Saturday, April 10, 2021

Thoughts, Observations and News from My Two Weeks in San Diego

I’ve covered tournaments remotely since the shutdown last March (Cincinnati, US Open, Orange Bowl) and did manage to cover finals day at an ITA Summer Circuit tournament last July in Grand Rapids in person. But that one event had been the extent of my face-to-face interactions with players, coaches and tournament staff in over a year, so returning to Southern California for the two annual Grade 1 tournaments there was a long drink after a  year in the desert. One thing I’ve learned over the years of doing this is that as much as you can learn on the internet, it’s no substitute for talking with people. And actually watching players compete live is superior in nearly every way to a live stream.

Below is some of what I learned and observed during the two weeks I was at the Barnes Tennis Center in San Diego, and I want to make clear that the critiques below are in no way meant to denigrate the decision to hold these tournaments. The willingness to provide these opportunities for competition, when it is often easier to just cancel, is commendable, and I hope that attitude will extend into all the USTA’s National events this summer.

Covid Protocols

The ITF has very strict protocols for holding a tournament now, but as with all rules, they frequently don’t make a lot of sense in real world situations. Players were allowed only one guest each day, which resulted in a parents and coaches often taking turns using that one exemption. I also saw more than a few players with three or even four family members watching their matches; I’m not sure how they navigated the plus-one, the daily covid symptom check-in, the temperature check and the wristband protocols.

Because I saw many without the required wristbands, I imagine they took advantage of the fact that the Barnes Tennis Center was open to the public, as allowed by the San Diego area health authorities. That allowed pickleball players, local tennis players and others to enter the site without going through the same procedures as players, guests and staff.

Masks were required, and compliance was good in general, although the younger the players, the less likely they were to wear one. Unlike mask-wearing, social distancing was not enforced, but that did not seem a major problem to me (disclosure: I’m fully vaccinated), especially since the case and positivity rates are very low in the area.

The ITF would be wise to offer more flexibility and defer to local health authorities, and maybe they do, but I didn’t get that impression from those enforcing the ITF protocols.

USTA National Coaches Return

Like me, the USTA National Coaches haven’t seen much live tennis in the past year, and unable to hold their usual high performance camps due to the pandemic, it wasn’t a surprise to see so many of them in San Diego trying to watch as many matches as possible, especially in the 12s and 14s. Head of women’s tennis Kathy Rinaldi was there for over a week and head of coaching Ola Malmqvist traveled from Miami for several days. The USTA national coaches I saw in San Diego: Michael Joyce, Brian Baker, Jamea Jackson, Jermaine Jenkins, Maureen Diaz, Jose Caballero, Lori Riffice and Jon Glover. Glover was there through the conclusion, with several in the 14s age group he works with, including 16s champion Alexander Rezaghi, going deep.

Tecnifibre’s US Push

Two former USTA national coaches, Erik Kortland and Philippe Oudshoorn, were in San Diego as representatives for the French sporting goods company, which sponsors the USTA Southern California section’s Signature Series. The International Open of Southern California, played the first week of the fortnight, is one of those events, and it used Tecnifibre balls, while the Easter Bowl was played with balls manufactured by Wilson, the long-time sponsor of all USTA National tournaments. Tecnifibre is making a renewed push into the US market and their sponsorship of SoCal’s Signature Series is one component of that commitment.


The US sporting good company, which usually provides a hugely popular players party and all manner of signage and goodies as the presenting sponsor of the Easter Bowl, did not participate this year, other than providing T-shirts. They were missed, and I hope they return when the tournament resumes at Indian Wells in 2022.

So. Many. Wild. Cards.

The ITF’s entry system is well established and generally not controversial, with the only source of contention, as it is throughout the tennis world, the selection of the allotted wild cards. There didn’t appear to be much grumbling about that for the J1 International Open of Southern California or the Easter Bowl, but the same cannot be said for the wild cards into Easter Bowl 12s, 14s and 16s. 

The disaster of the new USTA Junior Competition rollout this year, with its ranking and implementation problems, only exacerbated the entry dilemma, already problematic due to the lack of play last year. That meant many, many blue chips, who had been playing up a division at the restart, had to rely on wild cards for entry into their division, a particular problem in the 16s. Because the seedings did not reflect the actual accomplishment of those receiving wild cards, seeds met these players way too early in the draw. Only 16s champion Alexander Razeghi, as a No. 9, was seeded at all, with two of the four girls 16s semifinalists and both the boys 16s finalists wild card recipients.

Lisa Stone of Parenting Aces
Lisa Stone and Parenting Aces

I have known Lisa for many years, yet I only run into her occasionally at tournaments, usually at the US Open Junior Championships. I do follow all her posts on her website, however, and it was great that she was able to make the daily drive to San Diego from her home in Orange County to cover the Easter Bowl. She conducted daily interviews of players, coaches and others involved with the tournament on Instagram Live and spoke to many parents about the issues they had encountered with the rollout of the new USTA junior structure. Lisa has been relentless in her pursuit of answers and accountability from the USTA on this topic, and I know she is pursuing this issue to help all those families who are confused and exasperated by how this happened and how it will be resolved. Please consider becoming a premium member at her website, which provides a host of benefits, including a personal consultation with Lisa about these issues.

International Players and Closed ITF Events

I have known for years that international players with immigration status in the US are eligible to compete in the ITF Easter Bowl (as well as the younger age divisions). Back in 2013, Mayo Hibi of Japan won the girls title, so it was no surprise to me to see Juncheng "Jerry" Shang in the field, but what I did learn is that ITF regulations prohibit an international player from competing in more than one Closed event per year when playing outside his or her region. The Easter Bowl is open only to US players; October’s Pan American tournament, the other ITF Closed event in the US, is open only to those players from North and South America.

Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup

The ITF has provided no updates on these September competitions, which were canceled last year due to the pandemic. Qualifying rounds are generally underway across the globe now for the 16-and-under group, as well as the August World Junior Tennis global team competition for those 14-and under. The US was scheduled to host the JDC and JFC (Junior Billie Jean King Cup now?) through 2022 at its National Campus, but I’m hearing the event is now back up for bid, with little interest due to the added expense of the ITF Covid protocols.

Warren Pretorius of Tennis Analytics
Tennis Analytics and USTA Provide Free Match Videos

There are plenty of complaints about the cost of entering USTA National events, but the USTA and Tennis Analytics have added more value to the Easter Bowl’s entry fee by providing three free videos of entire matches to every competitor. This is a godsend for coaches who were not able to attend, whether due to the ITF’s plus-one rule, or other obligations. 

Founder Warren Pretorius also told me the company is interested in providing more live streaming of junior events, but was unable to do that at the Easter Bowl due to the short notice regarding this year’s venue change. I hope that the 16s and 18s girls and boys USTA Nationals this summer can find a way to work with him on this project; the Orange Bowl is also very much in the mix for his company's mobile live streaming initiative.

Wild Card Tournament for Upcoming ITF Grade 4s in Florida

It’s hard to overstate the importance of even just a few ITF points for 13- and 14-year-olds when it comes to getting opportunities for qualifying in the big ITF events in the US. The USTA is encouraging the younger boys it works with to get those points by holding a playoff next week in Lake Nona for wild cards into the three J4s in Florida beginning at the end of the month.

Does Tennis Really Need Another Doubles Format?

First of all, it’s great to see doubles played after the de-emphasis of it during the pandemic by both the USTA and the ITA.

But much to my surprise, in a scoring format change that can’t be determined by looking at draws, the Easter Bowl doubles for all age divisions was no-ad. That wasn’t a surprise in the ITF event, which has played the same no-ad, match-tiebreaker-in-lieu-of-a-third-set format for years, but I did not know that no-ad was introduced for USTA events, which apparently was approved for 2020, but with so few tournaments played last year, the change wasn’t evident. The match tiebreaker introduction for rounds through the quarterfinals at the Level 1s has been around for several years, but the actual games were played with regular scoring. 

The twist is that the USTA has retained the full third set in the semifinals and finals (not in the 12s), while playing no-ad, a format that, as far as I know, is not played anywhere else. 

The only tournaments in all of professional tennis that have not gone to no-ad in doubles are the slams, so the winners of the 18s USTA Nationals in August will play this hybrid format to earn a wild card in the US Open, then return to regular scoring when competing in New York. 

Minnesota's Men's Tennis Program was instrumental in the development of ITF Easter Bowl Champion Liv Hovde(with headband)

Liv Hovde and Minnesota’s Men’s Tennis

When a college program is cut, the focus, rightfully, is on the student-athletes and coaches who have their lives disrupted through no fault of their own. But the collateral damage is often overlooked. ITF Easter Bowl champion Liv Hovde’s mother explains much more eloquently than anyone else could on how much the program meant to her daughter.

It’s heartbreaking that the U of M is looking to cut that program - and that decision has garnered lots of attention and very strong opposition. And it should. That decision ignores the positive impact that team and coaches have had on the youth and growth of tennis in MN. Liv is a perfect example of that. 

Liv first started practicing at Baseline at age 5 with Geoff Young’s wife, Dana Young. That kickstarted her love for the sport. She began attending Gopher Men’s Tennis matches at a very early age. She loved watching, cheering and would even ask for autographs of the team. She watched and screamed in joy when they won the Big Ten title, she observed countless practices, trained countless times on their courts, met many of the Gophers and their amazing  coaches (Geoff Young), and was coached for a few years by a former Gopher men’s player. She would study intently the photos of the Gophers teams hung on the wall behind the bleachers - hoping one day she might play college tennis. 

She won 16s indoors both singles and doubles on those courts. To this day she feels like those are her home courts.  That team, their coaches and those courts are a big reason why she grew to love the sport.  

The Minnesota tennis community as a whole is strong, vibrant and supports their youth. Liv feels that support to this day. She adores the Young family and they have always supported her. Tennis development takes a village and Gopher’s Men’s tennis has and continues to have an enormous positive impact on her. Without it, I don’t think she would have embraced the sport so whole heartedly at such an early age. 


fan said...
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Orlando Challenger said...

Nice to see the names of the “merit based” wild cards for the Orlando Challenger/ Qualifier... MD WC’s, Christian Harrison😱, Zane Kahn🤔, Aleksandar Kovacevic. WC’s in Quallies... Roy Smith😱, Toby Kodat🤔 and Martin Damm🤔. Based purely on Merit. :) Congrats!

Orlando Challenger said...

Harrison- SF of ATP250 in 2021 W 25k and F25k
Khan- 2W and F of 15k in 2021
Damm- F 15k in 2021 and ranked 3 in ITF JR
Kodat- W 15K in 2021 and Top ITFJr
Kovacevic- SF of 60k in 2021

Roy Smith I don’t get that but why don’t you try and give some other options for WC based on the above results.

Orlando Challenger said...

Martin Damm qualifies for main draw.....