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

The Podcast

Photo courtesy of www.lifechurchlancaster.org

My main goal with ParentingAces has always been to help Tennis Parents avoid some of the pitfalls that my family encountered during the Junior Tennis Journey. In addition to the articles I post here, I am also constantly scouring the internet for information that will further the mission of ParentingAces then posting it on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+ pages, so I hope you’re following ParentingAces on those platforms, too. Another good way to keep up with the happenings is to subscribe to our e-newsletter (click here to sign up) for updates that come right to your inbox.

Perhaps my favorite part of the ParentingAces online presence is our podcasts. I have interviewed some incredible people over the years, and I feel like that’s where I can really dig deep into what it means to be part of the junior and college tennis world. A huge thank-you goes out to our 2017 sponsor, 10sballs.com, for believing in the ParentingAces mission and giving us a boost so we can keep growing and improving!

If you haven’t ever heard one of my podcasts, I hope you’ll check them out then share them with your tennis community. There are several ways to listen, but perhaps the easiest way is via the iTunes Podcast app where you can download the episodes then listen at your convenience (click here to go to the iTunes podcast subscription page). One of my followers told me he listens during his daily commute to work; another listens while on the treadmill at the gym. However you choose to tune in, I would love to hear your feedback on the guests, the interviews, and who you’d like me to invite for future podcasts.

Of course, if you do like what you hear, I would greatly appreciate it if you would leave a review and rate the podcast on iTunes. Click here for a step-by-step of how to do that.

Thank you for continuing to help me promote ParentingAces to bring our content to a wider audience. The better educated we parents are, the better the tennis experience for our children. It’s a long, tough journey, but it can be a little less tough when we all work together.

The Best Way to Raise a Professional Tennis Player

The following article was written by Eric Buterac, former top junior player and now a top professional doubles player and president of the ATP Player Council. The article originally appeared on the Universal Tennis Ratings website and is reprinted here with UTR’s permission. Be on the lookout for future articles from Eric over the coming weeks and months (of course, I’ll be sharing the links to those articles as well via Facebook and Twitter). Eric’s story is a great one, from the juniors to D1 to D3 to pro to coaching – he has truly experienced all levels of the game! You can listen to my recent interview with Eric here:

 

My father loves the game of tennis.  To qualify this, let me say that a lot of us really LIKE tennis….but my father LOVES it. His book collection is as good as any tennis library in the world. He works at his tennis club six days a week and goes in on his day off to play his weekly game, and to this day is one of the most respected coaches in the state. He told me that parents will occasionally call him for advice on how to raise a pro tennis player. His normal response goes something like this: “Well, I’m not too sure I’m equipped to give parenting advice.”

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When I wanted to stop playing tennis at 12, my Mom said that I had to tell my Dad. I was a highly ranked player in the section. If I just quit, he would likely be mad, and surely disappointed, right? I was terrified of his response. I remember walking out to tell him while he was mowing the lawn. He saw me coming and turned off the old, overly loud mower and it was as if the world became eerily silent. As if the world was waiting for what I had to say. I mustered up the courage and said it: “Dad, I want to stop playing tennis.” His response? The response I was so terrified of? ”Sure, that’s fine. What would you like to do this summer? Do you want to play baseball?  Do you want to go to camp?”   Wait just a minute here…I didn’t have to play tennis?   Maybe he was disappointed that day, but he certainly didn’t show it.  How my father handled that conversation shaped how I would feel about the game for the rest of my life. In fact, he doesn’t even remember it that way at all. He remembers thinking that I was a little burned out and maybe dialing it back would be a good idea.

To this day, I can’t remember him ever pushing me, or even asking me to play with him.  When I would ask him to hit, he would never turn me down, but it would have to be my initiative. He was patient enough to let me fall in love with the game that he loves instead of forcing it upon me. He now mentions that there were times when he thought I should have been working a little harder, but thought that it wasn’t his place to push me. He had a level of patience that very few parents have.

2003 National Father/Son Grass court
Eric Butorac and his father collecting Gold Balls at the National Father/Son Grass court tournament in 2003.

During my second year on tour, I called home from France looking for some advice.  I didn’t know which tournaments to play, or if I needed a break. I was laying out all of my options.   His response was simple: ‘Eric, I think at this point you know more than I know, so just trust your judgment. I would.”

My dad had knowledge, judgment and foresight, whether he knew it or not.  And even though he would still hesitate to give parents advice on how to raise a pro athlete, he actually does have a tremendous amount of wisdom for parents of athletes at all levels.

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I have now been on the ATP World Tour for 13 years.  It has been a wonderful experience in many ways, but it is not an amazing light at the end of a dark tunnel. While it may appear that a player is on top of the world, it doesn’t mean that he or she is not dealing with some serious demons – see Open by Andre Agassi. I can tell you firsthand that some players, even good friends of mine, on tour are very unhappy. Despite being able to travel the globe playing a sport for living, they struggle to find joy and fulfillment.  In many cases this struggle stems from having been pushed too hard by overzealous tennis parents.  Seeing these players and reflecting on my own experience has led me to a huge realization for tennis parents: Don’t push your kids too hard.  Let them lead the way by giving them support so they can gain autonomy and become self-motivated.  This leads to fulfilling tennis experiences at all levels—including the ATP World Tour.  Just ask my Dad.

What We Can Learn From Junior Golf

junior_golf_logo_160I’ve been doing a little research into the world of junior golf. Yes, GOLF. Given that tennis and golf are both referred to as “Country Club Sports,” I figured there might be some overlap in terms of the junior aspects of both sports. And I figured we parents might benefit from learning how things are done with our golfing brethren. So, I’ve put together a list of things we can learn from them.

  1. Options are good. When I spoke with Craig Goldstein, father of a 12 year old nationally-ranked golfing son, he was surprised to learn that tennis does not have a variety of tours for players to compete in. That, basically, our kids have USTA events and maybe ITFs once they’re old enough, and that’s it. In golf, there are a number of tours available for juniors to play, and they must earn their way up the proverbial ladder into the higher level tours. Here is a sampling of what’s out there for young golfers (there are other tours, too, in addition to what’s listed here) . . . For beginners, there is the First Tee Program which is an international youth development organization introducing the game of golf and its inherent values to young people. US Kids Golf has local tours that lead to its World Championships each year. The Metropolitan PGA (sponsored by the PGA) provides a higher level of competition. The highest level of competition exists on the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tour, a spot on which has to be earned through performance-based play at the lower levels. Each tour is run by an independent organization and is proficiency-based rather than age-based (I hope the USTA 10-and-Under Tennis folks will adopt a similar model).
  2. Parent education is not only good . . . it’s a necessity. When doing my research, I was encouraged by the mandatory parent meetings and parent education opportunities made available in the junior golf world. These parent meetings not only inform attendees of the rules specific to each event, but they also provide information on college recruiting and volunteer opportunities for the young golfers. The various tour websites also contain information much like that provided by ParentingAces – how to prepare for a tournament, Parents Code of Conduct, information on grants, playing as a family, etc. I love that the tours each take responsibility for this aspect of the sport, making sure parents have information at their fingertips as they navigate through their child(ren)’s experience in golf.
  3. Clear, concise, timely enforcement of the Code of Conduct is crucial. Each of the golf tours mentioned above has a clear-cut Code of Conduct on its website which players, parents, and coaches are expected to follow. Any infraction is met with immediate action from one of the many Officials on duty. For example, if a player behaves poorly on the golf course, the Official responsible for that group of players will issue the player a Yellow Card. If that same player misbehaves again during the event, the player is issued a 2nd Yellow Card and is immediately disqualified from that tournament and may even be suspended from the tour for the remainder of the year. While junior golf has its share of misbehaving parents, the rules are very clear on how those parents are to be reprimanded, and the reprimands are carried out quickly and consistently. Golf parents are allowed to be on the course while their children are competing, but they must stay on the cart path or as far away from competition as possible. As in junior tennis, parental coaching is prohibited during play. According to Stephanie Dittmer of AJGA, often times players or parents will direct a staff member to a situation in which they feel a parent is too close or sharing too much encouragement, maybe advice, with a player, and at that time, the AJGA staff member assigned to that group will address the problem with all parties and monitor closely to ensure no advice or coaching is being given. If it is found that the parent is coaching or giving advice, appropriate measures are taken immediately.There are no warnings, no wishy-washy officiating, simply adherence to the rules and consequences as stated.
  4. Gearing events and tournaments to a traditional school schedule is beneficial to all junior players. While a growing number of high-level junior tennis players are now opting for homeschooling, a majority of junior golfers attend traditional school and are able to stay in traditional school throughout their junior competition years due to the fact that tournaments and other events are held only on the weekends during the academic year. Because the ultimate goal of junior golf is earning a college scholarship, organizers are sensitive to players being able to travel to their events after school on Friday, returning home in time for Monday morning classes. Of course, there are some events that require a missed day of school. However, overall, absences for most players are kept to a minimum, and a player’s academic performance is highly valued as a key factor in his/her ability to earn a coveted scholarship.
  5. Event sponsors add so much to junior tournaments. In junior golf, sponsors are very visible at every event. And, it’s not just a random banner or sign that you see. You’ll also see representatives from the various sponsors present on the golf course, interacting with the players, talking with them about their dreams and goals and futures. The junior players learn how to have casual though productive conversations with these sponsors and learn the value of networking from a young age. Many times, these sponsors provide summer internships to the players that could lead into full-time career opportunities after college. Sponsors also allow for player-parent-coach dinners, product giveaways, and other perks present at most junior golf events. Tennis tournament organizers could definitely benefit from adopting similar practices.
  6. Playing at the collegiate level is viewed as a high-level accomplishment. The AJGA’s mission states that getting juniors college golf scholarships is the basis for all its practices. College coaches are invited to the tour events and are encouraged to interact with the families (within the NCAA guidelines of course). Coaches are also invited to speak at year-end banquets and award ceremonies. For example, at its annual awards dinner the Metropolitan PGA invites coaches and former players as keynote speakers who emphasize the importance of using golf as an entree into college and to earning a degree. Each of the junior golf tours also includes easy-to-access information on its website on college recruiting and scholarships (see http://www.ajgau.org/). Like tennis, however, there is an inequity in the number of college scholarships available to boys vs. girls. In golf, there are 6 scholarships on the women’s side but only 4 1/2 on the men’s side (tennis has 8 for women, 4 1/2 for men), so both sports continue to be great choices for our daughters who want to play a varsity sport in college and hope to get a scholarship. For our sons, it’s a bit more challenging, but the opportunities are absolutely there for those who set their sites on them.
  7. Governing bodies are not responsible for coaching or professional development. If a junior golfer wants to turn pro, the onus is on him/her to get the coaching necessary for proper development then take that leap. None of the organizations mentioned above are involved in developing professional players. Their job is strictly to educate and put on stellar events. Coaching is left to the individual player and his/her parents. Development is left to the individual coaches. I would sure love to see USTA adopt a similar policy and stick to growing the game of tennis by putting on top-notch events and league play, leaving coaching and development to those in the trenches.

USTA needs to reach out to the various junior golf associations and figure out how to incorporate some or all of these concepts into junior tennis. I’m sure there are facets of other junior sports that our young tennis players could benefit from as well. If you have experience with other youth sports, please share in the Comments below. By working together with other governing bodies and getting a bit creative, all of our junior athletes might just wind up winners.