-10-12 and they traveled all over and player all comers. Monfis, Tsonga, Gasquet, Simon etc.... BUT the parents and the coaches were in sync. The federation worked with the Parents and the Coaches. The Structure is very different, and that starts with the Parents and Coaches.

US Academies have a goal, People per court overhead and profit. So I'd not put my eggs in that basket. None of the Top Americans were developed in an Academy environment or by ONE single Great Coach from the time they were 10.

UASTA PD has faults but not in the (current) people, more about the Process... McEnroe was the single WORST manager of a US Federation ever, and USTA is still paying for it today.

@Alex Ho - the cheating today is WAY BEYOND anything you have seen. This is from Tournament Directors that have been in the game for 20+ YEARS. It is the canary in the coal mine for jr Tennis.

Jon King said...

Some of the worst cheating is in the 18s with college pressure. It does not get better in older age groups. And it does not get better on the bigger stage without refs. The former #115 player who just retired at age 20 tells about playing the Orange Bowl and getting cheated a lot in the 14s. So its at the larger tournaments at all ages and still exists in the older age groups.

Congrats to Jay Berger and Family said...

Golf Pro, Daniel Berger wins tightly contested Colonial in playoff

Coachhegs said...

@seminoleg @Jonking great discussion and I hope you will keep going back and forth it is very enlightening. On face value the USTA return on investment (ie- producing grand slam champions) has been dismal the past ten to twenty years.. The four grand slam nations (Who have a massive federation advantage financially) have poured countless millions into PD and one would have to say none of them showed success. The top pro players of the past decade fed (Swiss) Rafa ( Spain) Novak ( Serbia) Murray (mom & Spain) Delpo (Argentina), Wawrinka (Swiss) Tsonga (France) Monfils (France), Ferrer (Spain), Raonic (Canada) Berdych (Czech), AZ3 (Germany) Thiem (dad, Austria), the list goes on and I would say only France has showed more success than many smaller nations who have negligible federation budgets.
Heck my college coach at Auburn Eric Shore has developed two grand slam champions (doubles) I would put him up against all the USTA top brass in developing players. The cheating in juniors is out of control, my kid is in the 12’s and I see 10-11 year olds routinely stealing matches. That will probably never change and you hope the parents will have the strength to teach better ethics to their youngsters, that’s the only way there. Thanks for the good dialogue.

Alex Ho said...

Sorry cheating is and always has always existed, when I was a junior and college players 99 percent of players cheated some. You start cheating when you get cheated and you cheat back, then you cheat because the player you are playing cheats and you beat them to it, and before you know you start cheating on close balls. I admit it, I used to cheat because so did everyone else.

I have been around tournaments since I was a junior and have always seen cheating including up to a few years ago when I watched kids I worked out playing regional tournaments. I was not surprised to find out that the kids they played called tight balls out, and they also did the same. I am sure you guys are right and kids cheat more now, but your also telling me none of the parents on this sights kids call tight balls out as well?

The secret is long term development, the kids develop weapons, defense, court sense and fitness. I have seen many kids win early with defense and gamesmanship but they get exposed later by better games. Keep working and improving and you win in the end, and don't worry about the rankings. The biggest mistake I see people make is chasing ranking because it kills long term development. The Williams sisters never even played juniors

Jon King said...

Alex Ho, cheating has been around a long time. However, it has escalated the past few years and for good reason. Universal Tennis Rating or UTR is now the primary focus of juniors and tennis parents. This was not the case 3-4 years ago. Most college coaches now use UTR as their main recruiting tool.

UTR is calculated by a formula. This formula includes factors such as number of games won and the UTR of the opponent. This results in several things. The first is kids and parents usually know the UTRs of each opponent they face. When losing a match early vs a lower ranked UTR player, it is better to retire from the match. Thats why we see more retirements these days then in years past. We have also seen plenty of cases where a player with a higher UTR simply does not want to even play an opponent with a much low UTR and risk losing games, so they report that they became sick once they see the draws and drop out of the tournament.

The other thing UTR is doing is rewarding margin of games won. If a player wins 6-0 or 6-1, it effects their UTR over time more than a 6-4 or 6-3 victory. So superior players who used to play matches against lesser opponents and go for shots knowing they would still win, now play quite cautiously or cheat a lot more to win every possible game.

The cheating has naturally escalated. Like you said you cheated because everyone else did. Now that everyone is obsessed about maximizing their UTR because it can get them into college, the incentive is huge.

So the factors have changed yet the USTA has not adjusted. UTR leads to a much greater incentive and reward for cheating, thus the USTA would need to also adapt and figure out a way to combat this. It will get to the point where less and less kids will want to play tennis tournaments. We already see tournament draws that were historically 100-120 kids in South Florida for a nice level 6 event, have gradually dropped even before the virus hit. The fields were down to maybe 70 kids.

I contend this increase in cheating and UTR obsession will decrease the level of US player over time and is the number one concern of USTA junior leadership. I think UTR should be abolished until a child reaches the age of 17 years old. Then the younger kids would focus more on developing their games rather than 12 year olds and their parents focusing on UTR and the best way to maximize it like is going on now.

However the opposite is happening. UTR is gaining power and the USTA and tournament directors are embracing it. You can not embrace UTR for juniors without taking steps to combat its natural impact on cheating. If you embrace UTR as a tool to help rank juniors and college coaches embrace it for recruiting....how on earth will the system survive without a referee on every court?

To me this entire system seems doomed to collapse as more and more kids realize maximizing UTR by any means is their only way to junior tennis success. The rankings will eventually be a battle of who is best at stealing big points to win the maximum number of games and who is best at navigating playing the right opponents based on UTR. At some point junior tennis becomes all about the art of UTR rather than developing their games. Go to a junior tournament once they resume and listen to the parents and kids talk.....its all about UTR. And the way the system is set up, who can blame them?