Data Tells the Story

The following article was written by Javier Palenque and is reprinted here, unedited, with his permission.

In the past thirty years American tennis has seen a 73% decline in the amount of top 100 players in the ATP tour. This alarming number basically tells us that we lose every decade 25% of our players in the higher echelon of worlds’ tennis. What then will happen in the next ten years with the new massive investment by the USTA in Lake Nona and the new crop of American stars who seem to be on the rise? Will this change the clear trend line that the sport is basically slowly dying for America at the professional level? When you talk to the people at the USTA, they will tell you that things could not be better and that the new crop of players will reverse the disappearing number of Americans. Of the current top 100 stars, we will lose the older players and replace them with the younger players. Essentially this will mean that over a 40 year period we managed to keep our declining rate at 73%.

In my opinion here is how the top 100 will look like for the next decade.

We will lose the players in Yellow and replace them with the players in green. These new kids are truly remarkable as breaking the top 200 at such a young age, truly means that they are very, very talented. However the number of players in the top 100 still remains low, for the largest and richest country on earth. This makes me want to learn further more about the way these new group of young stars came up through the system here in the US?

So, I wanted to see if there is some sort of pattern to figure out of a career path that these guys have taken, so we can try to replicate it and have instead of 8 new stars 80.

The first thing that comes to mind as I read these names is how close to tennis (having a tennisfamily or coaches as parents, or ex. playersis so significant) Escobedo, Fritz, Koslov, Tiafoe, Mmoh, Rubin (father had tennis knowledge). This in essence means that of the eight future American stars 75% have a solid tennis family tradition. The reason this number is important is because then it stands to reason that if you as a current 18U player do not have this tradition, if you thought the odds of becoming a pro were low, I can tell you with a 75% chance of being right that in three out of four kids if your parents don’t have years of knowledge of the sport the chance for you to make it as a pro is even worse than you think. What about the other 25% the other two players? Reilly Opelka has the physical advantage of size (like Isner) and the last kid Jared Donaldson, took 2 years of training on clay in Argentina, a surface that here in America we don’t play in. Ok, got it so what does that mean to me as a parent? Why should I invest in this sport? The hours, the trips, the never ending tournaments, the rankings, the way the tournaments are governed and award points, the way the sport is targeted for who can afford it and not who is most likely to be a pro. While on the surface this looks like a great reversal of fortune of American tennis. In essence I think it reveals the exact opposite, I know, I will get a lot of mail, telling me how incorrect I am. But, follow me, I may be able to present my case to you. Who knows you may end up agreeing with me.

The data reveals three important things that are at the core of tennis in America that remain flawed and only enable the further destruction of American tennis supported by system in place and the governing body structure.

1) Tennis is simply not reaching the very people who will make it grow.

2) Coaches and academies in general must not be that good if for 75% of the future top players the coaches are the parents coaches of the stars who have years of knowledge of the sport by being regular coaches. The other 12.5% Opelka is a big guy who was coached very well, but his size is his differentiator (though he was lucky to train with a well-known coach) and Donaldson the other 12.5% trained for two years on clay. In summary, if you have a coach-parent you are most likely to be in the highway to become a pro, if you are not (which means 99.99 of the population, you are out of luck). Then your only option is to have good coaches around where you live, but who can tell if they are good or not if you don’t know tennis?

3) The tournament and competition structure does not bring up tennis stars. Let me show you my arguments for these three key issues:

TENNIS IS NOT REACHING THE MASS OF PEOPLE WHO CAN GROW THE GAME

There are roughly 9.9 Million (*) core tennis participants (that play more than 10 times a year in the US that is only 3.1% of the 318.9 million population. This number is extremely low if you consider that of 75% of our next stars come from people who played, coach or had been for a lifetime in tennis in this small group. Please realize that maybe there are 100,000 tennis coaches in the US (this number is very high only for calculation purposes). This number represents 1% of the tennis population. This effectively means that about 99.9% of the population remain separated from tennis and with no way of connecting, much less to aspire to be a professional athlete? As the pool of players is so small, the vast majority of possible tennis people is simply not reached. What is the USTA’s plan to reach 99.9% of the population if week in and week out, it plays under a competition system and ranking system that feeds the impossible numbers?

Within the US population there are ethnic groups that are growing at a faster rate than the rest; Hispanic and Asians. Yet these ethnic groups are not known for being physically big and the same USTA states that the future of tennis is for the bigger sized players given the new equipment and speed of courts. What to do?

Another aspect is the cost of playing as a junior. We all know that tennis is an elite sport, given its costs and years of training it requires. So, from a financial point of view tennis is not only played by only 3.1% of the population, it is so expensive that it excludes the masses of people who cannot afford it. Yet, the number of the future pros and their own financial backgrounds tell us that it not need be so expensive as for 6 of the 8 new players for the next decade come from modest background and modest income. Being a coach is not a high income profession.

A big part of being a pro prospect is about the proximity to good tennis knowledge, and passion for tennis.

What is the USTA doing to address this? What is the governing body doing to supply the market with exactly that: the proper tennis knowledge? This void and market reality clearly reveals that who tennis currently attracts and gets to travel and compete every week are the same very people that have the lowest chance of being a pro, even though they may be highly ranked, or under the current system attended a high number of tournaments and therefore acquired the rankings with cash. This makes no sense, yet the sense that the USTA conveys is as if these kids were under a pro path and nothing can back that up in the last twenty years. Nothing.

Finally, if we know that there is a direct correlation for 75% of the new stars of having a tennis coach and family, the key group to target then are adults ages 25 -40 who are the vehicle for growth of tennis in America. This means these are the parents to be that need the fun and excitement to enroll their kids in tennis. What is the USTA doing about them? Nothing.

THE KNOWLEDGE LEVEL OF THE AVERAGE COACH IN THE US IS UNABLE TO PRODUCE PRO- PROSPECTS

If you then consider that of the next stars: Fritz, Escobedo, Koslov, (all parent coaches), Mmoh (dad a pro), Tiafoe (he lived at the facility in Maryland- 24 hr. tennis exposure) and Rubin (McEnroe Academy and dad high school player). Where does that leave the vast amount of kids that are left along the way who with the best intentions and support but who are never with the proper professionals. Here the weakness of tennis in America is the poor level of coaching and the lack of a standard basic USTA driven certification system to validate coaches and facilities. For the 99.9% of parents who want the services, yet do not have the knowledge of who they are hiring. So, in a marketplace where it is driven by no standards, we have the suppliers of the service with no real knowledge of what is a world class forehand is and the country’s governing body certifies no facilities or coaches, So, ignorant parents (the core of the future for tennis ) waste time, money and dreams. The result, nothing is achieved. Nothing is tied together, the coaching, the kids, the USTA, the parents, each work on their own and everyone loses. Why would anyone in a leadership position at the USTA allow this? This weakness revealed and the initiatives the USTA takes show how it does not understand what are the root problems of tennis in America are and how it has no plan to address the problem. I live in Miami, sun 90% of the time, warm weather 95% of the time. Yet the providers of tennis services is extremely weak. Imagine how it is in other parts of the country where there is not a tennis court in every neighborhood or park or condo, or where the weather does not cooperate?. Unless something is done to address this, the next decade will produce the same poor results we have been for the last two decades even with all the investments, and hoopla. This is a tragedy and mismanagement of tennis.

TOURNAMENT STRUCTURE DOES NOT ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION

The current structure and system of competition makes the pool of participants smaller and smaller as the kids get older. All one has to do is see the pool of players from ages 8-12, 12-16, and 16+. Tennis needs to have a complete change of shape.

Do any of you reading this disagree with the suggestion?

The way to do this is to grow the game, to create competitive environments and competitions that are “out of the box”. Not the century old tournament structure and point allocation that is giving us results that are low under any parameter and only shrink the pool of players:

Suggestions:

  •  One day Tournaments Round Robin by level
  • USTA camps for the masses in each age group, not the top players. Good education.
  • Training for local coaches who may have great prospects but not a competitive program
  • Some form of match play for all
  • Promote competitive team tennis locally
  • Allow tournaments where coaching is allowed
  • Create a structure to increase the appeal of tennis as opposed to the current structure that only encourages individual participation. (remember this individual participation is boring, has produced the best results 30 years ago, it is dead, yet the structure and results we get continue to be the same)
  • Other ideas and input from players and parents
  • Pricing structure revisit, ex, two tournaments a month cost $100 for 4 matches. In other words to play a match in the US we need to pay $25.00. This is absurd. We need thousands of match play hours that need to be FREE, In South America and Europe kids play match play every day at no cost. Here in the richest country on earth that produces the least amount of tennis players and pays the most amount of money we have the fewest hours of match play? How does this make sense?
  • Working together is the key, we don’t as a common group work together as parents, kids and coaches.
It is the failure of vision and leadership at the USTA that creates this void and poor results.

Conclusions:

The next decade of men’s pro tennis has clear data as to where the kids will come from. They will come from tennis parents and coaches with kids. So, if you are a parent whose kids love tennis and you know little about it, you are out of luck. Why do we make this so hard, so exclusive of the very people who will grow the game and so expensive that it allows the people with hunger and attitude to be excluded and the people with resources and not attitude to endure the journey and both with poor results.

Why are we continually doing this? Who can answer that?

We need critical analytical thinking of business people for the benefit of tennis in America. The way it is, it is announcing its death. The worst part is that it will be our fault. We will have watched it die and changed nothing. We need fresh thinking from outside the walls of what now is the USTA. Count me in for help.

I wish the USTA leadership would open its mind and hear other perspectives because from where I stand I only see what will never happen, change. Expecting different results from doing the same things is the definition of insanity. Can anyone tell me why we put up with this?

I can be reached at @palenquej or jpalenque@yahoo.com

8 thoughts on “Data Tells the Story”

  1. Javier, when you say that tons of European and South American kids play tennis every day for free are they playing at clubs, local parks, or at school? The ineffective US model starts with kids playing and taking lessons at neighborhood courts and when there is no competition left at that level, they join an academy. Then they have to pay to travel to play tournaments.

    Dont the international kids have to pay to join the club? Is tennis as popular in those countries as basketball is here? Kids here might play a pick up game of basketball at a sports court. Do kids in those countries play pick up games of tennis, e.g. do they just show up and pair up to play with whoever is available-adult, boy or girl? Kids here do some matchplay outside of academy but it has to be scheduled a couple days in advance, parents have to drive kids to other courts, etc.

    What hurts junior tennis is the popularity of rec tennis for adults. The adults are not interested in playing with the kids. All the courts in the evening are taking up with men’s practices. The rec teams are all junior or all adult. We all hear about the club system in other countries with all ages playing each other. Do you think the club system could work here? Why do you think adults in those other countries are willing to play with and help develop the younger players in their club, and the adults in the US dont even know the junior players in the neighborhood unless their own child plays on the same team? Maybe it is because tennis for adults is social here in US, and more doubles are played than singles. Maybe there are a lot more adults in Europe/SA that keep up a high level of tennis and can play with talented younger players. Are there are lot more 5.0s and 5.5s over 30 players in those countries?

    1. Thank you for your reply, in those continents there is a club system and you play a ladder all the time by levels, so you play a great 9 yrs old vs a 45 year old, so the integration of the club, social, and family scene is real. In Europe the club competition is professional to the point that clubs pay players to help them win. This is where most of the 300 and down ranked players earn their travel money to compete. There are many things that are wrong with tennis and I can list them one by one, but at the core of it is the fact that though tennis is an individual sport, it is actually a team effort and this is the part that the entire USTA fails to comprehend. You see they are desperately trying to create stars, this is illogical as stars are everywhere, the USTA has to create the roads and stoplights for them so they can find their way. Unfortunately, they think they can do it their own way which is not only illogical but not possible. I wish I could speak to them I would delightfully present my ideas along with others as the way it is it is nowhere. Thank you for your comments

  2. Hi Javier,

    As a passionate tennis player, coach, and founder of a tennis platform with a player development focus, it’s a gloomy article to read. However, let me bring some optimism and share with you about our efforts with my company, Tenicity, to support tennis programs to maximize the potential of their players. Over the past year, several academy, club, and collegiate programs are using our platform tools to systematically develop their players: providing clear objectives, tailoring the lesson plans, assessing progress at periodic intervals, and managing training and match data well to learn from it. Furthermore, directors, coaches, players, and parents are communicating on the platform and working together. My work is being supported by the USTA Northern who’s team is using our platform to provide the best opportunity to committed junior players in 4 northern states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota. My tennis journey that took me to the NCAA #1 singles ranking and ATP Top 250 singles ranking, convinced me that systematic player development with excellent communication is the big gap that we have to bridge at all levels of the game. We have much work ahead and my team is committed to supporting tennis programs in this important area.

    I can relate to your point on the potential advantages that players from tennis families have. I came from a tennis family and there is no doubt that my parents’ knowledge was extremely valuable. However, one incident that inspired me to develop Tenicity was a comment from a parent who mentioned how she feels she is letting her son down because of her lack of tennis knowledge. No parent should feel that way and through our platform, we are supporting programs to share knowledge and insights more effectively between all their stakeholders. I would encourage directors of tennis, coaches, players, and parents to create pathways for information sharing and communication where everyone can benefit from each others’ knowledge and experiences.

    In summary, from my vantage point, I feel optimistic for a new future for player development as tennis programs implement systems where coaches and players have more ownership and accountability with measurable objectives. Change is taking place as we speak and will continue to accelerate as new partnerships and value creating initiatives take shape. Through Tenicity and individually, I am excited to connect with other passionate individuals in our industry to bring meaningful change to help maximize the potential of each player and provide them with a positive and memorable experience with our sport.

    Thanks and I look forward to furthering the conversation with you and others that may be interested to connect. My email is harsh@tenicity.com.

    Best,
    Harsh

  3. Dear Harsh

    Thank you for reading the article. I will always love to hear all points of view. In fact I think the point you make is right on which is we need to facilitate the sport for the vast majority of people 99% who have no knowledge of it.That is the point of the article we are celebrating a system that produces nothing when we should be firmly critical and open of what is. It is an exclusive system in the richest country on earth. This makes no sense. Your technology is most welcome and in fact as kids now a days are tech born, they should be the guides in knowing what to learn with the help of your tools. Parents are a key group who don’t go to academies, they need info. Schools, country clubs we have so much to do and tie together it is exciting in my mind. Too bad you took the article to be gloomy, it is in my mind a wake up call to do something right and positive like you are doing, we need to help all tennis people get the information and progress to wherever their efforts take them. Stay in touch, I am always willing to help. When I see empty courts in Miami, specially Saturdays and Sundays I literally want to stop working and help the USTA understand what we have and what we don’t do.

  4. Don’t forget how many dysfunctional tennis parent coaches there are. I grew up with a kid whose father quit his job to coach him full time, and the dad was not a good coach, there was a girl whose father would make her do laps while slapping herself for missing shots. You can always make your kid practice more, more fitness, play more events…, but there is a also a much higher chance that your kid will hate you for it later.

    I agree, I like the European club system way better, playing against adults earlier and not just playing the same local/regional kids to try to get to national events. The American system is very expensive, and parents who know how to “navigate” the system have a huge advantage as far as getting a high ranking for their child. The problem is that these kids are eventually exposed once they have to compete at a higher level, so what was the point of chasing points and defaulting from the back draws, when you can’t make top six in college because you don’t have the game or mentality it takes to battle day in and day out. In California there are high quality mens open events for juniors, college players, and former pro’s/college players can battle, and not have the expense of going across country.

    The US used to be dominant in tennis because most other countries lacked the resources and coaching to get to the pro level, now tennis is way more popular in Europe then in the US. In the 1970’s/80/s a top 10 college player and be top 100/200 on tour very quickly. Now it is just so tough, so many good players from all over the world, plus you need support from somewhere. You can keep making ranking improvements at the futures and challenger level, and still be losing money, unless you have sponsors or a federation behind you, it is tough.

    1. Thank you reading the article, that is why the federation is so important to offer many players options. In this country we have the most wealthy federation with the poorest results that is the point efficiency in dollars and value. I agree it is quite tough for anyone.

  5. To become an elite, world class athlete in any sport requires skill, discipline, commitment, health, financial support, luck, etc… An individual can have all of these qualities, make all the right decisions and still not make it on the tour. In my opinion, there are just way too many variables and moving parts to assign all blame (or credit) to the USTA or any company/organization for the number of players on the tour. It takes more than a village to get there, and if you study the habits of past professionals, you’ll learn there are many, many factors that contribute to breaking through.

    I found it interesting there was no mention of college tennis in the article. College tennis is arguably the most exciting product within our sport. The Florida high school graduating class of 2016 sent 6 young men to Ivy League schools to play college tennis! Incredible. Each played competitive tennis within the USTA system, and all with a different story. I would encourage you to visit coach Bill Clark in Hollywood, Florida. Like many coaches around the country, Bill offers several different programs for junior development — privates, groups, camps, etc… Early in the conversation, Bill will proudly tell you how many of his students have gone on to play college tennis. In my opinion, those are the real professionals we should be writing about.

    Many of your suggestions are already in play today. In my opinion, the key to making junior tennis affordable is playing matches closer to home. Take long distance travel, hotels, and meals out of the equation and you level the playing field. I’ve helped run tournaments that feature coaching, level-based play, and gender neutral matches. It works! Creativity that includes some of these components will keep kids in the sport and on a better development path.

    Apologies as I’ve labored on enough here. In close, to grow the game, we need more NEW players playing the sport. This is where we need to get creative, get into schools, reach out to other parents, etc… Judy Murray is probably one of the biggest cheerleaders and recruiters we have in the sport. It will take a grassroots effort to make that happen.

  6. Dear George
    Thank you for commenting on the article, your opinion is most welcome. The data tells you the factual information of what is happening, I am positive any state has a very good program here and there, but those are simply not enough in my opinion to change the wave.
    The wave is on the decline, in Miami alone the number of tennis courts has shrunk by almost 1/2 in the last 15 years. this is undeniable. It is also true that if you are careful to look at the number of participants by level the older they are the smaller the number. This is s systematic problem that needs addressed and it can only be at the USTA level as its decisions guide people under it and who follow it. I think that if any point I would like to harp on is the fact that as the system is laid out it simply is not encouraging enough and the data and results show it. I agree 100% that kids should play many match play matches nearby that is indeed a crucial weakness we have. In area alone I have seen roughly 12 kids quit out of a group of roughly 20 as the years of junior tennis go on. Excellent kids, excellent prospects, excellent parents. That is my point not to place blame, but to look at the facts from a different point of view do diagnose a problem that is real. Thank you again

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