By Tom Walker
Parallel tracks of development in competitive youth tennis must be reestablished. The USTA must not be the gate keepers in this process. Players must be unfettered to advance and decline based on individual merit and performance.
Great harm has come to the programming of youth tennis players over the past year. In the zeal to change the junior tennis system, key pathways of development and progression were altered or destroyed. Tennis stars are produced from a diverse combination of factors and variables. Experience teaches us that there is not a single path. The USTA must maintain multiple pathways at every age so talent and innovation can flourish within the sport.
The love of tennis is passed from one generation to another. A college level player is not a failure. His or her offspring may be tomorrows Nadal or Federer. It is with this in mind that maximum participation and qualifying for national events should take precedence. Giving young players the opportunity to take part in this journey breeds a love of the sport and develops passions that will transcend their own lives. The spirit of achievement is contagious. In this way, small programs grow as the dream is seen as plausible reality. The intention of making junior play cheaper is and remains a noble one. However, the attempted process failed to adequately understand how youngsters advance through the sport. The result was a more expensive product with fewer opportunities for advancement. The time for blame is over. Let us work together to solve these problems. Where do we go from here?
Reset and reestablish: Parallel Tracks Of Advancement:
Just as subways lines intersect for passengers to change direction before reaching their destination; junior players do the same. The three main lines of development in junior tennis are Sectional, National and ITF (International). All three lines must be nurtured, cultivated and properly rewarded. Tremendous talent is contained in each pathway. Players may fail to move over to the next line for many valid reasons. Travel, time, expense, coaching, exposure, growth all play a part in development. The intersecting points of these lines must be both encouraged and mandated by the USTA. They must never be blocked or impeded. Major harm comes to all when results are ignored for predetermined advancement. The major cross points for lines 1 and 2 are individual sectional championships and regional events. For lines 2 and 3 these would be the ITF events within the USA and higher-level national tournaments. Most importantly, all lines must be forced into collision at National Surface Championships. Such competition must be required to occur no matter the cost or potential for embarrassment.
Lack of Progression in National Schedule
The current junior system fails to provide rational progressions. The elimination of a significant or meaningful national schedule has left top sectional players scrambling with out a clear path or goal for advancement. Many are forced to compete on multiple tracks of unrelated sectional and national events. Such events are void of any reward; except at the very top. For the higher level National player, this is problematic as time and resources would be better utilized to their on a National / International schedule. A perception has emerged that the USTA instituted these policies improperly to control and limit player development.
The reduction of the draws (64 spots) at the major nationals had the effect of rendering smaller national events as meaningless; since a national ranking no longer has any bearing on national championship selection. Only the wealthy can afford to play a significant amount of such events. Players and coaches have become confused as to what to play. Many have abandoned smaller national play as “a road to nowhere”. This defection has diminished quality of play. Sections have realized that drain is a problematic since their quota spots are dependent on a national strength calculation. They are now busily awarding inflated sectional points for these events. This forces sectional level players to travel greater distances outside of their domain. The inconsistency is that “this is increasing travel and cost for play that is by definition sectional”. The National ranking gate has closed!
Players at the junior ITF level or the professional level have also suffered a similar fate. It remains illogical for a top 200 ITF player to abandon grand slam events for low level sectional play. These players’s have already transcended this level. Instead of having a policy in place for the top 200 World Ranked ITF player or top 1000 professional player for the USTA nationals, players are now dependent upon USTA controlled wild cards. Who decides these? The USTA coaches are naturally inclined to select players they are working with. Without sufficient spots for these players; the International Ranking Gate is closed!
Elimination of the 18 Spring Nationals greatly reduced the opportunity for USA players to be seen by college coaches. The Easter bowl 18’s is an ITF event and limits participation by many players who attend year round school. Such players cannot play ITF events. The effect was that a successful event and college recruiting tool was replace by a nonsensical team event that has handed out the highest USTA awards to non deserving players. This experiment cheapened the “gold ball” as some participants that did not win a single match received the USTA’s most prestigious player award. This College Gate was closed!
All transitional gates are now controlled by the USTA. Why have all access points been replaced by wild cards? Who will get them? Are they merit based? Ask the players… they don’t think so. Despite direct wins, tournaments players from outside the high performance training feel ignored. It is felt that organizational coaches who train players …favor players they are working with to validate their jobs. Who can blame either side? Transparency is a vital commodity to restore faith in our system. Under our present condition, it is far to easy for player development to have its finger on the scale.
Qualifying: The Real Cost
This year saw record numbers of children forced into playing qualifiers to reach their national championships. Many such players would have already made the event before the draw reductions. There were top ITF players, top national players and many smaller sectional quota hopefuls. The 64-player reduction of the national championships did nothing to lower the cost to players. What happened to the reduced price tag that was advertised to make the game more affordable? Many older players felt pressured into competing in the qualifications in the hope of catching a college coach’s eye. Remember, the Spring National was eliminated.
The price tag for these events were exorbitant for many families. In some cases the cost was as much as $3000.00 for venues such as southern California. For that price you received a single match in which a ITF and/ or a professional players were laid in wait since they did not receive entry nor a wild card.
Many otherwise worthy players opted out of the qualies citing the negative risk / reward of the situation. The reality was the wealthier the family, the more likely that the child would play the qualification rounds. As for the warm-up events, how many parents can afford two consecutive weeks from work? The result was if you drew a seed it became a very expensive single match because your non-counting match opponent in the 1st rd consolation defaulted.
This year’s qualies were a failed experiment. The pre-event cheapened the value of nationals for the players while imposing an unfair burden on parents who felt forced to make these trips. Let us never forget the intrinsic value of a reaching the National Championships. For many simply being there is a lifetime goal. It remains nonsensical to permit large qualification draws to destroy the experience for those who have already earned it.
Necessary Change & Remedies
The first step is a tough one. Committee decisions have complicated the process. How did things spin so far out of control? There is so much to be done where do we start? Here are key starting points.
- Reestablish a workable national schedule for aspirating top sectional players
- Reset the All National Championships 12-14 to 128 draw / Real FIC with a compass component for first and second round losers. (This will create advancement with a guarantee of 4 matches for all competitors)
- Reset 16 and 18 divisions to either 192 (block seeding) or 256 for Clay and Hard courts. Winter National 128 draw. Real playing incentives tied to every winner of National events which include USTA led ITF travel.
- Spring 18 National reinstated in March with 128 draw FIC Draw.
- **(Selection for all National Championships includes 1. Top 1000 players in ATP or WTA 2. All top 100 ITF players 3. Top 20 National players 4. Sectional quota’s 5. Remaining spots filled off national selection list (wildcards limited to injury situations only, USTA players required to play and complete National hard Court Championships for any consideration for funding or US Open wildcards.
- Eliminate Team Spring Event
- Eliminate all onsite qualifications for nationals
- Eliminate Warm-up National Events
Finally, junior tennis requires an independent department that is not operated by committee. Establishment of a commissioner of junior tennis is an important step in cutting through the layers of bureaucratic encumbrances that have been instituted. This domain would include:
1. Establishment of a proper schedule and administer the events away from influence from player development.
2. Select workable venues for tournaments based on accessibility, all travel costs, tradition, climate (San Antonio must go in the summer) and exposure.
3. Work on reducing known expenses to tennis families. A. Official USTA airline sponsorships/removal of change of fair fees for tournament play venues. B. corporate discount rates on hotels and rental cars.
4. Secure funds to put junior tennis on television with human-interest spots. Similar to the little league and Major league Baseball sponsorship.
5. Create a final 4 round robin 14’s event at the US Open.
4. Convene a select committee to review the following: High school tennis seasons, possible ranking system changes, eliminate multiple birthdate season changes.
5. Competition committee relegated to over-site and advisory panel. A.committee would have term limits and must have required experienced developmental guidelines in order to be appointed.
6. Junior wild card selection panel independent from coach selection.