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