Thursday, May 14, 2009

The State of American Tennis

by Savannah

There's a reason it pays to actually be on a conference call instead of relying on the words you find in a transcript.
Patrick McEnroe, head of the USTA's elite player development program gave a "State of the Program" presentation Tuesday. Most of the call - I will excerpt extensively below - concerned how the United States tennis establishment is going about setting up a uniform program for player development.  PMac emphasized that the United States is not going to "copy" programs already in place in France and Spain but to create one that reflects the unique view of what tennis is from the United States.

Throughout most of the call PMac was straightforward and spoke in even tones. It was only when the use of clay courts in player development came up that McEnroe 
showed emotion.

Q. Can you talk about the clay. Jose has talked about that a lot. How are you trying to get more juniors playing on that surface as sort of a fundamental building block for their games?

PATRICK McENROE: You said it, a fundamental building block. Let me start out by saying one thing so that everybody can hear me loud and clear on this. We're not trying to develop clay court specialists, okay? We're trying to develop better players. And the facts are in, okay, everybody? The facts are in. If you develop players more on clay, in the last 10 to 15 years, they will become better all‑court players, and even in cases better fast‑court players. With the way the game has changed, with the technology of the racquet, the strings, the athleticism, the speed, et cetera, you have to learn how to build a point and play with spin and play with angle and take the ball early or take the ball behind the baseline. You've basically got to be able to do it all to become a top player, certainly in the men's game. That's starting to happen wore and more in the women's game, as well, with the increased athleticism in the women's game.

I want to sort of clear up for people. Some say, You're trying to teach our players to be clay‑courters. No, we're not. I've actually had this conversation with Jose numerous times. I always remind him. I say, Jose, most of our great American players essentially are attacking players. We don't want to take away that as our mentality of players. So we want to keep that. But at the same time we want our kids to be able to learn how to build points better, how to use all the court better, and, yes, how to be fitter. If you play on clay from a younger age, you will automatically become fitter because you have to hit more balls and you have to create more opportunities rather than just going for broke all the time.

So that's obviously how we're trying to work with kids. We're not going to turn into a clay court nation anytime soon, but we certainly feel that it's a huge part of the developmental process for kids to become all‑around players and to make it as a pro.

From the stridency of his voice while saying the above it seems that there is still an argument raging in the tennis establishment about the role of clay courts in training young people to become tennis professionals. I can't imagine that anyone who claims to love tennis in this day and age would even begin to make the argument that our young people shouldn't have more exposure to clay at a young age. Watching American or American trained players on clay is a painful experience for a fan. Europeans and South Americans routinely roll over them as if they're practice partners and not equals. Meanwhile traditional "clay court nations" are producing players who are, for want of a better term, "hard court specialists" who are more than fodder during the hard court season. The basics they've learned on clay are being translated to a hard court style that is defeating American players on a regular basis. "MIndless ball bashing", the hit hard and harder philosophy taught by many in the States is going the way of the dinosaur as successful countries have learned to develop the individual skills of their players, not try to fit them all into one mold. What if a kid comes along whose skills translate better on a clay court? Does he or she get kicked to the curb because their style is not "attacking" enough?

Q. Back to the clay court training for a second. With that switch in emphasis, is there an amount, a benchmark, that you want a player of a certain age to spend this much time on clay? And then subsequent to that you have some players in the pipeline who are 14 or so now already who weren't really brought up that way. How does that interfere? Is it a disadvantage for them now?

PATRICK McENROE: There's no equation there to say this is correct. I wouldn't know where to answer that, where to go with that.

I will tell you this. Certainly the younger you can get kids learning how to play on clay, learning how to slide, learning how to construct the point, the much easier it is, because it continues to develop those skills when you get to be 14, 15, 16. So we're certainly well aware that if you get a kid that's 16 and they've never really played on clay, it's hard to change. It's hard to change their mentality. We're going to try. And at the same time if their strength is being aggressive, take the ball on the rise, we're not saying you should play that way either. But you can play that way. Even Andre Agassi made subtle adjustments on a clay court, even as he got older on a hard court. He moved back a little bit. He moved in when he had the opportunity to. When you go up the line with a shot, all those things clay courts can teach you.

But I will say that we feel the younger the better. The younger you can get the kids playing on the clay, and as I said earlier, from a point‑construction aspect of it, from a mentality aspect of it, of being able to stay in there and work the points. Jose has a great line. He says, We got a lot of kids that can hit the ball, but we need to teach them better how to play. What that means is, how does the height of the ball affect my opponent? If I take it early up the line, how does that affect it? If they push me back, do I try to hit an offensive shot or a defensive shot? Do I try to hit a neutral shot? Even playing on a slow hard court can do it. We got plenty of hard courts. We resurfaced our courts in California because they had gotten so fast. They had gotten so fast to the point you couldn't even play really defensive tennis on them. Quite honestly, there's no courts in the world that play that way on the tour, except of course when we play certain Davis Cup matches and I can control the speed of the court.

You can do it on a slow hard court, as well. But certainly from a movement standpoint, also from a standpoint of taking its toll on the body, the young kids are out there four, five, six hours a day. Playing on clay, it's a lot easier on the body.

McEnroe also touched on another important point.
Q. How important is it to develop more young American talent to keep the professional game in the U.S., especially tournaments below the US Open or the ATP 1000 Series events?

PATRICK McENROE: I think it's extremely important. To cut right to the chase, I think that's why the USTA is spending more money on player development, hired me, allowed me to hire Jose Higueras. They realize it matters. Part of the USTA's mission is to develop and grow the game of tennis. Obviously the US Open has been hugely successful, particularly in the last few years, without necessarily an American always winning it or even in the final weekend. But certainly over time, I think from a business standpoint, it will help overall if you have American players in the mix in the majors. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Remember, all the money that's made by the USTA goes back into developing tennis at all levels, grassroots, community tennis, and player development.

It's very important. I think your point is a good one. Obviously, the US Open is an incredibly huge event year after year. But for the other tournaments that aren't a Grand Slam, that aren't in New York City, that aren't in a 24,000‑seat stadium, it's important. You would know from being in Memphis, if you have the Americans doing well, it helps overall. It helps the tournament promoters, local media coverage, et cetera. We also want our kids to do well. It's a business thing but it's also a pride thing. We want to see our kids do well. So there's a lot of different angles to it, but I think it's certainly very, very important to overall the success of tennis as a sport for people that play it casually and people that attend professional events.

There were a lot of questions about financial support for up and coming players, and the issue of class bias in tennis was also raised.

Q. Tennis has traditionally been thought of as a more upper class sport. With the economy in the state that it is, do you think that will hurt it or do you think tennis will work harder at coming down and becoming more affordable to kids?

PATRICK McENROE: I think tennis is more affordable. That's a myth really, to be perfectly honest. I realize that people that go to the US Open are maybe slightly better off from a financial standpoint than others. But people that play tennis and certainly kids that play tennis and that make it to the highest level very rarely come from wealthy backgrounds. They certainly have some ability obviously to play some tennis and to get in some local programs. But the numbers, the participation numbers, for the USTA, for tennis I should say, are up considerably over the last couple of years. It's been blowing away the competition as far as people playing tennis.

So that's a little bit of a myth. I mean, that's obviously something that we in tennis always battle, that that's out there. But we're finding with the kids that we have mostly in our program, you know, they come from all different backgrounds. And that's a good part of tennis. I think that's something that people just have this sense of, Well, tennis is an upper class sport, because that's sort of the way it started. We all know it started as a country club sport. But that's changed a little bit.

I get this question all the time when it comes to Davis Cup. I've been the captain for nine years now. I get this comment from people all the time, they say, Wow, you know, how come none of the top players play? How come none of the top players play Davis Cup? I'm like, ‘That was like 15 years ago. Where have you been?’

It's a little bit of a myth that that's an issue. It's just not. In fact, 70% of tennis is played in public parks. I don't know if you know that. When you cruise around New York, as I do, New York City, the public courts are always packed. So that's a stat that I think we should all remember. 70% of tennis is played in public parks.

Junior Tennis
The conference call opened with the following statement:
Currently the United States has more boys and girls in the top 100 of the ITF World Junior Rankings of any other country. The U.S. leads all nations with 13 boys in the top 100, while no other country has more than five. And there are 12 U.S. girls in the top 100, second only Russia's 14 and twice as many as any other nation. The United States is the reigning champion in the ITF’s 14‑and‑under and 16‑and‑under junior team championships, and three of those four teams recently won the regional championships for this year to defend their titles in the fall.

McEnroe made the following statements during the press conference:

Q. Looking at all the numbers of the lack of American men in particular, and even women, in the top hundred, do you think these promising numbers of the junior players, is this going to turn that trend? Does it mean anything toward the future of the professional game?

PATRICK McENROE: Well, it means something. Obviously it doesn't mean everything. To be perfectly honest, I don't get too caught up in the junior rankings. Obviously we want our kids to do well. But our main goal is to try to prepare them as best we can to try to make it into the professional ranks, to have our kids maximize the game that they have...

Q. Is it realistic to think that we can mimic player development systems that maybe you see in countries like France and Spain, or is that a goal at all for you?

PATRICK McENROE: No, we're not trying to mimic that. We're trying to do the best we can under the situations that we have. I mean, certainly we look at some of the things that they're doing in France or in Spain, in different countries, and try to understand what works for them.

But the reality is we're the USA. We're the biggest country out there from a geographic standpoint, or certainly one of the biggest. And so we have our own set of challenges to look at. So by no means do we think we're trying to copy what anyone else is doing. We're trying to do what we think works best for us...

Q. Patrick, I know there's a lot of reasons why tennis has struggled to attract the talent young. Is there anything you put your finger on that can kind of help with it being less cyclical? Seems like it comes in cycles, by happenstance.

PATRICK McENROE: That's a great question, and I'm not going to go into all the reasons because, quite honestly, in this job, they don't matter. I mean, we believe that we've been lacking somewhat in having a systematic approach to how we teach our kids overall and sort of what we call a coaching philosophy. Jose has been unbelievable in sort of implementing that within our own staff. As I said, we're trying to reach out to as many coaches out there and let them know the philosophy we have when it comes to movement, understanding how to play tennis, as opposed to how to hit the ball. So there are some fundamental things that we think if we can change and make an impact on, that that will help overall the development of our players.

Now, obviously, you know, I don't believe that you can necessarily create a champion. But I think you can create an environment where you're setting yourself up to find those champions a little bit easier.

It's pretty unusual that a champion comes sort of in a bubble, without competitive environments around them. So we're trying to maximize all of that. But we do feel that having the more structured approach to how we're coaching the kids that we're involved with is something that can help us create a lot more really good players. Then if you can do that, then we feel we have a better chance to find, you know, some of those great players that we found in the past in this country, based on the fact that, you know, they had great competition and they're great athletes.

Obviously, as we all know, the rest of the world has caught up, and tennis is as global as it's ever been. I don't need to go through the litany of factors. But I will say that we're not thinking about that, what we're trying to do with this program that we have here, because those aren't valid excuses basically.

Q. Talking about the philosophy that you give to the kids, there seems to be kind of a fine line, you want them to embrace wanting to be the next Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, yet you want them to have the message that as long as you do your best, you've been successful. How do you broach that?

PATRICK McENROE: I think that's a lesson in life, isn't it? We're not going to sit here and say to a kid who's probably not going to be No. 1 in the world that, Hey, if you end up being 90, that's not successful. I mean, take it from someone who has been through it personally, my own family. People say, You'll never be as good as good as your brother. No kidding, he was No. 1 in the world. That doesn't mean it's not worth it to try to become a pro. We also have plenty of kids that train with us that could go on and have great college careers and become good college players.

Q. There's been a mantra for a long time among some of the top coaches in this country that the juniors don't play each other enough. I wonder in the last year what kinds of opportunities you've tried to promote to make that happen.

...You know, I'm happy to say that I think there's a real good camaraderie also building between the young players. You see that particularly with the girls in the Fed Cup matches that we've had. We've had some great performances from so many of our young players. We've also had some of our other top young girls there as practice partners. So we think by doing it that way, that's as good a way as any as getting them to compete with each other. Obviously, we'd love them all to play tournament after tournament. But we also want to have time to work with them and work on their games. Sometimes I think players at a young age, maybe through their parents or coaches, are a little too concerned with their ranking, where they're at. We're trying to develop their games.

Q. You've done a great job of giving us some of the on‑the‑field tactics behind the strategy. It seems like the overall strategy is be inclusive, share information with the coaches, focus on localization to reach as many kids as possible, then really kind of evangelize the preparation, you mentioned how to move. This really seems like a fundamental shift in opening if you join the USTA. It seems like the fact that Jose had that open camp and a hundred coaches came that it's being received very well by the coaches. Could you talk about that? It sounds like you're being very inclusive and touching more players. How has this influenced maybe financial support that players get for travel?

PATRICK McENROE: Could I hire you? You sound like you summed it up well. That's all very positive. That is what we're trying to do.

Q. From a regional point of view, climate point of view, are you considering opening up some of these regional training centers in the northern states, where there are some talented players who are left behind a bit?

...The answer to your question is yes, absolutely. There's a lot of players here in the Northeast area. There's a lot of players in the Midwest. I mean, I don't need to go through the names of players that have come out of those sections over the years, but there's a lot of 'em. There's a lot currently. In fact, I went just last week to see Kristie Ahn, one of our top young girls practice there at a facility in New Jersey. I've seen Gail Brodsky. Christina McHale, one of our top young girls who is training with us full‑time in Boca, she's one of the girls now over in Spain.


Karen said...

Savannah, thank you for this. This was a truly eye opening conference call and while I have not read all of it (printing it and taking it home to read later), I have to say that I think P-Mac is going in the right direction. Whether the players can play on clay or not, is not I think the real issue. The real issue is really about point construction, and that is something that I see terribly lacking in most American players, and even some Europeans as well. I recall at the US Open last year the final between Jankovic and Serena, I recall that Serena was constructing her points so well, her feet were moving etc. This was an offensive player, who was playing incredible points in order to win that match. She used the angles of the court and was offensive and aggressive when the situation called for it. I also noticed that players like Alexa Glatch are also all about point construction - love her backhand slices - and it is good that the present crop of players are learning this day by day. I think the main issue is really on the men's side, where everybody hits the ball big and do not have a plan B. I am hopeful that P-Mac will be able to get American tennis on the map once again, and thanks again for this, very interesting read.

Kia said...

So much to process...

I live in a tennis crazy city,so yes the courts are full and that has translated to some national collegiate success but it obviously has not worked out on a pro level.

I'm excited to enroll my kiddos in a Quick Start program but it is more expensive than TBall/Basketball etc.

I find players of various nations to root for but I am wishing PMac and co success because even with Americans in contention TV coverage is shoddy.

Savannah said...

Just think Karen Serena did all of that without calling her coach to help her. Just sayin'.

It sounded to me that PMac is fighting a war with the entrenched powers that be over the direction of US tennis. I doubt that the men and women who run the tennis factories in Florida or have made their bones on the "Hit hard and harder" approach to tennis are going to let go easily. To do so would be to admit that their approach has failed and they've made too much money promoting their style of tennis. What would be so wrong if the US produced a world class clay courter, male or female? I don't get it.

PMac glossed over it but Sashia Vickery's moving to France is a major blow to the USTA. The Spaniards have opened tennis academy's in Florida too by the way.

Kia I got a chance to see the Quick Start program in action last year. It's really fun for the kids and the people running it are really dedicated to using it as a stepping stone for young people to pursue tennis as a career. I'm glad you mentioned how expensive it is though. Price was not discussed when I saw the exhibition.

Kia said...

I went to get some more info about the nearest Quick Start program and I'm happy to report that the price per week has gone down a little. The name has also changed to Little Tennis which makes it's mission more obvious I guess.

And as far as the coaching goes, is it any wonder that these women (albeit young) are so clueless on their own given the way their coaches talk to them? Obviously the coaches are out there to impart as much info as possible in the time allotted but the dynamic between Safina and her coach as well as CaroW and her dad/coach doesn't appear to foster much independence. Impossible to judge a relationship on a short conversation (in some cases conducted in a language you don't understand) but that's my 2 cents.