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

Anticipate Your Opponent’s Shots

Here is another article from contributor David Berens

Club players often marvel at the speed of the top pros on tour and, admittedly, they are super-humans capable of very quick sprints. However, if you watch closely, you will see the fastest players begin to move toward their opponent’s shots before it crosses to their side of the net. How is this possible? Anticipation.

Improve your Anticipation with these 3 easy tennis instruction steps:

1) Watch their RACKET: Though we often see our opponent’s racket, we are very slow to use that information to deduce where and how they are going to hit the ball. If the backswing is high with an open racket face, the next shot will likely be a slice. And if the backswing is low, short and the racket face is open, there might be a lob coming your way.

2) Watch their BODY POSITION: There are a few different ways the body can give away an opponent’s shot. If they are in trouble – lunging, leaping, or diving – we can often expect a short reply. If they are leaning back and looking up, we know it’s going to be a lob. Or if they turn their shoulder to take huge backswing and really load with their legs, we may have to brace for a groundstroke blast!

3) Watch the SITUATION: I often call this situational awareness. If my partner and I are charging the net in doubles, our opponents are pushed back on defense and the shot we hit has some loop to it, I’m guessing a lob is coming. Or during a rally, I hit a great angle that my opponent gets to easily; I expect an angle is coming back.

Are your educated guesses always right? No, but with a little more attention to these 3 details, you may find that you know where your opponent’s shots are going just a little quicker. And if you know where it’s going, you can probably be two to three steps faster getting to the shot! So be faster in your next match with Anticipation by watching your opponent more closely!

How To Train Your Strengths

Image courtesy of michaelhyatt.com

Today’s post is the first from a new contributor to ParentingAces, David Berens. David has been a certified USPTA Elite Tennis Professional since 2001. His experience in tennis has taken him from city parks to exclusive resorts and island getaways. Today he calls Knoxville, Tennessee home. He has also been a writer most of his life and went to Carson-Newman College and East Tennessee State University to obtain his English Literature degree. He has been published in the USPTA trade publication Addvantage Magazine and has appeared on several local news programs promoting 10 and Under Tennis. David is also a frequent contributor to CoachTube and PlaySportsTV. With his new novel, Break Point – 9 Life Lessons from the Tennis Court – Taking You from your own Break Point to a New Beginning with Specific Life Hacks from a Tennis Coach’s Perspective, David examines the mental aspect of tennis.

Just a few months ago, I had a student – we’ll call him Malcolm – walk into a tennis lesson and tell me that he needed to work on his backhand. So, like any good tennis instructor, I say, ok, let’s hit a few backhands. But as my work continued with this student, I began to shift my emphasis with him. I came to believe that what he needed was not an improved backhand; he needed to understand his game better.

It is widely accepted that to be truly successful in tennis, you need at least 2 shots you can call weapons. That means that when you get the chance to use this shot, you can usually do enough damage with it to win the point – or at least get in control of the point. Many top players consider their serve to be a weapon and usually a groundstroke. In Malcolm’s case, the serve is a pretty good weapon, but it was unclear to him what his second weapon should be. He wanted to raise the level of his backhand up to that of his forehand and his volleys. (His volleys are probably his second weapon.) I said… why? We began to reshape his game and strategy so that his obvious goal was to get to the net and use his weapon. Instead of spending hours creating a slightly better backhand, we took a different path. We changed the nature of his point play to emphasize his strengths – his net play is better now than it has ever been.

He has been very successful using his serve and moving around the backhand to attack with his forehand, both of which give him a chance to get to the net where his second weapon takes control of the point. There is something to be said of making sure the other strokes can hold up under pressure, but that’s really all they need to do… keep Malcolm in the point to give him a chance to use his weapons. Instead of grinding uselessly over a weakness, we took charge of and accentuated his strengths.

This strategy works in real life as well. So many times I hear about people trying to build themselves up by becoming what it is they think they should be to succeed. At my height of 5’9″, there is just no amount of practice that will make me a great basketball player like Michael Jordan. Similarly, I can sing, but there is nothing I could do to become the next Freddie Mercury. A good way to look at this is summed up in this quote by Tom Rath in Strengths Finder 2.0:

“When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be, but you can be a lot more of what you already are.”

Do you know what your strengths are? Are you focused on them? Do you practice and learn everything you can to make that talent the most it can be?

How to Adapt from Indoor Tennis to Outdoor Tennis

indoor courts

Today’s Guest Post is from Coach Todd Widom.

As the Orange Bowl Boys and Girls 16’s and 18’s International Tournament in South Florida is coming to a close, and the Boys and Girls 12’s and 14’s are getting  underway, it is important to note there are some players that come from different climates to play in this prestigious event.  I coach players who come to South Florida from the northeast that have to learn to adapt their games to be able to succeed outdoors.  This is also going to be true for all the players that are heading out to Arizona for the winter nationals that are coming from indoor tennis training.  I am seeing a lot of similarities in the way these junior players are playing and constructing points, and if they do not make the necessary adjustments from indoor to outdoor tennis, they are not going to be too successful in an outdoor climate.

The students I train know my tennis background and know that I was trained by some very tough Argentine disciplinarian coaches, who produced some of the best professionals and also some of the best amateurs in this country over the past thirty plus years.  In this day and age of technology, YouTube videos, and over coaching are what players may use to learn how to adapt to tennis outdoors.  This article is about the different issues I see with the players coming from indoor tennis and trying to adapt to outdoor tennis, which tends to be very difficult.  Remember, everything that these young players do, whether it is good or bad is a habit, so this transition from indoor tennis to outdoor tennis is not easy for many kids.

Before I go over the way a player should adapt their game to outdoors, one of the most important details we speak about is court positioning and movement.  It is very common for a player coming from playing indoors to crowd the baseline.  Unless you have the timing and eye hand coordination of James Blake or Andre Agassi, it is going to be very difficult to maintain enough tennis balls in a row to work the point effectively against your opponent.  What needs to be worked on is the player standing a couple of feet behind the baseline and constantly moving in and out of the baseline.  Recovering to a couple of feet behind the baseline after each shot is crucial so that the player does not get stuck half volleying the ball when their opponent hits a deep ball.

Beautiful technique and pretty strokes are very nice to have, but if you do not have a high level of fitness, your legs and strokes will break down.  Playing indoor tennis does not require the athlete to have a very high level of fitness.  The conditions indoors are controlled and there are no additional elements affecting your shots like the sun, wind, heat, and even humidity.  When playing indoors, where the ball is hit is where it will end up since there is no wind affecting the ball.  To build the fitness to compete outdoors takes at least a couple of weeks to a month of intense training, in order to be able to handle the outdoor conditions.

On an indoor court, a player can hit through the court with greater ease due to the speed of the court and there being the absence of outdoor elements.  Many times, I will place some targets on the court because we are working on depth of shot, because the indoor player is most likely pounding the ball big but a foot or two past the service line.  Playing the ball that short outdoors does not do much; however, playing the ball a bit higher over the net is the key to secure hitting those targets.  Depending on how a particular player hits the ball will determine the height and spin they will put on the ball in order to be successful.  For example, a player that has a game modeled after Maria Sharapova will play a bit higher over the net, but they will still hit through the ball.  If you tell this particular player to play high and heavy, you are taking this person out of their game that they are good at and that could negatively impact their game up for quite a while.  A player for example like Rafael Nadal will need to adjust their game to play much higher and heavier over the net if this particular player was coming from indoor to outdoor tennis.  As you can tell, the way the person is going to transition from indoor tennis to outdoor tennis significantly depends on their style of play and what they are already good at.

After some great drills outdoors, the next important step is watching the player construct points.  Many times, a player coming from indoor tennis needs to learn how to construct the point and stick to a very black and white pattern of play.  The indoor player can be very trigger happy and go for big low percentage shots because that is what is promoted indoors on very fast courts.  On indoor courts if you do not get the first strike, your opponent will, and you will be the one on the defensive and kept running.  This is not so much the case with outdoor tennis, as the shot tolerance of the indoor player needs to be much higher because one great shot many times does not win you the point playing outdoors.  Tennis players must understand the strategies and the angles of the court for them to be successful outdoor players.  Seeing the open court and ripping the ball to that location is not always the prudent play outdoors.  This is where the player needs to have a high tennis IQ, be able to transition their game to the outdoors and be able to break down their opponents mentally and physically.  Certainly, the indoor player needs to have a very high level of fitness to have the ability to maintain enough balls per point outdoors, whereby they can execute their strategy properly.

Another aspect that I frequently see  is  the indoor player has a bit of trouble generating their own pace  due to the lack of elements indoors, plus the speed of the court to hurt their opponents.  This is not the case outdoors where you must use your body efficiently, from your core to the ground, along with understanding the proper mechanics in accelerating the racket which will generate pace on the ball.  If you have trouble generating your own pace, you will be a defensive player that must be smart and move incredibly well.  Of course, if you are trying to generate more pace on your shots, you need to be in excellent physical condition, since you will be exerting more force into the ball by using your body, which in turn could cause fatigue much sooner if you are not in optimal condition.

In closing, it is a much easier adjustment coming from outdoor to indoor tennis compared to indoor to outdoor tennis.  All too often I see players coming from indoor tennis and trying to have great results in an outdoor climate with only a day or two to prepare for an outdoor tournament.  It is not realistic for these players coming from the indoor arena to have great results with minimal preparation time.  Ideally, the athlete coming from indoor tennis should have a minimum of a couple weeks of preparation before they attempt to play in an outdoor tournament.  As many parents and players do all too often, they roll the dice before an outdoor tournament and hope for great results, or you can prepare wisely which gives you the best chance to have some great results in a different environment.

Process Based vs Results Based Tennis Players

Image courtesy of www.design2build.com
Image courtesy of www.design2build.com

Today’s Guest Post is by coach Todd Widom.

If you have read some of my previous articles, I speak about how tennis is a never ending pursuit in trying to become the best you can be day in and day out. The best tennis players I have ever been around go through this process in a disciplined manner each and every day they step on the court. To go one-step further, there are players that are process based and there are others that are results based during the development phase of tennis.

Everyone loves a winner. In order to consistently win at tennis, you have to continually improve, or else your competitors will leave you behind in the dust. As parents who dedicate so much effort, hours, and money to their child’s tennis career, it is natural for the player and parents to be results based. For example, a parent might think if their child has a good ranking and frequently wins, then they are doing very well. But, if they do not have the great ranking and they are not winning a lot, their child is performing on a subpar basis. Obviously you need results to get into the college you would like or play on the professional tour. Realistically speaking, needing to have these types of results should come in the latter stages of the player’s junior tennis career. I see all too often players, coaches and parents becoming too results based when the player is at the younger end of the spectrum that it hampers the player in the latter stages of their junior career, which is where it matters most for their college placement and potentially into professional tennis. I am specifically speaking about the 12’s and 14’s superstar that hits a wall and is in trouble in terms of their development all because many strategic training and developmental missteps were taken with the particular player’s development. I will go into further detail about this most important subject in future articles.

The best and most efficient tennis players I have been around are process based. Their coach and parents are well informed that this is a long process, and that there are going to be many stages that the player must go through to become a great player and achieve their goals. The results will come if the player has done proper tennis training, mental training, and physical training. The results are a by-product of doing these aspects of training properly.

The results based coach, parent, and player will plateau at some point in their tennis development. If results are solely what you are after, the learning and development will come to an end because the student is stuck in the same habits, which are very difficult to break in the latter stages of their junior career. Many coaches can sense when they have a results based student, but I believe it is their job to explain what it is going to take for this particular player to progress to the future stages of their tennis career. It could be a tricky situation because the coach could lose a student by trying to break some habits, and as a result, the student could suffer some loses through this process. This now all depends on whether the parent and student can handle taking a step backwards in order to be able to take multiple steps forwards and for the player to thrive.

In conclusion, you need to know why you play this great game. Is it all about winning or losing, or is it about learning and trying to achieve your goals through hard work and persistence? Keep in mind that results may not be coming to you within your desired time frame. Each and every student matures and learns at a different rate. It is a long process, but learning how to excel at different aspects of the game and to go about learning the right way about tennis, will get you where you would like to be. Remember that the results are a by-product of the constant pursuit to going about the process either properly or improperly.