More Slashing of Opportunities

slashing swordIn case you haven’t heard (!), USTA changed the national junior competition schedule, effective January 1, 2014.  A big reason for the change, according to USTA, is to drive competition back to the sections instead of having so many big national tournaments requiring travel all over the country.

Those opposed to the changes, including Yours Truly, kept asking USTA what it was doing to ensure the sections would step up and fill in the gaps.  We never got a clear answer.

And, now, that which we feared – that sections would not take on that task but would actually slash competitive opportunities instead – has come to fruition.

I found out this week that the Southern California section is taking a big step in that direction (click here to read the information posted on its website which includes a link to a Comment form where you can share your opinion before the plan is finalized).  Traditionally, all SoCal “designated” tournaments (comparable to our Bullfrogs in the Southern section) have had open draws.  That is, any player who signed up got to play.  And many of the age groups wound up with 128 or 256 draws played over two consecutive weekends.  However, beginning January 1, 2014, Southern Cal will limit its designated draws to either 96 or 64 players (I’m still not clear on how they’ll make that decision for each event), in essence eliminating the opportunity to compete at that level for hundreds of juniors.

The reasons SCTA gives for the reduction in draw size have to do with weather delays (it rains, on average, 16 days a year in Southern California), lack of enough large facilities, and difficulty in completing the large draws over two weekends – all valid reasons. However, the fact that these reductions come at the very same time as the reduction in national play opportunities under the 2014 changes seems short-sighted.  Isn’t this the time that sections should be increasing opportunities to compensate for what’s happening at the national level?

Interesting to note is the fact that a member of the 2013-2014 National Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee (the one responsible for passing the new 2014 national schedule) also chairs the committee in the SoCal section responsible for these designated tournament draw reductions.  She obviously understands that the sections are supposed to be picking up the slack left by the national reductions; however, instead of making sure her section added competitive opportunities for its players, she pushed through this major slashing of opportunities in her own backyard.  I just don’t get it!

To put things in perspective, at this year’s Southern California Anaheim Designated, 166 boys and 105 girls would not have gotten to play if the SCTA had limited the tournament to a 64 draw.  And the Boys 16s are going to be hit the hardest since that is typically the group with the largest number of players. The 16s is usually the first age group where college coaches are watching players to scout out future recruits. What will these reductions do to the chances for the kids “on the bubble” in terms of being seen by these coaches?

Let’s also consider the issue of players who are trying to prepare for aging up to the next division.  I’ve been told that the SoCal section is trying to figure out how to accommodate juniors who are in that situation, but, for now, there is nothing on the SCTA website to indicate there will be spots in the draws for these players.  I hope that changes before the smaller draws take effect.

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

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“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.

Update on 2014 Junior Comp Structure

I know I said you probably wouldn’t be hearing from me this week – I’m still at the beach on Spring Break, luckily – but I wanted to pass along the latest news from USTA’s Board of Directors meeting.

I received an email this morning from USTA’s Bill Mountford, letting me know that the changes to the previously approved Junior Competition Structure were unanimously approved by the Board last night.  That means, as predicted, that the changes will go into effect January 1 of next year.

It’s time to take a serious look at your child’s current schedule and the tweaks that you’ll need to make for next year.  Alternatives to USTA tournaments are popping up around the country, and I’ll continue to post them here as I get word.

Time to move on . . .

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New Rules in GA for U10s & U12s

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Why, you might ask, is there a French magazine cover pictured at the top of this post?  Well, 2 reasons . . . first of all, because I want everyone to notice that it features French pro, Richard Gasquet, at the age of 9, playing tennis using a yellow ball.  Second of all, because in just a few weeks I’ll be at Roland Garros watching a couple of days of phenomenal tennis at the French Open and am pretty darn excited!  (P.S. Anyone who wants to hook me up with courtside seats, you know how to reach me!)

Some of you may have gotten wind of the changes happening across the country with 10-and-under tennis and the mandated use of the ROG balls in tournament play.  What you may not know is that ROG is now infiltrating the 12s, too.

The state of Georgia implemented a new competition structure for the 12-and-under crowd this year, and more changes are coming in 2014.  I spent some time on the phone with Rick Davison, USTA Georgia’s Director of Junior & Adult Competition, to find out what’s new, what’s coming, and the reason behind the changes.

As of today, all Georgia sanctioned 10-and-under tournaments use an orange ball on a 60 foot court.  For the 12s, in local Georgia sanctioned tournament levels 4 and 5 only, players use the Stage 1 green ball on a full-size court; at the higher level local tournaments, the 12s use a yellow ball.

What does that mean?  It means that a child who is under the age of 13 who wants to compete in a local tournament on a full-size court with yellow balls must play in the 14-and-under age division.  So, if your child is 9 years old (or 10 or 11 or 12), practicing each day with a yellow ball on a regular court because you and the coach feel the child is ready, and wants to compete under those same conditions, you must put him or her in the 14s in order to play a local event.

Take a close look at this photo:

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The player on the left is my son, age 11, playing at a local Georgia tournament in the 12-and-under division.  The player on the right is his opponent, also age 11.  Please note the physical size difference between the 2 boys.  Now, imagine that, in order to play with regular balls on a regular court, my son had to play in the 14s . . . and my son was already 11 in this picture!  He would’ve gotten crushed!

I asked Rick why Georgia decided to implement these new rules for the 12s.  He told me that the talented 12-and-under players have historically always played up in the 14s anyway at the local events, so this change won’t impact them.  The target audience for this change is the 10-and-under player who is transitioning from the orange ball.  Georgia felt that it would make an easier transition for the players if they have a stint with the green ball on the way to the yellow ball.  So far, Rick says, the Georgia kids are transitioning well in the Southern section, and the level of play in the 12s is getting better.

One other change that happened in the 10s this year was the shift to 4-game sets.  Rick says that he was initially opposed to this change but quickly realized that the parents were in favor due to the much longer rallies with the orange balls – matches that were 2 out of 3 6-game sets were lasting much too long.

For 2014, Georgia is making some additional changes in terms of the match and tournament format.  For the 10-and-unders only, since matches are the best of 3 4-game sets, tournament fees will be reduced and tournaments will most likely be compressed into one-day events.  Rick acknowledged the fact that parents are unhappy about traveling to a tournament, having to spend money on a hotel and restaurant meals, for their child to play these short sets.  Georgia’s answer is to shorten the tournament for these young players so parents can avoid most of the travel expenses.

In case you were wondering, Georgia isn’t the only place seeing these types of changes.  Texas has been under an even more-complicated system for the last year with more changes going into effect this month (click here to read the new rules).  The NorCal section recently introduced its Junior Development Pathway illustrating the progression of a young player from the red to the orange to the green and, finally, to the yellow ball.  Please note that in both Texas and NorCal, progression from one level to the next is absolutely mandated by the section itself – a player may not jump to the appropriate level based on their own personal development but rather must go through each painstaking step in order to move to the yellow ball in competition.  I’ve recently heard that the Midwest section is looking to adopt similar mandates for its 10s and 12s, too.  To hear more about what’s going on around the US, listen to the podcast of my radio show with Lawrence Roddick and others by clicking on this link: ParentingAces Radio Show

If your child is ready to move on, developmentally-speaking, be assured that alternative opportunities are popping up across the country.  Take a look at the events I have listed on our 10-and-Under Tourneys page above – I will continue to add to the list as more events are created so please check back regularly for updates.

I also want to direct you to the complaint that Ray Brown filed with the US Olympic Committee regarding the 10-and-under initiative.  You can click here to read the complaint and all subsequent responses on Ray’s website.

And for those who missed my recent Facebook post/Tweet, proof positive that kids younger than 13 can train and play with a yellow ball:

Pete Sampras Age 10

 

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I’m Back . . .

I’m not sure anyone even noticed, but I’ve been out of town all week on a Girls Trip with my daughters.  My middle daughter and I were visiting her big sister in Los Angeles.  Yes, the Indian Wells tournament was in full swing.  No, we did not attend.  Sometimes hiking and shopping and Disneyland trump tennis.  Sometimes.

Anyway, I have been following all the comments posted on my article about our options regarding the 2014 calendar.  Wow!  A lot of emotion coming through.  Obviously, I have many passionate readers here who fall on both sides of the 2014 changes.  That’s a good thing.  And unexpected.  At least, I don’t think USTA had any inkling that all this passion would emerge a year ago when it announced the changes.

There’s another big meeting this weekend down in Florida.  I have no idea how all of this is going to shake out.  I just hope, whatever happens, that junior tennis in the US continues to grow and to thrive.  I think – despite our differences of opinion on just how that should look – that’s what everyone hopes.

2014: What Are Our Options?

There seems to be some (a lot!) confusion about USTA’s governance procedure as it relates to the 2014 changes.  After reading through the USTA by-laws in their entirety, I can tell you that I’m not any closer to understanding the intricacies of how this terribly complicated organization operates.  I have asked some people who have been involved with USTA for way longer than I have to please explain to me what our options are moving forward.  Here’s what they have told me.

At next week’s meeting (see my email exchange with Lew Brewer for more info), the Sections will discuss then vote on whether to approve the Proposed Changes to the already-approved 2014 Junior Competition Calendar.

  1. If approved, the Board will vote on the Proposed Changes at its April meeting.  If approved by the Board at that meeting, the Proposed Changes will go into effect January 1, 2014.
  2. If not approved, the original 2014 Junior Competition Calendar will go into effect January 1, 2014.

However, a third possible scenario – one that has not been mentioned by the Commenters on my previous posts – is that the Sections can combine efforts to garner at least 30% of the vote and can propose a “call item” to ask for a pause on the 2014 changes.  This “call item” would then go to a Board vote, I’m assuming at the April meeting.  If approved, we could see the Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee go back to work to develop a world class junior competition schedule with a competitive structure that:

  • Is fair to all the sections
  • Allows for a logical progression from sectional to national to super-national play
  • Results in the best players competing against the best players in the country
  • Is accessible, easy to understand, and cost-effective
  • Provides choices to families and parents in allowing them to build a tennis schedule that suits their individual needs
  • Most importantly, promotes true earned advancement

I have spoken to someone in my section’s (Southern) leadership and am hopeful that they will work with some of the other sections to harness enough support for a “call item” to be proposed.  If you are in favor of a pause, I urge you to speak with your section leadership as well to gauge their stance.  Each section should vote in such a way that benefits its own junior players – that’s why these sections exist, after all.  However, I suspect there is some political pressure from the National office for the sections to support the stance of the President and Board, so it’s important that we constituents put some pressure on our representatives to support what’s in the best interest of our kids.