Friday, February 17, 2012

The War for the Future of US Tennis

by Savannah

I believe the future of tennis in the United States lies somewhere between the views of Wayne Bryan and Patrick McEnroe. Wayne Bryan seems to want to continue things as they are. Little kids hitting with racquets that are sometimes bigger than they are is fine in his world. Balls should be standard issue, not adjusted for kids who are still growing. Making any changes will put US kids behind the eight ball so to speak and leave us in a worse position than we are now. Player development should be handled by parents and coaches not some entity that exists only to pay high salaries and disrupt the natural development of a tennis player.

What neither man mentions is the role of the tennis factories in Florida and other places. These euphemistically names "academies" have been the places United States youngsters vie to get in to and have been the biggest creators of North American style on the court. A man like Nick Bollettieri has had more to do with how tennis is played in the United States than Player Development. Bollettieri has owned up to the fact that the style of play taught in his academy has hindered the development of players who are able to do more than pound the shit out of a ball. The idea of "hit hard and harder" is an acknowledge failure. The rise of players who are able to craft points, strategize on court and adjust to changing conditions has forced a reassessment among those responsible for the future of tennis. The argument seems to be about how to get to the point that players from the United States are more than cannon fodder in majors even in the United States.

I am sure men and women like Wayne Bryan would rather see a home grown solution and don't like the idea of someone like Jose Higueras coming in and taking the reins of player development. The question to them is who would you select? Is there someone among the establishment who doesn't think that downgrading clay court tournaments and play and increasing the speed of hard courts is the solution to the dilemma facing US tennis? Is there someone the traditionalists have in mind who can see to it that what happened to Melanie Oudin doesn't happen to other promising juniors? Will the USTA be reduced to throwing tantrums when players who have never been US citizens grab the chance to be top players in their own countries rather than second rate players in this country behind the favored players of the establishment? Will we still have to "recruit" clay courters from South America because we can't compete otherwise? Is this what the traditionalists want for the United States? Famous parentage and slick PR campaigns do not make great players. What does it mean when our most promising junior girl is an out of shape fifteen year old?

I didn't see real world answers to any of these issues in Wayne Bryan's rant. I saw the death throes of a generation of tennis "gurus" who know their time has past, that they've failed, and that there are really no juniors ready to step onto the world stage and reassert the relevance of United States tennis. Wayne Bryan's son's were trained to be the best at doubles. Where are the up and coming US doubles teams?

People were shocked at what Jim Courier was able to do in the Davis Cup tie against Switzerland. The United States Fed Cup team also played well in their opening campaign. But these victories don't mean all is right with US tennis. Far from it. Our top players are all ancient by sports standards. Andy Roddick's wife has come out and said that he will retire soon. Is someone like Ryan Harrison ready to become the next US Slam champion? On the women's side Venus Williams is suffering from an autoimmune problem that prevents her from playing a full schedule. Serena Williams is doing her best but is still not at full strength. Christina McHale has had some nice wins but right now I don't see her ready to take on the top women.

Let's face it. There is no one on the horizon who has shown the mental toughness, emotional stability and physical strength to play today's game. Going back to the future, or waiting for the top players to succumb to the ravages of time is not a strategy for future success. Leaving the men aside the women are bigger and stronger. I was stunned to see how small some of the up and coming US women are this past summer at the US Open. The big girls will hit and think them off the court.

There are things that Patrick McEnroe can be criticized for but his understanding of what is needed to pull tennis out of the Dark Ages can't be done with the current administrators and coaching arrangements. He understands the need for our program to be brought into the 21st century, that because a style of play worked twenty years ago doesn't mean it will continue to work. Spain has shown that players can have their own individual style and yet have a commitment to their tennis association. Every player considered part of the Armada has his own style. Can we say that about players from the States?

It's obvious that PMac has a hard row to hoe, that the resistance to what he's trying to do is fierce. He was given time to get our Davis Cup team up to snuff. I hope that he'll be allowed to make the fundamental changes needed to bring United States tennis into the world not as a bully but as a full participant on the world stage.

It is not going to be easy.

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