Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images North America
Tennis is a funny sport. And tennis fans are, let's say a bunch of spoiled brats. For the last few years there's been a constant whine about "the same four guys are always winning the big ones". The cry has been for someone new to step up and seize the mantle from "those same four guys".
The thing is what they really meant is somewhat tricky. For some this meant that someone from the tennis axis countries - Great Britain, France, Australia and the United States. For others this meant that one of the "top four" is more deserving of cakewalk draws because he is who he is. I don't think either of these groups was satisfied with how the US Open turned out. They got what they wanted - new blood - but not the new blood they wanted - or the old blood they wanted for that matter.
To be clear I'm not a fan of Marin Cilic I'm an admirer. No matter how he felt privately about the circumstances behind his suspension publicly he did his mea culpa, apologized, and instead of going off and sulking in a corner or dragooning famous friends to bemoan his fate to anyone who would listen he worked on his tennis.
The men and women who make up the tennis press - using the term loosely of course - had already passed judgement on Marin Cilic's place in the hierarchy of tennis so they were doing their usual reading of press releases from the tours or the agents of players deemed more worthy instead of watching how Cilic was playing on his return. Instead they went on a mission to try and force tournaments to give Wild Cards - Main Draw Wild Cards mind you - to someone who when he was playing regularly on the main tour really wasn't all that. It was as if they decided that Cilic, who took his punishment with class, was a non story coming into the US Open.
Meanwhile fans of one of the original Top Two were angry that despite a draw that he went through like a hot knife through butter lost to - gasp! - someone who they and most observers thought he powned on his way to the US Open. I've said it so much it's almost a mantra for me: a soft draw doesn't make a champion. But what do I know? The Powers That Be gave him an even softer draw in New York. When I saw the draw I figured he had his usual stroll to the quarter finals where he would run into a player with some backbone. I was wrong. He made it to the semifinals and faced someone who had just come off of injury and had often cracked under pressure, Nishikori Kei. As we all know Nishikori played Cilic in the US Open Final so once again a soft draw didn't help it's recipient one bit.
To say the attitude of some in the "press" regarding the US Open final was horrendous is putting it mildly. Their main cry seemed to be "no one is going to watch"! You'd think that after all the whining about wanting new blood in a Slam final they really didn't mean it. They wanted someone deemed worthy not two men who they'd virtually ignored most of the year. But the two men who played the best met each other in the Final and the outcome was one no one predicted. No one.
After the Australian Open there was a big push to make Stan Wawrinka into the next shiny bright object. To make someone into the next bestest thing they have to have something to polish and make shine. Wawrinka isn't that guy.
Oh he got the cute nick names -Stanimal being the one that makes me cringe the most, and people were pushing him to become the next President of the Players Association but did "they" really think players would vote for someone who had never joined their oganization?
This is what annoys be about tennis reporters. They knew Wawrinka had never belonged to the players association but they promoted his candidancy as if he were the second coming of a deity. Meanwhile the players elected Eric Butorac. You could hear some peoples heads explode while asking "who"? Again, if they'd been reporting instead of going for the okay doke Butorac's election wouldn't have come as such a surprise, or disappointment.
Men's tennis continues to be a mostly non American affair with John Isner at #16 the only American in the top twenty. Despite being a legend in his own mind when it comes to his relationship to his sport Isner is considered a minor player overseas. We all know about his "God's Country" comment that offended many fans and we know about the shit fit he threw when he was bumped to the second court in Washington DC because Europe wanted "top" players matches broadcast back to their fans.
It's also time to retire that "Top Four" narrative that includes Andy Murray. He's currently ranked #12 in the world and while a return to the top isn't out of the question he's not part of the top four let alone part of the top ten.
The tennis press has seized on Grigor Dimitrov as the Chosen One. He hasn't shown me that he's got that "thing" the stars have. I'm not impressed with his game either but some would call me a "hater" when I say that. Whatever. Declaring someone the next big thing doesn't work in tennis. The player himself determines whether he joins the "superstar" category not the hopes and dreams of agents.
The transition from one era to another is taking place in men's tennis but it's going at a much slower pace than some want. The argument can be made that one guy is in the top three because of favorable draws that have seen him cruise to the business end of a tournament more often than not and not because he's playing out of his mind tennis. Nishikori made that clear in the US Open semi final. If Cilic continues his current form he's the man to watch going into the Asian and indoor swings leading up to the WTF. He's within the top ten now at #9. He has the potential to go higher. As a big man with good movement if he continues to play the way he did in New York he'll be shoving guys aside as he moves to the top.
While the British, The United States and Australian programs seem to be in some disarray those of other, smaller countries, are shoring themselves up and preparting for the future by developing new talent pretty much out of the spotlight. Lots of people chortled when Spain lost in Davis Cup to Brazil but he who laughs last laughs longest. They know who their top players are and none of them have anything to prove. Unlike the US and Australia who relied/are relying on aging players to keep themselves in the conversation the Spaniards are planning long term. The British have only one man as well and he is learning the system of a new coach. This is where the reorganization of USTA Player Development comes into play.
Colette Lewis, who singlehandedly brought real reporting to Junior Tennis in the United States has written her take on what the new Director of Player Development needs to do. Here are two points that she makes regarding USTA PD:
2. PD's voice must be heard on the topic of minimum prize money for Futures events on the USTA Pro Circuit. To allow $10,000 Futures tournaments to continue to exist without any increase in prize money for 20 years demonstrates a lack of big-picture thinking. It would cost $115,000 to upgrade the 23 men's $10Ks to $15Ks. A less complicated and cheaper action item would be hard to find.
3. Too much money is going to too few juniors. Selecting prospects is what competition is for. Anointing players based on potential and providing them with everything is risky at best and a waste of PD resources at worst. Better to give 100 kids $1000 than 1 kid $100,000.
Here is what she would like to see in the new head of PD:
1) have a background in coaching juniors and either a player they coach, or a son or daughter in the system
2) be familiar with the demands of the current pro game, whether as a coach or player at that level in the past decade
3) be well-versed in the current advances in coaching and sports science
4) have a love of the game that extends to sectional/national junior tournaments
5) demonstrate an ability to convey to the USTA president, board and all USTA members the goals and mission of Player Development, a plan to reach them, and a means to determine if they have been met
6) possess business and marketing skills to attract sponsorship and support from commercial interests
7) inspire loyalty, leading to reduced turnover
8) be delighted to live in Lake Nona, Florida
Items two and three are no brainers and it's shocking that this has to be mentioned at all. I've said before that the McEnroe brothers seem to be totally unaware of anything that has gone on in tennis since they stopped playing. John makes it obvious with his commentary (I should say what passes for commentary from him), and if Ms Lewis had to make these two points part of her wish list it implies that Patrick McEnroe is as stuck in the past as his brother.
To read her post in full go here .
In a second post Ms Lewis reports that up and coming junior Francis Tiafoe is being courted by Jay-Z's sports management team. He's 16. He plays like he's 16. He's got a big personality and loves the roar of the crowd but imagine a kid knowing Jay-Z is interested in him? Think of parents who, with stars in their eyes, picture their child as part of a future "Big Four"? Who is going to tell them to slow their roll, to keep their child away from the vultures? Is it going out on a limb to say no one?
The biggest problem with many US juniors (I'm focusing on the men now) is that they're stars before they've accomplished anything. Instead of fighting to become international stars they're fighting to be top of the heap in a very limited, insular world that refuses to see the sport has passed them by. What if players like Donald Young and Ryan Harrison had developed games better suited to their size instead of being forced to play a style that is totally unsuited to not only their physiques but their personalities? I've always felt Young should have a game more like another small man, Nikolay Davydenko instead of trying to be the next Pete Sampras or Andy Roddick. Dare I say Roddick fell from high potential to average once his coaching was taken over by US based men? I do. At one point he had an all around, all surface game. In the end he was a servebot who was outthought and outmanuevered on court.
So where does the ATP go from here? I think it's on it's way. It hasn't invested as heavily in Asia as the WTA has and continues to play tournaments where there is am already established fan base. The old powers are in trouble of their own making and it will take awhile for them to turn things around. Does it mean a lower quality of men's tennis for a few years? Yes and no. Cilic played wonderful, dominating tennis this summer. Jo Tsonga is working hard on his game realizing that now might be the best chance he has. Richard Gasquet, sadly, is another victim of the hype machine. He may be able to turn things around but he looks disinterested and lost at times on court. Gaël Monfils is probably the biggest waste of talent out there. If he can learn to hold his focus and not fall back on old, bad habits he could surprise us all.
After Andy Murray who is there in Britain? Australia seems to be banking on a young man with a volatile personality but without the right for his time smarts of Lleyton Hewitt.
In the States Tiafoe is only 16. We won't know much about him for another four to five years.
I feel that there will be another period of men from those pesky "other countries" dominating the game. Unless some tennis associations take their heads out of the sand that period will last a long time.