Thursday, February 16, 2012

Patrick McEnroe Responds

As promised below is Patrick McEnroe's response to Wayne Bryan's letter.

When Wayne Bryan's letter about USTA player development began circulating on the internet, I knew I had to respond to it, but I wasn't sure if the USTA would. Today, I received USTA Player Development General Manager Patrick McEnroe's response to Wayne Bryan's letter, which appears unedited, in its entirety, below:

I admire the passion that Wayne Bryan brings to the sport of tennis. I applaud all that he has done to help his sons, Bob and Mike, become not only an amazing doubles team but genuinely great guys. Some of my greatest and most memorable experiences in tennis involve the Bryan brothers and all that they’ve done for our Davis Cup team and American tennis. That said, I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Bryan’s opinions on the myriad subjects—including 10 and Under Tennis and USTA Player Development—that he addresses in the “open letter” that has now been prominently featured in several tennis-related blogs.

It’s easy—and frankly, it’s long been fashionable—to cast a blanket indictment against the USTA. That’s neither new nor notable. I think all of us at the USTA would agree that a lot of past criticism has been deserved, but Mr. Bryan’s scattershot attack is so full of holes, hearsay, and half-truths that I feel compelled to address it.

Let me first say that the USTA has a clearly-defined mission—to promote and develop the growth of tennis. The USTA wants more people on more courts in more places; that is our charge as an association. As General Manager of Player Development, my specific charge is to help produce more Top 100 players with the goal that we have more of them competing into the second week of the majors. That’s a different responsibility but, in the long run, achieving that goal is at least partly reliant on getting more young people involved in the sport.

The world has changed—and tennis has changed with it. Our challenges as an association and a sport continue to evolve. Let’s face it, in a rapidly-changing global environment, if we’re not changing and moving forward, we’re essentially going backward. Tennis is simply not the same sport that it was 20 years ago—even 10 years ago. Anyone who was paying attention to the second week of this year’s Australian Open realizes that the bar is being raised as we speak. Tennis is much more of a global sport today, probably the most global, other than soccer. It’s true that Americans don’t dominate tennis the way they once did, but the truth is that because of globalization, Americans don’t dominate any sport the way they once did. Even sports once considered traditionally “American,” such as baseball and basketball have become much more international. Given all of that, if we want to ensure our place at the table, we need to have a strategic vision that encompasses every level of play and player—from beginner to pro.

Tennis has often been criticized for being too expensive and inaccessible. Those criticisms have truth to them; they are challenges that all of us involved in the sport face. And these are specific issues that the 10 and Under Tennis initiative addresses. When Mr. Bryan says that tennis, “grows from Main Street,” and from “solid, fun, dynamic programming,” he’s absolutely right. Tennis is indeed a sport that grows upward from its grass roots, and by making the sport easier for kids to play and enjoy, they’re much more likely to get involved in it and stick to it. That’s exactly the idea behind 10 and Under Tennis, and for any sport, that’s step one.

In terms of 10-and-under competition, the rule change adopted by the ITF and the USTA has, in fact, opened the door for more kids to get involved in junior competition. Two years ago, fewer than 10,000 kids were involved in tournament play and in the USTA’s Jr. Team Tennis program. Now, that number has risen to more than 32,000. We’ve still got a long way to go, admittedly. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of our potential. But more kids are trying tennis, and we feel confident that this rule change will open the door for more kids to get involved—and stay involved—in our sport. And that’s a good thing.

The idea that the more-talented or more-accomplished kids are somehow being held back or hampered by the rule changes that include shorter courts, properly-sized racquets and slower-bouncing balls is absurd. Mr. Bryan says he can produce, “all kinds of kids around the country at 8, 9, 10 who can flat out nail the ball.” I’m sure that’s true, and in fact, I’ve seen plenty of them at our Regional Training Centers and our three USTA training centers. But I’m equally sure that there’s not a single sport that makes its rules for the one-half of one percent of the kids who play it. For the kids who truly are that good, they can—and should—do what the best kids in tennis and all sports have been doing for years: play up at the next level. It’s important to emphasize that this rule change applies only to tournament play for kids 10-and-younger.

It’s equally important to note that the ability to “flat-out nail the ball” doesn’t exactly translate into a bright future as a player. We’ve all seen examples of that time and again. Indeed, by playing with properly-sized equipment and a softer ball that allows for longer rallies, we will be much more likely to develop smarter players who understand how to construct points; not just those who can smash a yellow ball through the back wall. In doing that, we’ll have more players who understand how to compete—and are better-prepared to do so.

Jose Higueras, USTA Player Development’s outstanding Director of Coaching, often has said that this country has produced plenty of players who can hit the ball, but far fewer who understand how to play tennis. We believe that the new 10 and Under competitive structure can go a long way to developing smarter players, providing them with a more solid foundation and understanding of the sport, so that by the time they progress to the next level, they’ll be able to do more than “nail” the ball.

That would certainly be a huge help to all of us in Player Development, a group which, despite what Mr. Bryan may believe, work pretty darn hard to provide the most talented young players in this country—and their coaches—with the tools they need to achieve.

Mr. Bryan likes to point out that the USTA has never developed a Top 10 player. I would ask him, “Who has, from start-to-finish?” The USTA has, for years, played a vital role in the development of many top professionals, but the idea that any one person is responsible for the development of any individual player is ludicrous. Players evolve, players change, players progress. It’s an ongoing process and always has been. The coach or parent who got a player from point A to point B may or may not have the tools or know-how to help take the player to the next level. What’s more, the economics of tennis almost always come into play for most coaches, who often have to decide whether to stick with a player or with a full-time job at their club or academy. That’s a tough call, and an important one, both for the coach and the player. Whatever the scenario, whatever the need, we’re there to lend our support to both the coach and the player so that the player can progress.

But contrary to what Mr. Bryan believes, USTA Player Development isn’t in the “cherry-picking” business. We’re in the business of helping the best young players get better by providing a controlled environment in which they will have the best chance of developing. Our Player Development staff devotes a remarkable amount of time—often years—communicating with kids, their parents and their coaches to decide on the best path of progress for each individual so that they can make an intelligent and informed choice. If they decide to work with us, we do our utmost to provide them with the best training, the best advice, the best competition, and key financial support. After all, in order to improve, you need to be in a place where you can regularly compete with the best; you don’t get better in a vacuum. What we provide are more opportunities for the best to come together, compete with each other, and get better.

Mr. Bryan suggests that the USTA’s thrust is to “get rid of the influence of parents and local coaches.” Again, that’s absolutely absurd. We are well aware that all of the kids who come into our program get their start in other places, and we applaud the parents and coaches who get these kids involved in tennis and nurture their development. Indeed, since I’ve been in this job, my appreciation of the importance of coaching at every level has increased tenfold. I think we can—and should—do a better job of acknowledging those who’ve helped develop these kids along the way, but the idea that we’re out to exclude anyone is ridiculous. Indeed, the amount of time that we spend annually meeting with and exchanging ideas with private coaches is off the charts. Just last year, USTA Player Development conducted 57 camps at our Regional Training Centers, where we were able to touch thousands of kids, parents and coaches. We’re not in the business of exclusion, we’re in the business of inclusion and enhancement. We’re in the business of giving these talented kids more options for pursuing their highest goals within this sport, assisted, of course, by the input of their parents and coaches. None of us are about to apologize for that.

As in most criticism aimed at the USTA, Mr. Bryan is fond of citing the “massive staff expenditures” of this association. Yes, we’re extremely fortunate to have the revenues generated by the US Open to help us fund our programs and hire talented people, but to hear Mr. Bryan tell it, you’d think our water coolers were filled with Dom Perignon. I make a very nice living—I don’t apologize for that either. But the truth is that a lot of my very talented staff take less money to work for USTA Player Development than they could make if they took their talents elsewhere. They choose to be with us because they have a genuine passion and they want to play a part in our mission.

And in fact, it’s important to note that the majority of the revenues that are generated by the US Open aren’t directed toward Player Development, but go back into the game’s grass roots, allowing more people of every age to get involved in the sport of tennis. All of us at the USTA feel that’s a good way to invest that money.

Some six years ago, the USTA Board of Directors felt it was important to get more players involved in Player Development because they believed it was important for American players to be competitive at the US Open in order to ensure the long-term health of that event. The impetus for me to come on board was that the USTA said it would be fully-responsible for the development of those players who chose to be with us; that we would have our own training centers where the best players could come together to get better. I was hired, not as a coach, but as a General Manager, charged to put the best people in place to help achieve that goal and come up with an overall direction for the program. In the four years I’ve been on the job, that’s what I’ve worked hard to achieve, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Mr. Bryan bemoans the fact that I’ve hired some foreign coaches; he decries the fact that none of my coaches have children that are champion players. Frankly, I’m offended by the former and amused by the latter. I still recall the best coaching advice my father ever gave me as a junior—after splitting the first two sets of my match, he told me prior to the third set to, “do what you did in the set that you won.”

Where a coach is born or what their kids excel at is not my concern. I’ve tried to hire the best and the most passionate; I’ve tried to hire those who excel at—and enjoy—working with and developing kids. Our Director of Coaching, Jose Higueras, has coached some of the greatest ever to play the game, but his real passion is working with kids, and his understanding of the sport is second-to-none. Are we always trying to get better? Are we always looking to improve? Absolutely. But let’s just say I’m extremely comfortable with everybody’s resume and their proven passion for the sport.

Mr. Bryan wants the USTA out of the player development business, out of the coaching business and out of the rule-making business. O.k., he’s entitled to his opinion. But if the governing body of the sport isn’t making the rules, then who will? Doesn’t someone have to take the lead? Doesn’t someone have to organize and promote the sport?

When I took this job, I knew there would be rewards and I knew there would be challenges. I knew that every decision we made would have its supporters and its detractors. I really do appreciate the passion that those involved in tennis have for our sport; I think that the people who put a face on our sport are second-to-none in that regard. I understand a lot of the criticism and I’m happy to take most of it—where it’s constructive and where it’s deserved. The buck stops here. Certainly, when Americans don’t fare well on our sport’s biggest stages, nobody is calling the local pros—they’re calling the USTA. And they should.

Because of that, our charge is to do what we can to make our sport—and our players—better and more competitive in this highly-competitive global environment. That’s what we’re working on every day and that’s what we’ll continue to do. We are prepared to address any and every short-term concern with an eye toward long-term benefits. We can’t—and we won’t—allow short-sightedness to interfere with long-term vision.

Again thanks to Colette Lewis at Zoo Tennis who was the pioneer in making sure junior tennis got the coverage it deserved in the United States for posting Patrick's statement.

What do I think? Tomorrow.

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