College Players Soar at US Open

With all the proposed changes NCAA is trying to make, you would think there was a problem with US college tennis.  This first week of the US Open is proving otherwise.

We have seen some incredible wins by our young guns in Flushing.  Stanford’s Mallory Burdette took out Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland in her first round match in straight sets then did similar work against Lucie Hradecka (you may recognize this name as one of the silver medal doubles winners at last month’s London Olympics) of the Czech Republic in Round 2.

On the men’s side, USC’s Steve Johnson (NCAA Singles Champion in 2011 and 2012) beat former University of Illinois player Rajeev Ram in the first round then partnered with Jack Sock to oust the top seeds in the Men’s Doubles draw.  Stanford’s Bradley Klahn had an incredible 5-set win over Jurgen Melzer – I’m guessing playing out those tight 3rd sets during the college season was instrumental in helping him get the W yesterday!  And UCLA’s Dennis Novikov, who is also the 2012 Kalamazoo champ, won a hard-fought battle against Jerzy Janowicz in his first round match.  Our best-known college player and former Georgia Bulldog, John Isner (this year’s 9 seed), had an uneventful first round win over Belgium’s Xavier Malisse.

Both the men and women are having success in the doubles as well.  Besides Johnson and Sock’s win, Ram partnered with Belmont College coach and Comeback Kid Brian Baker to beat Emmrick and Sijsling in the first round.  Novikov partnered with fellow junior player Michael Redlicki to get a win over veteran Americans Bobby Reynolds (former Vanderbilt standout) and Michael Russell (1997 NCAA Rookie of the Year at University of Miami).  And former Georgia Tech star, Irina Falconi, partnered with former USC standout, Maria Sanchez, to win their first match versus Cadantu and Johansson.

To be fair, not all of our college players fared so well.  University of Tennessee grad, Rhyne Williams, had a very tough match, drawing Andy Roddick in the first round.  Williams put up a good fight and definitely made Roddick earn the win.  And Jesse Levine, a former Florida Gator, fell in 5 sets to 14 seed Ukranian player Alexandr Dolgopolov.

It would seem that the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is applicable here.  The young men and women mentioned above are living the dream of countless junior players – going to college, getting a degree, improving their tennis, then parlaying all those skills into success at the professional level.  While I realize that a first- or second-round win doesn’t prove that college tennis is a viable stepping stone to the pro circuit, it certainly shows that a young player can take that path and have positive results.

Good luck to our players as they move on to Round 2 and beyond!

Holabird-Adidas Recap

I know I say this a lot, and please indulge my gushy-ness here, but sometimes it’s about so much more than just the tennis.

My son and I spent this past weekend in Baltimore at the Holabird Sports-adidas All In Junior Tennis Challenge.  The event was like no other tennis tournament my son has ever played.  First of all, it was an open draw which meant that any player age 18 and under could play.  Secondly, on-court coaching was allowed during changeovers which gave the players a chance to hear suggestions as to how they could tweak their game plan and, hopefully, improve their outcomes.  Also, service lets were played, adding a college-tennis twist to the matches – for some players, it took several lets before they got in the habit of playing those balls.  Finally, because it was an unsanctioned event, it wasn’t about ranking points or a trophy – the winner of the boys and girls draws each took home a one-year sponsorship from Adidas.

But, beyond all that, what my son will take away from his time in Baltimore is more than just what happened on the court.  And the more I reflect on our weekend, the more emotional I get – it’s exactly these types of experiences that you hope your child gets to have during his or her Tennis Journey.

The tournament’s creator, Sol Schwartz, went above and beyond to make our weekend special.  One of Sol’s players, Justin (who happened to be the top seed and eventual tournament champ), spent his practice time with my son from the moment we got to town.  The boys hit Thursday night then went to dinner together, sharing music, YouTube videos, and lots of laughs.  They hit again Friday morning and made arrangements to warm up together before their first matches on Saturday.  After they both played (and won!) their first rounds, my son went with Justin and his family to the UMBC campus to help Justin move into his dorm – Justin starts his freshman year this week and will be a vital member of the UMBC men’s tennis team.

When I called my husband to tell him about our son’s new buddy and what an exceptional young man he is, my husband’s response was, “That’s worth the price of the trip up there regardless of how the tennis part goes.”  Bingo!  Finding a player who is willing to mentor a younger guy, share his experiences, and help the younger one achieve his goals is a rare occurrence.  And, the best part is that my son recognized the gift he had been given almost immediately and spent the entire weekend with a smile on his face (those of you with teenage boys know what a rarity that is!).

My son wound up losing in the semis to the #2 seed.  But, here’s the cool thing:  rather than coming right off the court feeling disappointed about the loss, my son sat there for about 45 minutes after the match with his surrogate coach for the weekend, UMBC Head Coach Rob Hubbard, dissecting what went well and what could’ve gone better.  Coach Rob told him that he’s on the right track, that he needs to keep working hard, and that he’s “got game” but still has some maturing to do.  Coach Rob spent a long time talking to me after the match, too, helping me better understand what college tennis is all about at the mid-major level.

As Sol shared with me after the event ended, “I think the players that played walked away very happy on all levels.  One way or another, I think every single player in the event was able to benefit, whether in being able to play against players of a level that they don’t usually get to compete.  Being able to get some matches in to prepare for another event.  Being able to experience on court coaching while playing something meaningful, not just a practice set.  I heard a lot of different things that the kids and parents had to say.  Nobody left the event empty handed.  Players, coaches, parents, or people watching. ”

The most telling comment I heard, especially in light of USTA’s recent explanation for shrinking the draws for its National Hardcourt Championships in 2014, came from the very wise young man my son played in the first round.  “I’m just glad I got to be on the court with these really good players.  Where I live, we don’t have guys who are this good.  I learned so much from playing against them and can now see what I need to do to get better.  I’ll definitely be back next year!”  For the record, this young man only won 2 games in the entire tournament, but he came off the court feeling encouraged rather than discouraged.  USTA, please take note!

For those of you who didn’t make the event this year, please consider adding it to your child’s tournament schedule in 2013.  You will not be disappointed!

USTA Follow-Up

The rules have changed all right, and it’s not just for the 10-and-under crowd.  I recently reported on the Q&A sessions that USTA hosted at various national hardcourt championships earlier this month.  As promised in that piece, I reached out to Tim Russell, Patrick McEnroe, Lew Brewer, and others to get a better understanding of what USTA is trying to accomplish with its changes to the 2014 Junior Competition schedule.  I emailed them the link to my article along with some specific follow-up questions.  While Patrick did reply that he would call me to discuss my questions, I haven’t yet heard from him.  However, I did have multiple lengthy phone conversations with both Tim Russell and Lew Brewer – a big thank you to both gentlemen for taking the time to talk with me – and here’s what I found out during those calls:

  • First of all, parents, coaches, and players need to read the New USTA Junior Competition Structure FAQ – click here – several of your questions are probably answered within it.  Why did the USTA make these changes?  According to page 9 of the FAQ, among the goals is to “prepare an appropriate national tournament structure and rating/ranking system for the future which is affordable [emphasis added] and will ensure that competitive tennis opportunities are available for all American juniors regardless of their economic circumstances and where they reside; and supports the importance of a traditional American education [emphasis added] and does not require students to short-change their academic careers.”  Please keep those 2 things in mind as you continue reading.
  • Regarding the Regional Tournaments and Sectional Ranking Tournaments, they are explained on page 6 of the FAQ.  It is interesting to note how the regions are arranged.  When I asked Lew Brewer how this will reduce costs and missed school days, he told me that juniors will be able to stay closer to home and still get good competition.  However, when I look at my new region (comprised of the Southern, Florida, and Caribbean sections), I’m hard-pressed to understand how a junior from the Virgin Islands is better served traveling to Lexington, Kentucky (for example) for a tournament rather than staying closer to home to compete.
  • Tim conceded that USTA does a poor job of communicating with its membership, and Lew said they do need to do a better job.  They both told me that they had been advised by the USTA legal department that they were prohibited from emailing junior members since they were under the age of 18.  When I pointed out that USTA could circumnavigate that issue by adding a box on the membership form allowing junior members to enter a parent’s email address and opt-in to an email distribution list or e-newsletter, they agreed to look into it.  I also suggested that USTA use its Facebook and Twitter accounts to do a better job of communicating with both juniors and their parents.  Again, both Tim and Lew agreed that it was a good idea.
  • When I asked why USTA doesn’t have staff or even volunteers who report on top junior and college events, I was not given a clear answer other than “we need to do a better job at that”.
  • When I asked what Patrick meant when he said, “We know at 13 or 14 who the top players are”, Lew responded that every American top 100 professional player in the “Open Era” was ranked in the national top 50 at age 13 or 14 and that there are very few who break through after that age.  He pointed out that Sam Querrey happened to be one of those players, and that Sam was given a USTA wildcard for the Junior US Open (and got to the quarters that year) despite the fact that he had a lower ranking than many others in the draw.  He also told me that the goal of Junior Comp is to cast a wide net for the younger players then funnel it up as the players get older.
  • I asked Lew to explain how the wildcard system will work under the new schedule.  I told him that the word on the street is that the wildcards will be reserved for kids at the USTA Regional Training Centers.  He told me that the number of wildcards will be reduced in 2014 in all age groups except the 18s.  The wildcards will be used, among other reasons, for (1) players whose ranking has dropped due to injury, (2) local players who may not be ranked highly enough but bring local interest to the tournament, and/or (3) players who missed the entry deadline but would have qualified for the tournament by their ranking otherwise.  Lew said that it never hurts to ask for a wildcard into any event – USTA even has an online application to make things simpler – and asked me to remind players and parents that the universal deadline for wildcard applications is always 5 days after the event’s entry deadline.  (Please note: tournament directors have the discretion to accept late entries, but in national championships, all late entries must go to the bottom of the alternate list – that is why a wildcard might be used in that circumstance.)
  • I also spoke with Lew about the aging-up dilemma that we all face.  He recommends players start playing up at least 3-4 months ahead of time.  The rolling ranking and the events that take players based on their younger ranking make things easier, though Lew agreed that it’s still very tough for juniors to transition to the next age group.
  • USTA has stated that it decided to reduce the draw sizes (see page 3 of the FAQ) partially because it wants to reduce costs for families and shorten the tournaments so players miss fewer days of school.  Justifying the 128 draw size in the boys nationals in Kalamazoo, traditionally a great recruiting opportunity for college coaches, Lew said, “Honestly, while there are coaches who are interested in the 129th player to the 192nd player, more are looking at that top 128.”  He told me that there were complaints from coaches and players that too many early-round matches at the national tournaments aren’t competitive, and that there are too many withdrawals from the backdraw.  He shared that there have been several cases of players who lost 0 & 0  or 0 &1 in their first round main draw match, had a similar loss in the first round backdraw match, and another bad loss in the first round doubles match.  Lew’s point was that, obviously, those players didn’t belong at a top national event, that they just weren’t competitive at that level, and that cutting the draw size to 128 would save others from that type of “triple-crown” humiliation.  Lew went on to say that if a player wants the Kalamazoo t-shirt that badly, he (Lew) would send him one.  I pointed out that there is an aura around Kalamazoo and that sometimes simply the experience of being at the tournament is enough for some players.  Why eliminate that experience for someone who is willing to take the risk and travel there?  I think the USTA folks understand that point of view but still feel the smaller draws are the best way to go.  When I suggested USTA hold a qualifying tournament for those on the bubble right before the national events, Lew said that at this point they are not considering any change before 2014.
  • We discussed how the section quotas will change in 2014 (see page 4 of the FAQ).  The biggest change concerns looking at the strength of the section and not just membership numbers when determining quotas.  Beginning in 2014, USTA will base 60% of the quota on the percentage of players in the top 150 nationally and 40% of the quota on traditional membership numbers.  He told me that it’s possible that a strong section like Southern California, Texas, or Southern may actually see its quota increase in 2014.
  • We also discussed how voting works in USTA.  Lew explained that individual members do not have a vote.  Rather, club and organization memberships determine the number of votes each section is allocated.  Apparently, USTA was set up to operate in that manner from the get-go in 1881.
  • Lastly, we discussed the online survey that USTA did a couple of years ago.  Overwhelmingly, those who took the time to answer the survey questions said they would prefer tournaments have smaller draws so they would take fewer days to complete (and, as a result, be less expensive for families and require missing fewer days of school).  I pointed out to Lew that nowhere in the survey was it mentioned that the results would be used to justify the changes that we’re now seeing in the national schedule.  I told him that if USTA had disclosed the fact that they were going to use the survey responses to justify cutting the draws at our country’s top junior events, I was sure parents would have answered differently.  Best case scenario is that this is a case of poor communication on USTA’s part.  Lew Brewer says, “No one expects everyone to agree with the plan for 2014, but it WILL become effective on January 1, 2014.  I think a lot of this mirrors the health-care debate.  There are many who want to appeal the affordable care act.  It is scheduled to become fully effective on January 1, 2014.  Just like our plan, very few Americans have read the affordable health care act and are reacting to what is broadcast on the news or the blogs.  The smart money – the insurance companies and healthcare providers – are preparing for 2014, because they can’t afford to be left behind if the law is not repealed.  I think tennis parents and coaches would be wise to begin preparing for 2014 as well.  I think players, parents, and coaches ought to be focusing on what they can do to help players develop their games so that they are ready for the enhanced competitive environment in 2014.  No player should be left behind because they think something will change with this plan.”
  • Despite Lew’s comment that this is a done deal, some folks have created an online petition in hopes of getting USTA to rethink its stance.  You can find the petition at www.gopetition.com.  Please consider signing and sharing with others in the tennis community.  And, in the meantime, take Lew’s advice and get your junior player ready for the New Normal.

We’re in Good Hands!

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. – George Orwell

Last week was quite a whirlwind in the tennis world.  I spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through Facebook posts and Twitter tweets trying to keep up with all the conversations involving the NCAA changes to college tennis and the USTA changes to junior tennis.  One very positive thing that came out of all this craziness was the creation of a new Facebook group that just may be the unifying force we need.

Started by two young men – Bob Van Overbeek (University of Florida) and Evan King (University of Michigan), both top D1 college players – this group grew from 0 to 8000+ members over the course of the weekend.  It’s made up of current college players – both men and women – from D1, 2, and 3 programs as well as coaches, parents, fans, past players, and aspiring junior players.

I wondered how these 2 college boys came up with the idea of using Facebook to make a statement to the NCAA about its proposed changes to the year-end Championships.  Bob told me, “Evan and I were talking about Manny Diaz‘s tweets about the NCAA changes, and then shortly after that we saw the document with all of the writing and official changes on it. We started out sort of joking that we should do something about it. The joking led to us actually deciding to make the group and spreading it to everyone we knew. Our only goal was to simply share the information because sometimes the NCAA does these sorts of things and it gets swept under the rug. I think once people learned about what the changes were it got a lot of people angry so the word spread quickly.”

Boy, did it!  Not only were these guys able to organize a “Twitter Rampage” on Saturday, causing the #SaveCollegeTennis topic to trend several times throughout the weekend, but they’ve also tapped into the group’s resources to create an online petition (which now has more than 3000 signatures in only 2 days) asking NCAA to reverse the changes .  And, the mainstream media is certainly paying attention.  The boys’ efforts have been written about in USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times.

These two young men have turned their passion into action, and it’s been absolutely amazing to watch the explosion.  They are obviously intelligent guys given their educational institutions, but, more than that, they are wise beyond their years .

I decided to take advantage of their wisdom and get some advice.  I asked Bob if he had any advice for junior players who want to play college tennis.  His answer:  “The most important piece, something I tell everybody I meet, is to take every visit you possibly can. Every school will feel awesome when you are there, so make sure you see as many as possible. The second is don’t choose a school based on how good they are because teams can be great and then awful within a year or two. Make sure you choose based on the feel of the people who will be your teammates (people your age also looking at school), the coaches, and overall the city is something you can see being a lot of fun for four years because school and tennis can get stressful, but as long as you enjoy where you are and what you are doing, it will all be so much easier.”

And his advice for us parents?  “First, check to see if playing tennis is really what THE PLAYER wants to be doing, not what the parent wants the player to be doing. If the player is only playing because the parents want him/her to, then I would suggest getting out of tennis ASAP. But, if the player truly wants to play and loves it, then the second step is to back off as much as possible. If it is something that the player truly loves, the player will make all the effort needed and will learn by making the mistakes on their own. Obviously the parents need to give their support, but  all too often, tennis parents will get way too involved on and off the court. I see parents watching matches and freaking out, assuming that this match is the match that will solidify their child’s place in a college or at top 10 in the ranking. Parents have to remember, just as players do, that 1 match is only that, one match, and it is not life or death.”

Wise words from one who knows.

To Sum It All Up . . .

It’s been a crazy week in the world of junior tennis!  In case you’re feeling as overwhelmed as I am, I thought I’d summarize what’s going on and my recommended action items.

  • USTA has adopted changes to its Junior Competition calendar that will become effective in 2014. If you haven’t yet seen it, the new 2014 tournament calendar is here. Some interested parties who feel that the changes should, at the very least, be delayed for further study, have created an online petition and are seeking signatures. If you would like to view and/or sign this petition, click here.
  • NCAA has passed new rules affecting its year-end Championships effective September 1, 2012, for the Spring 2013 tournament.  The rules are purported to be in the interest of bringing additional fans to the sport and garnering tv coverage.  To read the new rules, click here.  To their credit, USTA is partnering with ITA to write a joint opposition letter to the rule changes.
  • A group of current and former collegiate players have formed a Facebook group to try to get NCAA to reconsider the rule changes.  They have created an event to organize a Twitter rampage on Saturday at Noon EDT.  To learn more, click here.  They have also created an online petition to overturn the changes.  To read and/or sign it, click here.
  • Sunday’s ParentingAces radio show will feature a discussion of the NCAA rule changes and what we as tennis parents can do to help preserve the integrity of the college system for our kids.  Tune in live at 6:30pm EDT by clicking here then call in with your questions and/or comments at 714-583-6853.  If you miss the live broadcast, you can hear the podcast by clicking on the Radio Show tab in the menu bar above.

USTA Steps Up

I received the following from USTA this morning:

USTA Statement on Proposed NCAA Changes to Collegiate Tennis

The USTA is aware of the proposed format changes being made by the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee to the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships.  Working with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), the USTA is preparing a joint opposition letter to these changes.  The letter will be distributed to the committee in advance of its Monday, August 20th meeting.

NCAA Changes

When we are confronted by challenges, we have a choice:  sit back and accept them (glass half empty approach) OR take action and attempt to turn them into something positive (glass half full approach).  Concerning this week’s announcement by the NCAA that it is changing the format of the Division 1 year-end tennis tournament, I’m choosing to join several of the current, future, and recently-graduated players and take action.

In a nutshell, NCAA has decided that, during its year-end tourney, (1) players will have no on-court warmup; (2) the six singles matches will play first and will play a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a third set; (3) changeovers will last 60 seconds instead of the current 90; (4) the three doubles matches will be played after a 5-minute break; and (5) doubles matches will be one 6-game set with a 7-point tiebreaker played at 6-all.  These changes go into effect beginning September 1, 2012, for the 2013 Championships.  To read the complete report from the July NCAA meeting, click here.  The report includes a list of the committee members in attendance along with their university affiliation.

Hayley Carter, a high school senior who recently committed to play for UNC, emailed me the following:  “Although I sincerely appreciate all the NCAA does for us in providing us with scholarships to play the sport we love, I do not agree with the new rules they have put in place. My plans are to use college tennis as a stepping-stone into professional tennis. Looking at the WTA success of former college players, such as Irina Falconi and more recently Mallory Burdette, I have no doubt that I can use the experience of college tennis to help me make it on the pro tour, but with the recent rule changes it will make it that much more difficult.”

Hayley goes on:  “No matter if it results in a win or a loss, third sets are times when players give everything they have when they have no energy left, when they learn to fight and compete for every point no matter the adversity, and when, most importantly, they grow as a player. In my opinion, the change to a 10-point tiebreaker greatly diminishes all of the things that are learned through a hard-fought third set. Skill and hard work become more easily replaced with luck, when just a few points can have such a big impact on determining the outcome of a match.”

Hayley’s sentiments are echoed by many of her tennis compadres as evidenced by the number of members (over 2400 after less than one day) and posts on the *OFFICIAL* Against the changes to NCAA tennis Facebook group.  These young players are outraged by the seemingly revenue-driven changes to the sport they have devoted over half their lives learning and mastering, all for the chance to play at the collegiate – and maybe professional – level.  All the NCAA is doing is “dumbing down” our sport, eliminating the fitness factor for players, and making college tennis a less attractive option for our juniors.

Wise words from another collegiate player:  “The bottom line is in tennis you are either going to have fans or you aren’t. Don’t keep using that excuse as a way to change the rules. Fans will stay whether the matches are two hours or ten hours. Those who aren’t fans don’t show up anyway. Tennis is one of the few sports that doesn’t have a clock involved and that is what makes it special. Do you think the matches between Nadal and Djokovic, Federer and Nadal would have been as inspiring if they played a 10 point breaker for the 5th set?”

I hope you’ll join me on Sunday’s radio show to discuss these changes and what, if anything, we tennis parents can do to convince NCAA to overturn them before any long-term damage is done to junior tennis in the U.S.  My guests on Sunday’s show are Drake Bernstein, Assistant Women’s Tennis Coach at the University of Georgia, and Colette Lewis, tennis journalist and creator of ZooTennis.com.  Please plan to tune in and call in (714-583-6853) so we can try to figure out the next step.