Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Today's Letter From USTA Player Development GM Martin Blackman; A Look Back at Previous Player Development Restructuring Controversies

Below is the email I received from the USTA today, sent on behalf of Player Development General Manager Martin Blackman:

June 9, 2020

Two years ago the USTA began a process of strategic planning which culminated at the end of 2019 with an overarching Strategic Plan for the entire organization. The strategic priorities set forth in the Plan will guide our organization for the next 7-10 years, and we believe that in the aggregate they reflect our commitment to our core mission: to promote and develop the growth of tennis.

The plan development was an 18-month process that included an extensive listening tour involving hundreds of interviews and workshops. Ultimately, the USTA aligned against five strategic choices:

  • Attract, Engage and Retain a New Generation of Diverse Tennis Participants
  • Lead Industry-Wide Improvements to the Tennis Delivery System, Provider Education and Consumer Experiences
  • Build and Optimize Best in Class Digital Infrastructure and Platforms
  • Ensure Continued Financial Growth and Performance
  • Collaborate Within the USTA & Tennis Ecosystem for the Common Good of Tennis

Even before the global crisis of COVID-19 hit the U.S., we recognized a need to cut our expenses and realign our human and financial resources to reflect our strategic priorities. However, given the added financial pressure that COVID-19 represents for the USTA and American Tennis; we have decided to act now.

We believe that by making these tough decisions now, we are putting the USTA in the best possible position to support the Industry and the thousands of organizers, providers, coaches and players who have been adversely affected and need our support now and will again later, when this challenge has passed. These decisions will enable us to act in the best interests of tennis.

As part of this strategic realignment, the USTA will restructure in order to create a simpler, more efficient organizational structure with resource allocation that is prioritized to drive the mission.

In that new structure, Player Development will become a Department of Community Tennis and its headcount and budget will be right-sized to reflect the USTA's strategic priorities. Player Development will continue to be an important function of the USTA, with a clearly defined objective: to create and support a developmental pathway in partnership with the private sector and USTA Sections; to develop Grand Slam champions and Top-10 players.

I've never been of the opinion that Player Development should be disbanded, which is, and has been, a popular position among commenters on this website for many years. I see a role for a national federation to play in identifying promising juniors, bringing top players together for camps and training, serving as a liaison with their private coaches and introducing them to international travel.

Back in 2012, this debate raged at the highest levels, mostly on this website, with Wayne Bryan and then Player Development GM Patrick McEnroe going back and forth over what role the USTA should play in tennis. Bryan's original letter is here, McEnroe's response is here, and Bryan's additional responses are here and here.  I also had plenty to say on the topic, and in reading over my response to Bryan, I don't see much that I would change now, eight years later. I do think the USTA has made great strides in partnering with private coaches since the Team USA concept was introduced around the time Blackman replaced McEnroe in 2015, and I would hate to have that become a casualty of this downsizing. I do think many of the USTA salaries are out of line with the rest of the tennis industry, and with the future of the entire sport so murky right now, it's hard to argue with some belt-tightening. Having little understanding of the practical hierarchy of the USTA, I have no idea how becoming a part of Community Tennis will impact Player Development, but I am surprised by the inclusion of that last clause in Blackman's statement: to develop Grand Slam champions and Top-10 players.

I have never liked Player Development as a designation for what I believe the USTA should be focusing on as a national federation. I think Player Assistance would be a much more accurate assessment of what they are doing and should be doing. To maintain that Grand Slam champions and Top 10 players are somehow developed under their auspices is putting the emphasis not on the players or their coaches, where it belongs, but on the organization itself. That, I think, is a mistake.


Ryan Ruzziconi said...

The salaries at that national level are shocking! $500K year and the Director of the National Tennis Center making $800K a year. We have college tennis programs folding all over the country for lack of funding and lack of on-campus tennis facilities and the USTA is paying these salaries. Open all the books!

Jon King said...

That email is shocking. Develop top 10 players and Grand Slam champions as a goal? Thats ridiculous. Its impossible to try and hand pick and develop players for that level. USTA tried in Key Biscayne, Boca Raton, and now Orlando. 25 years and counting. So many millions spent.

Players of that caliber are lightning in a bottle. It takes 100000 attempts from parents and private coaches and academies around the world for a top 10 player to emerge. Its sheer force of numbers. No one can predict who will emerge as a top 10 player or Grand slam champion.

Our current hopefuls like Co Co Gauff and Anisimova had fathers who drove the bus. Same with the Williams sisters. Same with Kenin. And during that same time period thousands and thousands of other fathers tried and failed.

I have never been so sure that the USTA should completely end player development than after reading that email. So local tournaments will continue to chase kids away with poor budgets and cheating due to no officials, while the USTA continues its 25 year and counting quest to find a Grand Slam winner. Wow.

Mike Kowal said...

I am happy with 8 levels of Junior tournaments. And the entry fee amount is enough to cover some officiating, which as an official is what I used to do for free or ten dollars a day plus two cokes and a sandwich. But, the tournament directors need helpers and us certified officials provide that. My day as a helper consists of making sure courts are ready; overnight and with play the net heights fluctuate. Court debris cleaning also is done. Later we rove and chase balls and give spectators the evil eye so they don't coach from the sideline. Our blue shirt and red hat make us identifiable. Sometimes we have to stick to a match particularly with younger kids where they see the ball call to their own advantage. Now for all this the certification process is simple, but intricate. Court monitors may also be used and are paid. My suggestion for a tennis fan is to become an official, it is a good part time way to be involved. Mike Kowal Tennis_Mike@Yahoo.com
As for developing the next US grand slam champ, it will be probably come from some male 6'4" or larger, and with a female, wheels is the deal.

Jon King said...

Imagine the amazing junior tournaments we could have if the millions in salary spent by the USTA for high performance was instead used at the local level. More officials, fair play, better prizes, better experience for the kids....more kids stick to tennis, better chance of finding that next great US player.

Mike Kowal, you are a saint in my book. We play in South Florida, the epicenter of crazy tennis parents, illegal coaching, cheating, bullying. I have seen so many good players get chased out of the game because they are shyer and get tired of being cheated at the local level. They quit tennis long before we ever know how good they could be.

I have always said the USTA should have an official or monitor on every court. Give credits to college PE students, recruit seniors to volunteer. Whatever it takes.

If kids, even shy ones, could play local tournaments and develop their shots without fear of being cheated, I think the pool of talented US players would be much greater. Imagine kids basketball or baseball if it was up to the players to enforce the rules.

Anonymous said...
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Alternative ideas said...

In order to develop juniors to strive to become Grand Slam champions, it needs to start at the grass roots level. Stop trying to cherry pick juniors. Its proven to NOT WORK. At least this is a good first step to redirect funds away from useless "development" programs.

How about redirecting those dollar savings to reduce the ridiculously expensive fees for USTA tournaments, add more officiating to these tournaments, etc. So many juniors and parents just flat out quit because of the HUGE expense, rampant cheating, and just overall unpleasant experience in tournaments. FIXING THIS to keep talented juniors motivated and excited about tennis will help to achieve the goal of developing winners....

Boca Tennis Mom said...

I agree with all the comments that the money should have been used to fund tournaments instead of large salaries and trying to find the next needle in a haystack. 6 years ago we were paying $35 for a tournament in our area. The kids were given nice trophies. There was some cheating but all the parents and kids knew who those 2-3 cheaters were in the tournament.

Then 4 years ago the tournaments started substituting plastic medals for trophies and the entry fees were $45 or so for locals. More recently, before the virus the entry fees are $60-65 for locals, cheap medals for prizes and the cheating is crazy because everyone wants to protect their UTR at all costs.

The tournament experience at the local level has gone steadily downhill over the past 6 years while entry fees have almost doubled. To think of the money being spent on salaries and high performance just makes a tennis parent quite angry.

ESS said...

Jon, always read your comments and feel your pain. Hopefully, Martin gets to see what has been posted. Tennis is a prohibitively expensive sport. It is difficult to raise a tennis player with absolutely no outside help. I am sure USTA could trim the expenses and dedicate a few dollars to clubs and players at the grass roots instead of 'hand-picking' players with the best results. Win in junior tennis is not a good indicator how far that player will go.

Jon King said...

ESS, thanks and I hope Martin gets the message. We have taken kids up to Orlando for training and the coaches were very arrogant. USTA guys like Richard Ashby would treat local coaches and parents like they did not know a thing. Very condescending. Yet many local coaches and parent coaches taught these players the game from the start.

Unfortunately from reading his letter it sounds like Martin is doubling down on looking for the next one in a million player. I am starting to worry that local tournaments are not coming back in the same quantity as before. Seems the venues that hosted local tournaments are weighing the risks and liabilities of the virus and wondering if 50 kids paying $60 each, then paying officials, and paying the USTA is worth it for them to bother with.

USTA needs to be careful. Their priorities seem to be paying huge pots at the US Open and giving money to those players they think can make it big, along with maintaining large salaries for executives. But let the local tournament system rot away and I think US tennis is in big trouble long term.

WCB said...

In terms of court monitors at tournaments. Our kids are involved in swimming in addition to tennis. I am always amazed at the parental involvement in putting on a swim meet. There are traditionally 2, more often 3, timers per lane...parents that are judges (for strokes, DQs,etc), parents running the computers, etc. I would guess there are at least 30 volunteers for swim meets -- and this would include even small community/local recreation meets. It is a part of the swim culture, i.e. parents are expected to volunteer and there are generally volunteer hour requirements.

My point here is that it seems that something similar could be done on the tennis front - and it would even be on a much smaller scale. Perhaps parents committing to monitoring courts (not for their own kids!) and some minor training. Seems like it would made a huge difference.

Jon King said...

WCB, we are so on the same page. We have been involved in all sorts of kids sports, tennis is the only one where kids are expected to enforce the rules, keep score, all the while trying to develop their games. No way this results in the best possible players.

We have presented ideas to the USTA and USTA Florida about having volunteers, working with local colleges for PE credit, etc. Always falls on deaf ears.

Our plan was to simply create an environment where blatant cheaters would not flourish. Of course there will be missed calls. But the current system is silly. The kids call a ref, he watches a minute, then the cheating starts again when the ref leaves. The only options are to cheat back, play a 4 hour match arguing and waiting for a ref all the time, or quit tennis.

I am amazed that junior tennis ever developed such a system. From day 1 the system should have been parent volunteers or more money put in by the USTA so more officials would be available.

The USTA hides behind the 'it develops character' thing. That is a crutch. Tennis does develop character in that the players get no coaching except before match tiebreakers so they make their own plans, they have to tough out being tired as there are no substitutions. Tennis would still develop plenty of character if there were monitors to keep score and lessen cheating.

Alex Ho said...

Basketball, baseball, and Soccer all have huge shortages of refs and umpires. No one wants to do it for pay because parents are terrible, these sports only need 2 officials for 15 to 30 kids so way more efficient than tennis.

I don't think getting college students giving up weekend for pe credit at all day tennis tournament is realistic. Junior tennis is mind numbing to be an umpire for, especially if your stuck at one court.

What about the parents? If there is so much blatant cheating going on than some of the parents on this site have kids who are obviously blatant cheaters as well, how do the parents justify it? This site blames everything on USTA but reality is junior tennis has always had a few roaming officials for local tournaments, why has cheating gotten worse? My guess would be that parents are way to involved (as they are in every sport now) and likely are putting so much pressure on the kids they feel the need to cheat and its just part of gamesmanship like squeaking shoes before second serve.

If my kid has horrible behavior or cheats blatantly I pull him off the court and default the match (my dad did that to me with bad behavior and I didn't do it again, or at least not when he was around, ha ha).

One quick aside on Wayne Bryan, while he develop doubles champions, Neither Bryan ever cracked top 100

SeminoleG said...

Jon King and WCB,
I've written USTA Fl and provided many basic ways to correct the rampant cheating. My daughter has earned many hours of community service "overseeing" Orange ball events in Miami. What she has leaned working with parents and kids would benefit the many kids and parents that seem to not only tolerate but condone bad acts on the court. This is STEP 1 to reign in Jr tennis because when these kids get to college, guess what they find out! Further the USTA is promoting curriculums in the "Tennis Industry" and a basic rules of the game in a practical application would be a GREAT way to earn credits. Kids also need community service credits and honestly a program that gives tournament fee credit for providing basic court monitoring would go a long way.
As a retired Military Officer, the way events are run is appalling, and I cannot blame the TD or the USTA. Sometimes things get so far from center you blame no-one, and just fix it. Until then, Tennis will have problems attracting young athletes willing to put in the long hours. OBTW My daughter is playing ITF WTT events with Officials and her love for the GAME has grown immensely. Her play has improved and it has nothing to do with Maturity. She does not have to worry about a CHEATER on the other side of the net taking Points, games, sets from her.

SeminoleG said...

Sorry I did not comment on the "Player Development" portion.
USA for years have outpaced the world in 2 Sports. Mens Basketball and Womens Soccer. WE have done well in other sports but these 2 over the years the USA has dominated. Both sports have 1 thing in common (maybe more). Camps.

They both develop their highest quality players via an extended "Camp" structure. A structure that uses local knowledge (Coaches, Events, Influencers, Sponsors etc.) to bring in groups (large variety) of kids to train and compete periodically over many years. Not just 10-20-30, but Hundreds of kids. Local, Regional, National camps. Otherwise they would just take the "Top Scorers" or the BEST statistical players, and honestly that proves little.... Will not guarantee any Grand Slam winners, but you will get the best players in the USA.

SeminoleG said...

@Alex Ho - Tennis does not need an Umpire or Official on each court FULL-TIME like the sports you mention. Players will be aware there are court monitors and remember we already have officials but "some" do very little to enforce the rules. Tennis needs a base level of fairness and for each Tournament to have 1 Official for every 2 courts is very little to ask. They are not calling lines, the mere presence of someone to enforce the "rules" will be enough for 99% of matches. To do nothing will result in continued failure. Also having seen many "chaired" matches some are very poor at line calling anyway, because they do it so rarely. Would a RANDOM chaired match change things? I'd say yes... Given what I have seen at ITF tournaments.

Alex Ho said...

I totally understand what your saying, having more officials would cut down on cheating and would make the game a better experience, but 1 ref for every 2 courts is a ton of officials. Your average sectional with 64/128 draws for 4 age groups double with boys and girls, I just don't see the man power. When I played tournaments we had roving line judges and never had anymore than a couple of roving officials, never anything like 1 for 2 courts except for nationals, and the officials were rarely worth much (nothing like questioning a call and ref said they missed it or could not see). At my club we would help with tournaments and it was epic to be an official at a match with kids moon balling and cheating, def not worth the $$. Tennis is ripe for cheating, its easy to cheat on big points and can be easy to cheat on the score.

I do totally disagree with you on your post about camp structure for USA basketball. My sons play high level basketball and AAU tournaments is where all the real players compete. There are 3 circuits put on by the shoe companies (Nike, Addidas, Under Armor) and there is a tournament every weekend in the late spring and summer. Major college coaches now do all recruiting at these tournaments and players are ranked (where they can see players from all over the country without having to travel to see one kid). There are camps held by shoe companies for top players but they are not much more than showcases for top players to stay with the shoe brand. College camps are not at all what they used to be because all the players are travelling so much on AAU Circuit. Players get development from skill trainers in individual and group workouts. Some teams don't even practice together and just meet at the tournaments (Lebron James actually played some tournaments for a California AAU team while in high school). There is a lot written about US players play way to many games from a young age because they play so many tournaments plus school team.

I have don't have as much knowledge of soccer camps, but I believe large Academy teams have the bulk of top players. There are certain credentials that a team must posses to be an academy team.

SeminoleG said...

Yes AAU Basketball Tournamets is where players develop. BUT at least when I played (NYC) there were camps that led to those players being selected. 100s would show up and AAU teams pick the top stars but the bulk of the rosters and teams are developed thru mini-camps and the weak players cut, BUT they try again and again. As for soccer, they have ODP, that takes players from all over and develops them in many camps throughout the US. These players play on travel clubs BUT that gets them an invite and they continue to participate under the watchful eye of USA coaches.
Anyway in no sport (USA does well in) do we decide to pick kids at 10-11-12 and sink a good portion of resources into THEM and the result is the best in the world.
USA has some of the best fighter pilots in the world, why because we bring in 100s to get 10, 1000s to get 100 and so on.
Lastly the investment NFL teams make at finding that next great QB is by far more than any sport spends to find the ONE. They fail 90% of the time to find that guy. It is truly an impossible mission only succeeded by sheer luck, or numbers.

Jon King said...

Excellent conversation on cheating. I would simply add that cheating is going to escalate because of the emphasis on UTR, Universal Tennis Rating, and how it is calculated.

UTR is so important to kids and parents now. UTR rewards margin of victory. So winning 6-0, 6-0 is better than winning 6-3, 6-2. UTR is vital to college recruiting so the motivation is very strong to maximize UTR by all methods.

The incentive to cheat more and win more games is greater than ever before. Whatever the solution is, the USTA will need to do something. If cheating continues to escalate at this pace, I hate to see what junior tournaments look like in 5 years time.

Jon King said...

SeminoleG, you said your daughter is playing ITF WTT events with officials and her love for the game has grown. I also have a daughter who is so shy she hates playing USTAs with no officials.

Our only experience is with USTA tournaments. Can you educate us a bit on which types of tournaments have more officiating? Do all ITFs have chair officials? What is WTT? Thanks.

SeminoleG said...

ITF WTT are Lower level Pro Events 15k & 25k events and these are required to have Officials because they award WTA Points starting at the last round of Q, and all the MD. As for Jrs, ITF's have a slightly higher level of officiating. The Officials my be in the chair on random basis and generally many will have officials in the chair starting at the Round of 16. Personally I would not play in any event without officials, or ensure there will be a presence of officials. Some good TD around that understand this, and some where I didn't see an official on court for days. As you said the UTR and the weight of getting WINs has consumed the Jr Ranks. Add to that playing 5 Matches in a weekend with heat indexes in the 90s is ridiculous.
Last National she played it seemed EVERY ball close to the line her opponent would walk up to the "mark" and then call the point. This is a violation of the rules and an OFFICIAL (he also worked the USOP) was there and did nothing. His inaction only made the situation worse with 3 Over rules. What does it take to get an officiated match my daughter asked, and that is when I realized this was the end of her Jr Career. TO work as hard as some of these Players do it is not only unfair, but reflects upon Product. No character is built by getting cheated, especially at a National event.
The saving GRACE in all of this is when these kids get to college and are exposed. Just track some of the 2018/2019 Graduates that were "highly" ranked but never made it past the round of 16, or QF. Amazing they struggle when officials are not present!

"RANT" Over...... No Officials = No Change

Jon King said...

Thanks SeminoleG for the information. The USTA rankings are pretty much worthless because the rewards for cheating and the lack of ramifications mean we have no idea who is ranked on merit and who is the best at cheating.

The girls all do the same thing now. Walk up to the area the ball hit, pretend to be making a decision, then call every one out anyway if its a big point. The rule is that if you are not sure, its the opponent's point. Only call obvious balls out that you do not even have to think about. But the rule is used the opposite way. The girls use the time to walk to the area the ball hit and give themselves time to think how valuable the point is in that situation. Amazing how many big points are always called in their favor. Never has a ball that would have put them down 30-40 called in. Its always called out to give them 40-30, every single time. Its has nothing to do with if the ball was actually out, its only about if the point is big enough to cheat on.

We used to see girls go for their shots and be content to win 6-3. Now they want to win 6-0 to maximize UTR. So they cheat even more than they did 4-5 years ago.

We will look into the ITF WTT events once they return.