A few things jumped out at me reading the article by Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal on the appointment of Martin Blackman as head of Player Development for the USTA.
First of course is his background in USTA politics and his past as Senior Director of Talent Identification for that organization.
Second is the endorsement by Nick Bollettieri who raves about Blackman bringing "stability".
Mr. Blackman is moving his family to the new USTA training facility in Lake Nona, Florida, something that was high on the must do list of the USTA.
Then there is this:
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.
I'm wondering what insight Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi can give though. As far as can be determined Sampras was as clean cut as he appeared. We all know Agassi used illegal drugs while playing and was never called out or sanctioned for his behavior. Today Sampras would be called a servebot and Agassi would be famous as a scalp in the WADA Anti Drug plan. Jim Courier, because of Davis Cup, is more familiar with the men's game and the strategies behind it than either of those former players.
Both Andy Roddick and James Blake played until relatively recently but towards the end, with the men's game becoming more strategic and based on skills US players don't have their play could best be described as anachronistic. With the hiring of Mr. Blackman I don't see the level of US tennis changing much if at all.
In the end however it seems to be that the most important thing for US men's tennis is the Benjamins. The US system seems to demand that players have their own coaches who are free to take money from the USTA, use its facilities, and duck all the blame for the current state of men's tennis.
There is going to be a drop in the level of tennis after 2016 and it still seems to me that the USTA and it's coaches are preparing for that drop. Their fervent hope would appear to be that the "hit hard and harder" approach, "Serve Bot Tennis" if you will, will be on the ascendancy again and US men will be able to compete on an international level once more.
That to me is what is most important to the tennis establishment in the United States. They care the most about the men's game and don't really care about women's tennis although it's nice that they're including Lindsay Davenport in the discussion. It should be noted that current women's number one Serena Williams is not being coached by an American and has changed her approach to the game. Her new hitting partner, Robbye Poole is American though.
It seems to me that Mr. Blackman is the establishment choice. They know him. He's not going to upset the apple cart. The money will keep flowing to private coaches and all will be right with the world. Will this improve the state of tennis in the United States? It depends a lot on what players like Francis Tiafoe achieve going forward. I don't think you'll see results from players like him for another five years or so. Meanwhile the Europeans keep coming and rising up the rankings with the ability to construct points, superior court knowledge and mental abilities and overall better games even in their late teens. We already know about Chung Hyeon, Borna Ćorić, Elias Ymer and Alexander Zverev. They're making waves while US prospects like Ryan Harrison are just getting past the stage where superior play from an opponent results in tantrums.
Somehow I get the feeling that as long as Mr. Blackman keeps the old ways in place he'll be fine. After all, it is always "all about the Benjamins baby".
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