Q&A on USTA College Combine with Stephen Amritraj

USTA logo college combine

The first college combine sponsored by USTA is coming up next month. I’ve fielded several questions about this new event, so I reached out to USTA’s head of collegiate tennis, Stephen Amritraj, to get some answers for y’all. You can also listen to my recent podcast with Stephen here.

ParentingAces: Why did USTA decide to put on a college combine and what does it hope to accomplish?

Stephen Amritraj: We understand the landscape for parents and players going into college tennis. One of the priorities of the USTA Collegiate team is to have more Americans playing college tennis and the USTA All American Combine is our biggest event to support that goal. We hope that by putting as many American players on as many courts in front of as many college coaches as possible, we can help increase the amount of Americans on College Tennis rosters.

PA: There are several other college exposure camps and events around the country. What sets the USTA Combine apart?

Amritraj: I would say there are several reasons why this is unique: 1) It’s only open to Americans. That in itself is a difference that aligns with our priorities and mission. 2) This will have tennis and fitness testing combined to showcase different sides of each athlete. 3) It’s at the USTA National Campus which is really an incredibly special place for the sport that we all love. 4) The various levels of players and coaches are going to be wider than other recruiting showcases mainly due to the fact that they are playing for a $15,000 USTA Pro Circuit Futures Main Draw Wild Card to the winner based on a combination of tennis and physical components. All of the results from their set play will count for Tennis Recruiting and UTR. 5) Finally, we have also partnered with the ITA to host a coaches symposium the evening of June 15th for the college coaches that attend.

PA: How many players and how many college coaches are you expecting? What regions and college divisions will the coaches represent (i.e. D1, D2, D3, NAIA? Southeast, West Coast, etc.)?

Amritraj: We expect a national pull of 60-80 players. Currently, we have entrants from over 15 states. We will have college coaches from all over the country with all divisions being represented.

PA: What were the factors USTA considered when choosing the date and location for the Combine?

Amritraj: We chose the National Campus to host the event because of its location and great facilities. However, choosing a date was difficult because there is some overlap with Sectional events across the country. We selected the June date the after the Florida sectional so that we could capitalize on the college coaches that attend the final day.

PA: How do players sign up to attend? How will players be selected?

Amritraj: You can sign up on Tennislink.usta.com, tournament ID 150025417 (click here). All American players will be accepted into the combine.

PA: Are there any grants or scholarships available to help offset the $349.88 entry fee?

Amritraj: This year we do not have any, but we hope to add in the future.

PA: Has USTA arranged any type of travel and lodging discount for the players? What about meals?

Amritraj: We have a room block at the Courtyard Marriott (call 407-856-9165 to reserve) with a discounted rate for Combine participants, and we will provide a lunch voucher on Thursday, June 15th.

PA: Anything else you’d like us to know?

Amritraj: There will be something for everyone in the USTA All American Combine and would ask parents, players, and coaches to do their research throughout the collegiate decision process. We truly believe College Tennis has a place, at some level, for way more American junior players than are currently playing in it and hope this event can help.

Reflections on Winter Nats

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My husband, my son, and I are sitting on the plane heading toward home. It’s been a great few days in Scottsdale, and now it’s time to get back to life as we know it in Atlanta.

When I heard that my son had been selected to play in Winter Nationals, I was excited for him and hoped he would get the chance to compete against some of the players I had been reading about on ZooTennis and other junior tennis media outlets. I figured it would be a great experience for him to see what it feels like to play at that level, but, truth be told, I wasn’t sure he was of the caliber to hang with those boys. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

This tournament experience definitely felt different . . . for a lot of reasons. It’s rare for my husband to join us for tennis travel, so that was really nice. We got to spend some quality time together watching our son compete.

And, this was my son’s first tournament since committing to play at Santa Clara University next year. There’s something pretty special about seeing your child wearing his college gear on the tennis court. I found myself getting even more emotional than usual as I started thinking about what the next few years have in store for him.

On top of that, we all got to spend time with 3 other incoming Bronco families, which was amazing. The 4 boys

Kamran, Morgan, Robert, & Connor
Kamran, Morgan, Robert, & Connor

clicked pretty

Dinner with the Broncos
Dinner with the Broncos

quickly, and we parents did, too. As we said our goodbyes to each other, the parents all agreed that our sons are in for such a great experience and that we’re lucky to have each other as a support network in the coming years.

And, for me, it was fun to get to see so many of the college coaches and chat with them about the upcoming season. Every time I get the chance to be around these men and women, I am reminded why playing college tennis is such an admirable goal for our kids. These coaches understand what tennis has to offer a young player, and they are passionately committed to helping these kids grow from the experience.

Also, I got the chance to see some old tennis buddies like Ross Greenstein, meet some PA readers in person like Cindy Good and Mike Gealer and Richard Schick, and chat with one of my tennis idols Tracy Austin whose son was also competing in this tournament.

Tennis Parents Lisa & Tracy Austin
Tennis Parents Lisa & Tracy Austin

Another real treat was seeing one of my husband’s childhood friends and his family who were visiting their family in Phoenix. They came out to watch my son play, and the guys got to catch up on decades of missed time!

Long-time friends
Long-time friends

And, despite what others had told me, the Boys 18s was run incredibly efficiently. Tournament Director Sally Grabham did an amazing job at communicating via email with the players and parents prior to the start of the event. She kept the tournament website updated and made sure we all had the information we needed. During our time at Scottsdale Ranch Park, matches ran pretty close to on-time, the tournament desk volunteers accommodated player requests to delay subsequent matches when their earlier matches ran long, the on-site medical trainer was very knowledgeable and effective (he was kept very busy!), and the on-site stringers worked quickly to keep up with all the broken strings. The officials at my son’s site were quick to respond to any problems but kept their distance when not needed, a testament to Tournament Referee John Bramlett. There were plenty of practice courts available at no charge for the boys to warm-up though I did hear from another parent that one of the girls’ sites was charging a fee. We wound up staying at one of the suggested hotels, the Hampton Inn & Suites Scottsdale/Riverwalk, and it was quiet, comfortable, and convenient.

Before the tournament started, Universal Tennis Ratings did a pre-event analysis of the competitor list for each age group, ordering the players based on their UTR (click here to see the list). As expected, my son fell in the bottom half of the list though pretty close to the middle of the pack. His first-round singles match was against the player ranked #19 on the list, a boy who was not seeded but probably should’ve been. It was a very close match, but my son pulled out the win. In his next match, he played the boy ranked #14 on the list who was seeded. My son won the first set, lost a close second set, then, sadly, had to retire the match early in the 3rd set with an injury. But, he was competitive with this boy. For maybe the first time, I was realizing my son is definitely at the level of these other players and has earned his way into these tournaments through his hard work. Had I been underestimating my son’s ability on the tennis court? Maybe. But, if I had, this tournament definitely put an end to that mistake. In his final match of the tournament, my son played the #39 player. My son won the first set 6-3, stayed on serve until the end of the 2nd when his opponent broke then held for the set then took the 10-point match tiebreaker 10-8. It was a tough loss, but, once again, I was reminded of my son’s ability on the tennis court and that he belonged at that level.

I think I mentioned before that my son was playing doubles in Scottsdale with one of his future Bronco teammates. Well, seeing the two of them in their SCU shirts giving hand-signals and high-fives between points was just a glimpse into the future for me.IMG_3886 I can’t wait to be at the matches cheering for them as they compete for their school. All of these kids have worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to reach this goal of playing college tennis, and now their dreams are becoming a reality. Amazing!

At one point during the tournament, I received a Facebook Message from the parent of a 12-year-old player asking me what is the benefit of playing these national events. I had to think for a minute before responding. For the younger players, it truly is about gaining national ranking points and having the chance to compete against kids from around the country – both valuable but not absolutely necessary in the scheme of things. Honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve spent the time and money to travel across the country for this tournament when my son was younger because (1) he wasn’t at that level yet, and (2) he had plenty of opportunities to play competitive matches within our section. But, for someone who lives in a less-competitive area or for someone who has the financial resources, why not? There are worse places to be in December! That said, for the 16s and 18s, especially for those who are in college recruiting mode, Winter Nationals is a great way to get exposure to so many college coaches. Many of the ones I spoke with are still looking to fill roster spots for Fall 2015 while also looking ahead to future years. They were splitting their time between the 16s and 18s sites, hoping to find those players who would be the right fit for their various programs.

After my son lost his final match of the tournament, I texted my new friend, Cindy (the one who brought us the coolers and goodies),

Lisa & Cindy
Lisa & Cindy

to let her know we’d be leaving the next day. She replied, suggesting that I go back and read the interview Colette Lewis had done with me for TennisRecruiting.net back in 2012 (click here). Cindy wrote, “I know you are proud but re-reading that article now it is amazing what he has done.” So, I took her advice and read it. Cindy was right. I had forgotten where my son was tennis-wise when we first started this ParentingAces journey. He has definitely come a long way in a short time. And, if nothing else comes of this website, I hope it will at least give other parents and junior players a glimpse of what can happen when a child stays committed to a goal and his/her family stays committed to supporting that goal. I’m here to tell you it is definitely worth the sacrifice!

TRN: The Coaches’ View

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately about what is being called 8th grade red-shirting; that is, players changing their graduation year on Tennis Recruiting Network to repeat the 8th grade. The reasons being bandied about for this re-classing range from trying to game the system to ducking competition and everything in between. I’ve had several in-person and email exchanges with parents asking me to look into it, so I reached out to Dallas Oliver at TRN and have had numerous email and phone conversations with him over the past couple of weeks. Here’s what Dallas had to say:

1) Yes, there has been an uptick in recent months in players updating their classes, but the majority of these are for players updating their graduation year for the first time. We make guesses on graduation years based on birthdates (you will see those marked as “provisional”), but we are wrong about 20-30% of the time.

2) August and September are always our busiest months of the year with new users. Because of that, there is naturally an increase in the number of classes updated.

3) NCAA rules start the clock on matriculation in college once a junior players starts high school. For that reason, some parents hold their kids back in eighth grade for sports. There are lots of articles on this phenomenon:

http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1655/Middle-school-on-repeat-Why-some-parents-want-their-children-to-take-8th-grade-twice.html
http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~edhuey/datastore/files/docs/Baseball_Magazinel.pdf

We don’t support it – but we don’t think it is a widespread problem – and it is legal to do.

As our conversations unfolded, it became clear to me that the real issue underlying everyone’s concern is what college coaches see and will the re-classing put certain kids at a disadvantage when it comes time for college recruiting. Let’s look at the profile page of the current top 2015 recruit . . .

Click to enlarge

This is her public profile page, the one regular users of the site can view. We can see where she’s from, her graduation year, her star rating, her various rankings, some photos, and her player record (with the paid membership on TRN, you can also see the details of her player record, including specific wins and losses). If we wanted to look at the entire Class of 2015, we could also do that and see the same information for each player listed.

But, what the college coaches can see is very different. Through their paid memberships, they have access to all sorts of information and data on the players that non-coaches don’t get.

CoachingAdvantagePlayerProfile
Click to enlarge

Here are just a few of the things college coaches can do with their TRN account:

  • Have access to TRN’s Master Ranking List which includes every single player in TRN’s system ranked together regardless of age or graduation year
  • Have access to private data such as birthdate, GPA, SAT and ACT scores
  • Create custom ranking lists using different factors such as geographic location, interests, GPA, SAT, ACT, graduation date, and can even include international players
  • Create “watch lists” of up to 100 players and receive daily notifications on each player on that list
  • See which players look at their team page each day and can track interest in the school by player

If fairness in college recruiting is the concern, then it seems to me that TRN has done a great job at making sure the college coaches see the true picture of each athlete in its system, or at least the truth that the athlete him- or herself chooses to share. I suspect the coaches are pretty savvy at discerning the real age and character of these players based not only on their TRN profile but also on personal communication with the players and their junior coaches and peers. Sadly, there will always be those parents, players, and coaches who look for, and find, a way to cheat and game the system – the rest of us simply need to play by the rules and trust the college coaches to see through the facade. If we all keep our focus on helping our own kids develop to the best of their ability, then the college stuff will take care of itself, and each of our children will end up exactly where they are meant to be.

NOTE: For a refresher on how TRN determines its weekly rankings and bi-annual Star Ratings, click here.

My Son Said the “F” Word

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Tennis is a game. Games are supposed to be fun. Ergo, tennis is supposed to be fun. However, as many of us Tennis Parents know, junior tournaments by their very nature can suck the fun right out of things. So, imagine my surprise and delight when my son said the “F” word in relation to a junior tennis event this past week!

We left very cold and very windy weather in Atlanta Thursday afternoon to travel to Naples, Florida for the ITA Coaches Convention Junior Showcase, a one-day event being held at the Naples Waldorf-Astoria for high school players to strut their stuff in front of a wide variety of college coaches. The event was co-sponsored by USTA’s Collegiate Tennis department which offered a one-hour parent information session on the college recruiting process. For those juniors who play mostly within their own section and don’t get a chance to play in front of coaches from other parts of the country (like my son), this was a fantastic opportunity!

We arrived in Florida around 5pm on Thursday, drove from the Ft. Meyers airport with the sunroof and windows open in our rented Chevy Impala, and arrived at the hotel about 45 minutes later. My son changed into his tennis gear, and we headed over to Pelican Bay Community Park for him to get in a hit with one of the local boys who would also be at the next day’s Showcase (a huge thank-you to coach Chuck Breger for setting it up). IMG_1917The boys played while I sat nearby and watched. Even though the kids were working hard, they seemed to be having a great time knocking the ball around and getting to know each other a bit during their water breaks.

The next morning, we walked over to the Waldorf courts for check-in. FYI, the cost to participate in the Showcase was $20, quite a bargain. My son didn’t know anyone there other than Alan (the boy he hit with the night before), but he walked out to the practice courts and found some guys to warm up with while I headed back to the lobby for a meeting. After about an hour, he texted me letting me know he was all set and would meet me back in the lobby to pick up some water and Powerade before the matches started.

My meeting happened to be with another Naples-area coach named Brett Hobden – we were discussing Brett’s coaching philosophy and his ideas for developing players. Once my son came in, Brett gave him some excellent advice. Brett told my son that the college coaches wouldn’t be concerned with wins and losses in this event; in fact, if they were watching a match, they probably wouldn’t even look at the score. The coaches would be looking for attitude, for technique, and for fight. They wanted to see players with a love for the game who could be coached and who wouldn’t be high-maintenance, behavior-wise. He advised my son to “play big,” to go for his shots even if he missed them, to brush off errors and move onto the next point with determination and positive focus. My son shook Brett’s hand, thanked him for the advice, and we walked back out to the courts.

After a brief players meeting, the 32 participating boys walked across the parking lot to “their side” of the facility to get their court assignments. At check-in, the kids had been asked to create a cardboard sign with their last name and the color of their clothing which they would attach to the fence during their matches so the coaches could identify them.IMG_1921 Each player would play 3 matches against 3 different opponents – the matches themselves consisted of one set to 6 with a tiebreaker played at 5-all. They would have 30-45 minutes between matches to rest and refuel with all matches expected to finish by 4pm (plenty of time for us to get back to the Ft. Myers airport for our 6:30 flight!).

I can’t speak to what went on on the girls’ side, but the boys’ matches all seemed to go off without a hitch. There were no loud “C’mons” or thrown racquets or arguments. The feeling I had as an observer was that these kids were all there to help each other shine in front of the coaches. I only saw a couple of questioned calls, but even those were resolved without any yelling or accusations. It was as if all the players took an unspoken oath at the beginning of the day to be on their best behavior.

Throughout the day, my son kept checking in with the boys he had met to see how their matches were going. I kept my distance, giving my son the space he needed in this new environment. I wandered around the courts, talking to other parents and to some of the college coaches, learning as much as I could about the various schools represented there. For the most part, the parents stayed calm and quiet. Again, a nice change from the typical junior tournament atmosphere.

After he came off the court from his final match, and after a 45-minute impromptu Life Lessons session with former NCAA champion Peter Rennert in the parking lot, I asked my son what he thought about the Showcase. He replied, “Mom, this was really great! Thank you for bringing me. It was fun!”

Fun? FUN? I hadn’t heard him use that word in relation to his tennis in a very long time. I asked him what – specifically – was fun about it. Was it the format? Was it getting to play in the warm weather in the middle of December? Was it simply coming to a new place?

He answered that it was nice not having to think about how many ranking points he would get for a win or who his next opponent would be or being out of the tournament early due to a loss. He liked playing all new guys. He liked that the tournament was over for everyone at the same time. He liked the experience of playing in front of college coaches and seeing them watch him in action. He liked the supportive atmosphere, the feeling that they were all in this together.

If your child is in high school and playing college tennis is a goal, please consider taking him or her to a future Showcase event. You can get dates and other information from the USTA’s College Tennis page and on TennisRecruiting.net. There are several private companies that host college showcases as well, such as Donovan Tennis Strategies and Ed Krass College Tennis Academy. And, Ross Greenstein of Scholarship for Athletes is another a great resource for getting exposure to a variety of college coaches.

My son and I both came away from this experience feeling good, feeling excited, feeling hopeful. On the flight home, my son thanked me several more times for taking him down to Naples. He spent much of the flight talking tennis with me, discussing his thoughts on college and how he could get himself where he wants to be. He asked me tennis-related questions and was genuinely interested in my answers. Please understand this is NOT how we typically spend the ride home from a tournament!

That day, I saw a new maturity in my son, both on the tennis court and off. He was composed yet energized, outgoing and polite, inquisitive and receptive. I know he didn’t just wake up that morning a changed young man, that this maturity was a result of all the work he has put in over his 17 years on this planet, but it all seemed to come together on Friday the 13th. And in big part because of the “F” word.

Summer 2013 Version: The Ins & Outs of TennisRecruiting.Net

Below is a re-print of my June 13, 2012, article on TennisRecruiting.net.  Twice a year, TennisRecruiting.net updates its Top Prospect ratings – sometimes known as “The Stars”. The next update to the Top Prospects comes in September 2013.  This week, TRN announced a change to their ratings process – starting with this rating period, ratings will be based on a player’s second-highest rankings during the eight-week period from July 23 through September 11.  Why is TRN making this change?  According to their most recent newsletter, it is so they can avoid errors due to mis-reported scores or results.  Be sure to take a look at TRN’s new National Showcase Series of tournaments – these events may not count toward a player’s USTA ranking but will count toward his/her TRN ranking and rating.

By now, most of my readers are probably very familiar with the TennisRecruiting.net website.  Well, I recently discovered that the creators of the site, Julie and Doug Wrege, live about a mile and half from my house (!), so I figured I would pick their brains a bit about how the site came into existence as well as the way parents and players should be using the information available on the site to their best advantage.

The first thing to note is that Julie and Doug are not now, nor have they ever been, Tennis Parents; that is to say, none of their children played tournament tennis.  However, Julie is a very accomplished player and college coach in her own right – she started the very successful women’s tennis program at Georgia Tech – and Doug is an internet technology guru – he wrote the very first tennis-related software, Tournament Management System, in the 1980s and was the first to put tournament draws on the Web.  As a result of Julie’s extensive college coaching experience, she knew what the coaches needed to see in terms of player records and rankings, and she wanted to create something better for them to use.  In 2004, with Doug’s help, TennisRecruiting.net was born!

Now, the basics of TRN and its Star Rating System . . .

The TRN ratings, done by graduating class, go from Blue Chip (highest) to 1 star (lowest) as follows:

Blue Chip:  top 25 players in the class

5-Star:  players ranked 26-75

4-Star:  players ranked 76-200

3-Star:  players ranked 201-400

2-Star:  players ranked 401 up to a number based on a percentage of the size of that class

1-Star:  a player with any qualifying ranking

TRN looks at 6th graders through 12th graders and ranks 16,000 boys each year out of the approximately 34,000 male junior players currently playing and competing.  They rank about the same number of girls.  Therefore, even a 1-Star player is better than more than half the juniors currently playing tournaments.  Ratings are based solely upon a player’s position within his own high school graduating class year; for example, a 14-year-old high school freshman would be rated independently of a 14-year-old 8th grader even though they are both eligible to play in the 14-and-under age division.

In order to be ranked on TRN, a junior must play in a minimum of 3 TRN-eligible tournaments and win a minimum of 3 matches (2 of which must be over other eligible players). Ratings happen twice a year – at the end of February and the Tuesday after Labor Day in September. Ratings are preceded by an 8-week rating period. The player’s highest ranking during the 8-week rating period will determine that player’s Star Rating per the chart above*.

All matches from TRN-eligible events in a one year window are used to compute a player’s ranking, independent of age division or class of the players. In addition, TRN looks at a player’s 8 best wins during that period, averages them, then uses that as one of several complicated (understatement of the year!) mathematical components to determine the final ranking. Ratings, age, and graduation year of a player’s opponents are not used in the calculation. Previous rankings are not used to determine current rankings – TRN starts from scratch for each week’s ranking. It is important to note that wins never hurt a player’s ranking and losses never help it.  Also, “retirement” of a match counts as a loss but a “walkover” does not.

Matches are weighed according to when they were played.  A win today counts more than a win against the same opponent six months ago.  This is one way that TRN makes it very difficult to “play” their rating system or “buy” rankings.  For your player to improve his ranking on TRN, he should be sure to enter tournaments where he can win some matches but NOT where he is, by far, the best player in the draw.  As Doug says, “Winning makes you feel good.  Losing makes you learn something.”  Because of the extensive analysis that goes into the TRN rankings, college coaches consider them to be a better predictor of player quality and who’s going to beat whom in head-to-head competition.

How should players and parents use TRN?  During the Middle School years, TRN is just another tool at players’ fingertips to track their progress and that of their peers.  Parents should check their child’s profile using the Free Account option and make sure all the information is correct – if it’s not, then you can either make the corrections yourself or contact TRN if you have any questions or problems.  There are also some very useful articles on the TRN site written by experts in the junior tennis world – take advantage of this free tool to educate yourself and your child during these important developmental years.

Once a player enters High School, you might want to consider buying a TRN Recruiting Advantage membership so you can see which college coaches are looking at your child’s Player Profile.  The membership also allows you to upload gallery photos, videos, and article references mentioning your child.  It is well worth the $49.95 annual fee!  But, here’s a great tip from Doug:  if you have multiple tennis players in your family or are on a limited budget, pay only for a membership for your oldest child then use that account to do everything on the website for all of your children except see the coach visits and upload the photos, videos, and articles.  Once the oldest graduates high school, cancel the account and get one for the next child.  Another great tip from Doug is that you can buy a monthly membership (which renews automatically), load all the information you want during that first month, then cancel the account.  The information will stay on your child’s profile, but you will no longer be paying the monthly membership fee.  To cancel the account, simply click on the Member Services link at the top of the page then un-check the “Auto Renew” option.  Voila!

Given that Doug is giving away these money-saving tips, let me share how TennisRecruiting.net generates its revenue.  Initially, TRN’s biggest source of income came from players signing up for an enriched profile with the Recruiting Advantage membership.  On top of that, the college coaches pay TRN to have access to the player information.  Very recently, however, TRN started selling advertising on its website, which has now become its largest source of revenue.  If you’re a user of TRN, please consider using the advertiser links on the site in order to help TRN continue to offer its free services!

I want to emphasize that TRN is about much more than player rankings.  Doug and Julie are working tirelessly in the junior tennis community to ensure that more kids have the opportunity for cross-sectional play and that they have the opportunity to play college tennis if that’s their goal.  With the recent changes in the USTA National Tournament Schedule and smaller draw sizes, the Wreges have their work cut out for them.  They are currently working with tournament directors around the US to encourage more open events, even if it won’t impact the player’s USTA ranking, by designating tournaments as “Historically Strong” so that the players have an opportunity to improve their TRN ranking and become a TRN “National Player” (one who has won a match in a USTA National Level 1-3 event or other event that counts toward a USTA national ranking).  The upcoming Georgia State Junior Open will be the first of these tournaments – information on that tourney is online here.

This is a lot of information to digest – I know! – but please do yourself and your child a favor and do some poking around on the TRN site.  Familiarize yourself with their ratings and rankings.  Read the articles, especially the Q&As with the different college coaches if that’s your child’s goal.  Make sure your child’s information and player record are correct.  If your child is in high school, upgrade to the paid membership, at least for a period of time.  It will be time and money well-spent.

*UPDATE September 2014: TRN now takes a player’s top two weekly rankings during the bi-annual rating periods in order to determine Star Rating.

High School Tennis Revisited

State Champs

Last year, about this time, I was writing regularly about my son’s experience on his high school tennis team – the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

However, due to some ridiculous eligibility rule changes by the Georgia High School Association (GHSA), my son did not play for his school team this year.  It was HIS choice, don’t get me wrong, but, basically, our state governing body made it very unattractive for any high-level players to join their high school teams this year – to summarize, the rule said that a player lost eligibility if he or she trained for his/her sport during stated school hours.  For my son and many other tennis players, their school hours are modified in such a way as to include “zero period” and online classes so they can get to the courts earlier in the afternoons for training.  In other words, they get out of school an hour or two earlier than the rest of the student body.  Under the new GHSA rule, that modified schedule and their extra training made them ineligible to play.

That said, there were still many talented high-schoolers who played this season as evidenced by the tight matches during this past weekend’s State Finals.  And, there is hope for the rest of the players as I recently heard GHSA reversed that eligibility rule for the 2013-14 school year.

And now, especially in light of what recently happened at UGA with its number 1 singles player on the men’s side, it seems to me that high school tennis needs to take on a bigger role in preparing our juniors for tennis at the collegiate level.

A fellow tennis mom feels exactly the same way.  “I’m so tired of hearing ‘nobody cares about high school tennis’. In light of the recent events [sic], shouldn’t college coaches reconsider the high school player? These kids play for the sheer joy and camaraderie that they get from being a member of a team and representing their school (and they don’t get paid to do it)! They give up individual opportunities to earn tournament points and improve their rankings so they can play and practice with their team. Isn’t that exactly what college coaches are or should be looking for?”

I would love to see high school tennis become a training ground for college.  Unfortunately, at least where we are, the level of coaching the high school teams receive is pretty amateurish.  Often times, a teacher or coach from another sport are recruited to coach tennis even though they may have little or no knowledge about the sport.  It makes it a very tough decision for a kid who is used to training at a high level to take a step backward in order to play for his or her school team.  Add to that the fact that many college coaches and recruiting consultants have said over and over that they don’t care whether a kid plays for his school; they simply care about tournament performance and ranking/rating.  Is it wonder that many top-level juniors are opting out of high school tennis?

 

 

“If You Don’t Like Us, Find A Way To Get Rid Of Us!”

sprnats

 

“If you don’t like us, find a way to get rid of us!”  That was Patrick McEnroe’s response to a parent’s question regarding the 2014 Junior Competition Changes at last summer’s Girls 12 Nationals in Atlanta, and it was really the beginning of my extensive coverage of the new calendar that USTA was planning to implement beginning January 1, 2014.

Now that the calendar changes have been finalized and approved at the National Board level, I figured I should do a sort-of recap of the process around the changes and how they came to be . . .

  • Some time in 2011: Jon Vegosen, then president of USTA, charged his Junior Competition Committee (JCC) to devise a new national tournament schedule.  Please note that the JCC was chaired by Tim Russell, a former tennis parent who was currently a music professor at Arizona State University, and his assistant chair was Andrea Norman who had very limited experience with junior tennis.  The JCC created the new calendar, some of which was to go into effect January 1, 2013, and some of which was to go into effect January 1, 2014Tom Walker found out about the changes and organized several meetings as well as wrote several opinion pieces that were published on various websites.  The news spread at junior tournaments, and parents were terrified that the rumors were true – who in their right mind would want these changes, especially after investing years and thousands of dollars in a system only to have it changed mid-stream and, for some, right when their children were trying to get into college?  Harsh warnings were issued to people within USTA to keep all information about the changes under wraps until after the March vote.  A woman in the Midwest Section was purportedly fired because she was stirring the pot about the changes.  Sean Hannity published an op-ed on his website that was seen by millions of his readers; he offered personally to fund a survey of the USTA membership to gauge support of or opposition to the changes.  Tim Russell responded to Mr. Hannity’s article with a 17-page memorandum [Note: the link to the memo that was posted on USTA’s website seems to have been deleted] that was hung on tennis club bulletin boards all across the country.
  • March 2012: At the USTA Annual Meeting, the 17 USTA sections approved the new Junior Competition Calendar with a vote of 16-1.  The Southern Section was the only one opposed.
  • Late Summer 2012:  Patrick McEnroe and other USTA staff members traveled to the various National Championships across the US to “hold court” with parents and coaches on the new calendar. These meetings were basically a disaster for USTA and really got parents riled up anew over the changes.  USTA’s stated goals of saving families money and reducing missed school days were proven to be completely bogus – the new system is going to be far more expensive for most families.  And, the new system pretty much guarantees the need to homeschool in order to play at the national level.  Immediately following this “tour,” an online petition was launched by a tennis parent to oppose the changes, and it eventually garnered close to 1000 signatures.
  • September 2012: After getting bombarded at tournaments by parents and players who were against the changes, Sean Hannity (national talk show host with 2 nationally-ranked children), Steve Bellamy (founder of The Tennis Channel with 4 nationally-ranked children), Robert Sasseville (one of the US’s longest-working tournament directors), Kevin Kempin (CEO of Head with 3 nationally-ranked children), and Antonio Mora (broadcast journalist with 1 nationally-ranked child) met with USTA leadership in Northern California and then again in Chicago to discuss their concerns about the calendar changes.  The “Fab Five” were able to get the leadership to agree to a pause for 2013 as well as to hold a “listening tour” across the country with parents and coaches.
  • November 2012:  The “listening tour” kicked off in Reston, VA.  Turnout was extremely low due to the late notice of the meeting.  The meetings clearly demonstrated that virtually no one who was part of the junior tennis world and who understood the changes were in favor them.  With little to no publicity, USTA announced the creation of the LetUsKnow@usta.com email address for folks who were unable to attend one of the “listening meetings” to express their feelings about the changes.  I published the first of many controversial blog posts on the changes, and ParentingAces’ readership began to increase dramatically.  USTA began issuing public statements regarding the changes via its website which were emailed to various media outlets including ParentingAces.  By now, every conversation at every tournament was focused around whether the pause for 2013 was going to be sustainable or whether USTA would forge ahead with the changes in 2014.  College coaches expressed concern about having the ability to see players outside the very top of the rankings.  Tennis pros and facilities were concerned about losing business as parents and players spoke of abandoning the game altogether. One parent went so far as to say, “We just spent nearly $400 thousand on our daughter’s tennis over 5 years, and right as she is about ready to be in a position to be seen by coaches, she won’t be able to play in any of the tournaments where coaches go.”
  • December 2012:  Robert Sasseville created two spreadsheets comparing the tournament opportunities under the pre-2012, current, and proposed calendars which I published on this blog.  That post garnered many comments, some of which were posted under aliases that were USTA volunteers and/or staff members.  The USTA PR machine went to work again, getting an article published on The Examiner about the changes and the listening tour.  Former professional player and current junior coach, Johan Kriek, spoke out against the changes in an interview on TennisNow.com.  The 2013-2014 JCC members were announced – Steve Bellamy and Kevin Kempin were among the new members.  TennisRecruiting.net announced its National Showcase Series of tournaments as an alternative to limited national play under the new USTA calendar.
  • January 2013:  The “listening tour” continued, and I had the opportunity to attend the one in Atlanta.  Tom Walker created a Facebook page to oppose the changes, which quickly gained over 3500 members.  As a point of comparison, USTA’s Junior Comp Facebook page had only 170 members after a full year.
  • February 2013:  The “listening tour” concluded in Grapevine, TX.  I had several phone and email exchanges with Bill Mountford who encouraged me to remain hopeful.  I worked with several other tennis parents and coaches to mount a campaign to contact local USTA leaders and board members in hopes of convincing them to vote down the changes at the March 2013 Annual Meeting.  At the Scottsdale listening meeting, USTA President Dave Haggerty acknowledged that about 90% of the tennis community was opposed to these changes.
  • March 2013:  Lew Brewer informed me that the JCC made some amendments to the junior comp changes at its committee meeting.  At the 2013 USTA Annual Meeting, those changes were approved but still needed Board approval.  Rumors started circulating that Jon Vegosen had made a deal with Dave Haggerty prior to his taking office as President that if any changes were going to be made, Dave had to insure that they didn’t scrap the entire plan and start from scratch with the calendar.
  • April 2013:  The USTA Board approved the modified junior competition calendar to go into effect January 1, 2014.

So, to summarize, here’s where we stand . . . we have a national junior competition schedule that:

1.  Was created by a music professor who didn’t spend any substantive time at junior tournaments and who was subsequently removed from his position;

2.  Was adjusted by Player Development which was then promptly removed from the process;

3.  Was passed by a Junior Competition Committee with only one active junior tennis parent out of the 20 members, and that one active parent was opposed to the schedule.  It is interesting to note that half of the 2011-2012 JCC members were removed when Dave Haggerty took office in 2013;

4.  Was passed by a Board comprised of voters, many of whom admitted after the fact that they were pressured to vote for it and that they really didn’t understand the implications of the changes at all.  Then, the changes were exposed to a 9-city “listening tour” after which USTA executives were told by Dave Haggerty’s own admission that over 90% of the tennis community were opposed to them;

5.  Was then put into the hands of a new Junior Comp Committee with only 2 parents (out of the 20 members) with kids currently competing at the national level, both of whom pushed heavily for a pause.  Please note that it was this new Committee which added back some of the competition opportunities in March 2013;

6.  Was pushed through via the most non-transparent process USTA could’ve possibly utilized.

Never once was the membership polled or asked for its opinion in a meaningful way.  Geoff Grant, a fellow tennis parent, offered to fund a study or any type of mechanism in order to “get it right” – USTA did not take him up on his offer.  And, even though the listening tour comments, Facebook posts, and (admitted by President Dave Haggerty, himself) the majority of consumers were against them, the changes with some opportunity added back were passed.

So, I have to ask USTA one more time:  If the overwhelming majority of your customers, the overwhelming majority of tennis pros, all industry dignitaries who have spoken out (Robert Landsdorp, Wayne Bryan, Jack Sharpe, among others), the brands themselves (Head, Inc. published a letter on its website, and Athletic DNA provided the video footage posted on the USTA-Stop 2014 National Junior Tennis Tournament Changes Facebook page), the college coaches who have commented – with all of the opposition, why would you go forward with these changes?

The only group of people who are in favor of them are the USTA folks themselves, most of whom are NOT parents of current national junior players.

The US tennis community has spoken.  We do not want any of these changes.  We want the 2010 system back in place.  We want experts – not volunteers – to make these decisions on behalf of our junior players, and we want them to make the decisions via a transparent process.