Monday, April 6, 2015

USTA Names New Head of Player Development

by Savannah

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.

And this:

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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Karen Williams said...

I disagree with this so much. Putting aside Agassi's flirtation with illegal drugs, what these former pros had in common is a work ethic that is not being seen by the US men (I am going to leave the women out of this discussion). Sampras, Blake & Roddick had a professional approach to tennis. They played fair and were known as hard working professionals. One of the reasons why the US men are doing so dismally is not because of their games, but more about their approach to their game. Perhaps having mentors of the likes of Sampras, Agassi et al will give them something to work towards.

You mentioned the up and comers from Europe. What have they done that US men have not done? If they make it to the latter rounds of tournament their inexperience and lack of strategy makes them get their walking papers the same way that the US men get theirs.

There is something to be said for the hit hard and harder approach. For the one/two strike as a strategy. I agree that there is also a need for players to play strategic tennis (not like that mess that passed for a men's match in Miami).

The fact remains that as good as we think these European, Japanese or wherever else they may come from, young players are, until they have proven otherwise an unknown quantity. Frankly, I have watched Coric, Cheong and the other young guys that are coming up and the only one that I see who may have the potential to make waves is Kokkinakis. Give him a few more years, some muscle, and voila he should be challenging the top guys.

Savannah said...

Flirtation with illegal drugs? Really? Smoking a blunt might be a "flirtation". Meth, crack and drugs like oxy are not flirted with. That the USTA/ATP knew and hid the "flirtation" makes it possible for anyone to describe his use as something done in passing. If that was happening today he'd be out or at least suffer a long suspension. When I look at Agassi despite his game being more nuanced than Sampras' was I see privilege afforded by his Federation and that takes away from his achievements. Don't forget there were rumors about drug use when it came to his back treatments late in his career, rumors that were said to be false of course.

As for Sampras early in his career he had a more varied game but as he aged he became what we call today a servebot.

Did they have a work ethic? I guess for their time they did have good ones. They were pampered and protected and shielded from scrutiny by not only their Federation but by the "tennis media". There were no bloggers back then so we have only the manufactured images fed to fans to rely on about what was really happening. US tennis reporters ignored the European press and suffered no penalties for doing so.

The current crop of US players could use a swift kick in the ass by those that have gone before them but the Federation has only itself to blame for the younger generations attitude. Look at Bernard Tomic for example. Not a US player but he was given a Black Card and had his every whim catered to before he'd done anything of significance on the tennis court. Was it any different for US players? There's no way of knowing because no one is talking who is in a position to know.

When these kids age out of the "system" they have to produce results on the tennis court and that is when they falter. Their skills don't match those of the Europeans and they end up ranked in the 50-80 range or lower relying on wild cards to get them into big tournaments.

There is one other thing. talents like Sampras or even Agassi don't know how they did what they did. Prodigies can't explain why they were great or how they are able to do the things they do and therefore make lousy coaches. Cheerleaders are one thing. US players need quality coaches.

At the moment the Europeans are better than the US men and many women as well. The time to learn how to construct a point is not in your late teens. The time to learn is when you're first able to play a junior tournament. If you can go back and read James Blake's comments, the ones I posted a few weeks ago, when he was lobbying for the post Mr. Blackman now has. That was a depressing read for me.

I'm not impressed with Kokkinakis yet which is why I hardly ever mention him. He's good but I don't see great in him. Yet.

Of course all of this is just my opinion and I could end up proven wrong. That's what makes tennis so fascinating.