Monday, April 6, 2015

Martin Blackman New Head of USTA Player Development

Martin Blackman to Head USTA Player Development

The former pro says he will ask current and former American champions for advice

SENNAIT BLACKMAN photo 595d8a29-dd81-4dda-9bcc-12cf2e93aae2_zpsmth5nfmt.jpg
photo by Sennait Blackman

Updated April 5, 2015 7:21 p.m. ET

After a seven-month search, the U.S. Tennis Association on Monday will name a successor to Patrick McEnroe as general manager of player development: Martin Blackman, who worked for the USTA under McEnroe for two years before leaving to start his own tennis academy.

Blackman, 45, was a top junior who trained alongside Andre Agassi and Jim Courier at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy. At Stanford, he was Patrick McEnroe’s doubles partner. After six years on the pro tour, he became a college coach, and helped build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland.

At the USTA from 2009 to 2011, Blackman was senior director of talent identification and established the USTA’s regional training partnerships with private academies throughout the country. Since 2012, he has run his own academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

“He’s got a lot of credibility, more credibility than I do, in the coaching and development world,” McEnroe said in an interview this weekend. “He’s taken a good, long road, and people will appreciate him for all he has done.”

Blackman was born in New York City, before moving to Barbados when he was 2 years old. For two summers, Blackman’s family lived on the Upper West Side and he trained at the Port Washington Tennis Academy. When Blackman was 13, Bollettieri offered him a scholarship.

Bollettieri, now 83, said his former student is someone “who listens but will not be bullied.” “Martin brings education, he brings stability and he is a no-nonsense person,” Bollettieri said.

Blackman will work part time until June as he turns his academy over to another coach (McEnroe will stay on to help the transition). In 2016, Blackman and his family—he is married with four children—will move to Lake Nona, a planned community in Orlando where the USTA is building a $60 million tennis center with training facilities, housing for visiting players and their coaches, and more than 100 courts, including both green and red clay. The USTA will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the facility on Wednesday.

Since McEnroe announced that he would leave player development at last year’s U.S. Open, many people have been rumored as potential successors, including James Blake, who expressed interest in the job; Courier, a former No. 1 player and the current Davis Cup captain; Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; and former pro Todd Martin, who is now the CEO of the Tennis Hall of Fame.

But USTA officials signaled that they were less interested in star power than a candidate with a development background who would commit to the USTA full time and move to Orlando. McEnroe, who is also an ESPN commentator and lives in New York, was unwilling to move.

Blackman isn't expected to shake up player development’s staff or strategy. Katrina Adams, the USTA’s chairman and chief executive, and Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director and chief operating officer, said that they were happy with the program’s current direction and hired Blackman to build on it.

“He has played every level of the game—he understands what it takes to be a champion and he understands what it takes to be a collegiate player,” Adams said.

Blackman said he would try to strengthen partnerships with private coaches and ask current and former American champions for advice. He mentioned Agassi, Courier, Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, and Blake.

“I’m really going to listen to what they have to say about what has worked,” Blackman said.

American tennis champions have traditionally trained with private coaches. But as the country’s performance in pro tennis, particularly men’s tennis, plummeted in the late 2000s, the USTA decided to spend more on development and hired McEnroe in 2008.

In the years since, McEnroe endured criticism over the program’s structure, player turnover, and sometimes strained relationships with private coaches, players, and parents, who felt that the USTA would only support players enrolled in the program, rather than those who sought partial help but wanted to keep private coaches.
In 2013, McEnroe adopted a new strategy: fewer full-time students and more time devoted to outside players and coaches who could visit and train.

Though American men’s tennis continues to struggle, the U.S. has a promising crop of junior boys, including 13 ranked in the top 100 of the International Tennis Federation’s 18-and-under rankings and three in the top 10. Women’s tennis is strong, with the Williams sisters and young pros like Madison Keys, 20, and Sloane Stephens, 22.

Still, Blackman will be first in line to take criticism if American players, particularly the men, don’t have better results in the near future.

“I’m up for it,” Blackman said. “If you understand that it takes teams to make players, and if you understand where our coaches’ sweet spots are, we can do some damage.”

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