Clay Courts Wild Card Selections

Image courtesy of www.douglasbeaton.com
Image courtesy of www.douglasbeaton.com

The wild card selections have been made for the various age groups at the upcoming National Clay Court tournaments around the US. I emailed Lew Brewer (Director of Junior Competition for USTA) to find out how the players were chosen and to get a list of all the wild cards since a “WC” designation isn’t indicated on the competitor lists. Here’s what Lew shared with me . . .

The criteria for selecting wild cards is published in the 2014 Friend at Court.  It lives in USTA Regulation IX.A.9.l. (2014 FAC page 183).  The actual criteria is in FAC Comment IX.A-8 which is on page 184.  I’ve inserted the text below.

FAC Comment IX.A-8: The Wild Card Committee shall use the following criteria to select wild cards:

  • No player that is under suspension by the USTA, a Sectional Association, the ITF, the ITA, the WTA, or the ATP may be awarded a  wild card.
  • No player who has a national standing below the standing of the first alternate may be awarded a wild card unless, in the opinion of the Wild Card Committee, the player will improve the overall strength of field of the tournament.
  • No player who submits a late wild card application may be considered.  Timely entries into the tournament are recommended, but are not required.
  • A player with an established record in international, professional, or collegiate competition may be considered.
  • A player whose ability to qualify has been affected by injury, illness, or other personal circumstance may be considered.
  • A player with a high standing in a younger age division of the event may be considered.
  • A player with a high standing in the division of the event who was not endorsed by their Sectional Association may be considered, provided that the player has been recommended for a wild card by their Sectional Association.
  • A player who has been recommended for a wild card by the USTA National Coaching Staff may be considered.

Although 2014 is the first year that the criteria has appeared in the FAC, it is the same criteria that has been used for many years.

And, now, a list of the 2014 National Clay Court Championship wild cards:

Boys 18

Belga, Jordan

Marinescu, Andrei

Seelig, Kyle

Ray, Pally

Boys 16

Bellamy, Roscoe

Kirkov, Vasil

Boys 14

Bicknell, Blais

Fenty, Adrian

Boys 12

Andre, Michael

Boulais, Justin

Girls 18

Haffey, Mary

Lampl, Caroline

Oosterhout, Erica

Smith, Stephanie

Girls 16

Kulikov, Angela

McKenzie, Kylie

Riley, Sydney

Scotty, Elizabth

Girls 14

Blake, Angelica

Conard, Nicole

Elhom, Anna

Mandilk, Elli

Thomas, Katelyn

Girls 12

Eades, Elizabeth

Gauff, Cori

Smith, Kelsey

As you can see, USTA did not award all 8/age division permitted wild cards for this tournament. I’ve asked Lew why and am awaiting his response. I will update this article as soon as I hear back from him.

Bonus Points Update

After all the confusion over the Bonus Points awarded during the first new 2014 L3 event in January, I contacted the TennisLink division of Active.com to try to find out what was going on. USTA told us that it was a technical issue with the software (see the Comments under the Bonus Points article for details), so I figured TennisLink could shed some light on the problem. However, the email response I received from TennisLink directed me to Lew Brewer, USTA’s national Director of Junior Competition. I promptly emailed Lew asking him for information. He replied, thanking me for my email and directing me to a page on USTA’s website, www.usta.com/Youth-Tennis/Junior-Competition/players_and_parents/(by the way, you might want to bookmark that page to keep track of any future updates).

According to that web page, “Due to an unforeseen technical difficulty, implementation of the new 2014 Bonus Point table has been delayed.  Until the technical issue is resolved, players will earn Bonus Points using the 2013 Bonus Point Table.  When the issue is resolved all Bonus Points earned in 2014 will be updated using the new 2014 Bonus Point table.  All Bonus Points earned in 2013 will remain unchanged before and after the delay.”

I do find it interesting, however, that our Southern Section managed to award the proper Bonus Points after the January L3 tournament just a couple of days after the tournament ended. I believe other sections were able to as well. So, what is this “technical difficulty” at the National office and why can’t they resolve it? Who does it really affect? Were there some players whose rankings were negatively impacted under the 2014 Bonus Point schedule who maybe wouldn’t get into the February Closed Regional or National Selection tournament if those 2014 points applied?

I would love to hear from y’all about your personal experience with the Bonus Point reversal. Was your child impacted in a positive or a negative way? Did it make a difference in terms of getting into your Closed Regional or National Selection event?

There are still some unanswered questions in my mind. I’m hoping someone from USTA’s national office will comment here and help us understand exactly what’s going on with these pesky Bonus Point tables and the software required to get them right.

 

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

sprnats

 

“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.

Notes From 9th and Final Listening Meeting in Texas

USTA Folks in Attendance:
  • Bill Mountford
  • Dave Haggerty
  • Lew Brewer, though he arrived a bit late and stayed mostly at the back of the room.

The following information is a conglomeration of several emails that I received after the meeting. If you were there and have something to add, please do so in the Comments below.

Sadly, attendance was rather small, but those in attendance seemed to be fully aware of the changes and were fully engaged in the discussion.

The initial issue that came up was in regards to why the USTA is reducing the number of national tournaments. The conversation started with traditional schooling and the desire to try and reduce the number of days players will miss. A few of the parents voiced their disagreement with the USTA focusing so much on this. These parents felt it was not as big of a deal as the USTA was making it – and that it should be the parents’ responsibility to manage this, not the USTA. Several USTA people disagreed and backed the new rule changes.

The conversation then turned to the draw sizes. It felt like quite a bit of the conversation revolved around this topic. A few of the parents focused on the decrease in opportunities for kids that don’t fall into the 32/64/128 draw sizes. There was a concern for the kids that will just miss the cut or would have otherwise been able to make it into a national tournament. Even if they weren’t the “high quality” players, the experience could be enough to motivate and incentivize these players to work harder and grow their game. In addition, a few parents mentioned that the kids that aren’t among the top 128 could potentially have fewer chances to be seen by college coaches. The USTA response was that these coaches would see them at the regional tournaments (of which the parents were skeptical). The USTA and coaches tried to focus the discussion on the quality of the draw for the players, saying smaller draws will drive stronger competition.

Dave Haggerty once again brought up that USTA is discussing a 64 player draw qualifier for the national tournaments that are reducing from 192 to 128. The thinking is that this would give the lower ranked kids a chance to play for a berth in the main draw and keep similarly ranked kids playing together. Of interest was how the USTA would deal with the qualifier and wild card issue. Suggestions were made to have 0 wildcards from the USTA and also having 7 to 8 wildcards allocated to the USTA with 8-9 spots coming out of the qualifier.

I saw the following posted on the USTA-Stop 2014 National Junior Tennis Tournament Changes Facebook page: There are a number of people who think that the 128 draw is ample for Level 1 tournaments. What those people usually don’t understand is that entry into those draws are not on a child’s National ranking but on sectional quota’s. So technically a kid from the Caribbean could be ranked 1400 in the US and get in a 128 draw while a kid who is ranked 50 in Southern California would not get it. Usually when people find that out, they have a greater understanding of why the 192 is more fair to the stronger sections. Additionally, these events have become showcases. There are many colleges who recruit kids at that level and the change from 128 to 192 has caused a tremendous amount of introductions of college coaches to US kids. Countless US kids are playing college tennis because of the move to 192.

There was emphasis placed on 12 and unders – having 128 draws and including 12s in the team competition in the winter. Foreign scholarships were addressed, and the USTA folks indicated they are talking with other sports to address this issue as they feel that making this a tennis only issue would not work with the NCAA. It was reiterated that the USTA has no jurisdiction in regards to this issue.

One parent shared with me that, overall, it was a civil meeting, with no fireworks – they just didn’t have enough parents show up. That being said, the vibe (in his opinion) was that the USTA attendees in the audience have already made up their mind to back the changes. It was obvious in their body language in reaction to parent and coaches comments, as well as under-the-breath comments and side bar conversations.

Overall, those in attendance believe Bill and Dave were engaged. Whether that leads to committee action remains to be seen.

Notes From 8th Listening Meeting in Los Angeles

USTA Folks in Attendance:
  • Scott Schultz
  • Bill Mountford
  • Lew Brewer
  • Ellen Ehlers
  • Greg Hickey – SoCal President
  • Michael Cooke – NorCal President

I’m happy to report that I have heard from several folks who attended last night’s meeting in Los Angeles, and that there was once again overwhelming opposition to the 2014 changes.

There were 61 attendees including several parents, coaches, USTA representatives, and even a tennis journalist.   Some people who had planned to be there didn’t make it because they thought it was at UCLA (I’m not sure how or why they had incorrect information regarding the meeting location).  School-night traffic on the LA freeways made it impossible for some parents to get there, but, still, 61 people came.

During the meeting, there was a constant barrage of passionate parent after passionate parent making very poignant statements about how these changes were “ill-conceived”.  People attacked the fact that only one person on the 2011-2012 Junior Competition Committee (the one that is responsible for the changes) had children currently playing competitive tennis, and said that no one can understand what goes on in tournament tennis unless they are living it everyday.  The point was made over and over that, at the tournaments, everyone is against these changes.

While there was one parent who said that he thinks a system where kids can play in their backyard is better, that was quickly refuted by nearly everyone in the room who simply said, “There aren’t enough kids to make that a reality right now.”  Parent after parent kept saying how the experience of these National events and the friendships that kids make are the things that keep them in the sport.

One mother said, “My daughter is a very talented athlete, and every other sport is courting her.  I can write a check for $400 for the year, and volleyball will handle everything else.  She wants to play tennis, and I want to provide that for her.  But it seems like you guys are doing everything in your power to push her out of it.  At every turn, you just make it more and more difficult.  Do you not understand what goes on at these tournaments with every single parent complaining about these changes?  All of your customers do not want any part of these changes.  So why are you continuing to push them?”

That drew a large ovation from the crowd.

UCLA assistant coach Grant Chen was there and said how hard they were trying to recruit local kids.  Apparently, UCLA head coach Billy Martin is strongly against the changes.

Another parent said, “Your entire customer base has been complaining for a year straight, and right now we are all tired of saying the same things over and over.  What do we have to do to get these changes stopped?”

USTA representative Scott Schultz then gave the most optimistic answer heard at any of the listening meetings when he said, “The USTA is a political organization.  You guys need to rally all the sections and get the sections to vote this down.  We just implement what they tell us. So you guys really need to talk to Section Presidents [click here for a list of Section Presidents and their contact information] and Section Junior Comp Committees and get them to stop them.”

While some in the room were angry and felt that Mr. Schultz’s statement was just a way to shift the blame and responsibility, others were encouraged and invigorated to have a concrete pathway to pause the 2014 changes that had not ever been disclosed before.

One parent said, “To me, when Mr. Schultz said his thing about getting the sections to overturn this, that made my day.  I have been involved with this for 9 months and have never heard any tangible way to get this fixed.  Now we know there is a way.  We just need to get the sections to vote it down.”

One well-spoken, passionate father gave a speech about how all the changes were taking the fun out of tennis and the soul out of the tournaments, that he drove all the way from Santa Barbara to speak up for the future generations as his kid was only 7 and already losing interest.  At the end of the speech, Lew Brewer’s response was,  “We have a plate of cookies back there.  Feel free to take your kid one.  Maybe it’ll make him feel better.”  The whole room just sat there with their mouths open, not believing what they had just heard.  I also heard from parent Gordon Bellis (who traveled to LA from Northern California for the meeting) that Lew Brewer would evade any tough direct question and respond that all of the changes were justified and fully supported.

Brad Sraberg, the parent of two SoCal junior players, said, “I want my kids playing tennis so that they can have a tool to get into college.  If these changes are implemented, it will be an absolute tragedy to so many kids at Adam’s level.  Maybe the Bellamys, Bellises and Gealers will be fine, but so many US kids will be pushed out of college tennis because of a policy change.  I pray that these changes get overturned.”

The bright spot of the night was near the end of the meeting when SoCal President Greg Hickey polled the attendees and said, “I’m listening and so I get this clear, you guys are against the loss of opportunity?”  A chorus of “YES” rang out. Then Mr. Hickey brought up the point about entry into tournaments which led to the evening’s most contentious moments as a couple of people, including USTA SoCal Manager of High Performance Darren Potkey, chimed in about “points chasers”.  The whole point-chasing argument was refuted by many who said that, really, there aren’t that many points chasers out there.  One person said that points chasers are actually a net positive for the sport because the wealthy pay for the travel to disperse the talent. He said, rightfully, “You still have to win the matches.”

In the end, those in the room said that the main focus is on not losing any opportunities and gaining back the Bowls.  They wanted to make it clear to USTA that 99.9% of parents are against these changes.

Dennis Rizza, the father of an ATP player and the Kramer Club Director (Pete Sampras, Lindsey Davenport, Tracy Austin have all come through his program), said, “We fought for 5 years to get the 192 draws.  I can’t believe that we are now fighting to hold onto them after we spent so much time fighting for them.  A 128 is simply not fair for kids in SoCal.”

Geoff Grant echoed, “If you want the best 128 kids in America on the court, and you want to have quotas, then you have to have larger draws.”

One parent who asked to remain nameless said, “Over and over, I just kept hearing the words ‘USTA Politics’.  Not one time during the 2.5 hours did I hear a USTA official say a single thing about doing what is right for the kids.  For all of you people within this USTA volunteer system, for all of you people who voted for this politically derived mess – shame on you! Shame on you people for not having any real concern for the kids and only caring about the politics.  And shame on you Ellen Ehlers for sitting there shaking your head and having a face filled with disdain at every comment from every heartfelt parent who actually attends these tournaments and actually knows these children who are impacted.  While I still hold hope that good prevails over evil in this situation, what last night meant for me is that the USTA politics are more pervasive and onerous than I ever would have been led to have believed.  If the sport wasn’t so beneficial, my kids would be playing another because of the USTA’s involvement.”

Chris Boyer emailed, “While I greatly appreciate the USTA finally coming around to the strong suggestions of ‘listening’ to its constituency, which after all is the very fabric of the organization, I was at the same time frankly shocked at the number of times the USTA executives mentioned the word ‘politics’.  From what I heard, much of the rationale that was given for these ill-conceived changes had more to do with ‘politics’, than logical business reasoning.  Since when do politics preside over what’s best for the kids?  As a businessman, and looking at this purely from an organizational standpoint, it appears that the root cause of this issue and so many others that seem to be permeating the USTA lately, is about the organization’s structure, and how it fosters the allowance of politics and incompetencies to come into play so frequently.  Just the mere fact that the these ‘town hall meetings’ need to take place – and when they do are so cantankerous – is an indictment of the organization itself and way of doing business, in my opinion. There are clearly a lot of people very upset with the USTA.”

I got a call this morning from parent Bob Cummins who wanted to share his thoughts on the meeting and the 2014 changes.  He told me that he realized after sitting through the meeting that the thing that’s really bothersome to him is that the Points-Per-Round system has created a “feeding frenzy” of people playing so many tournaments and just going a couple of rounds to earn points.  Some people can’t afford to travel to so many tournaments, and so they’re “locked out” of the system.  SoCal got the PPR system a couple of years ago – before that, they used the STAR system which focused on who you beat rather than how many tournaments you played.  Bob is all for getting more people involved in the sport, getting more people traveling and enjoying the big events like Copper Bowl and the team events.  He thinks USTA’s intention is to keep families out of the tennis “rat race” by eliminating a number of national tournaments so kids don’t have to travel so much and suggested that maybe those big events need to be kept separate from the national schedule so players aren’t locked out because of a tie-in to the national points system. That’s certainly an interesting proposal to consider, and I hope USTA takes note of it.

One parent who had planned to attend the meeting emailed me, saying, “I didn’t go to the meeting because they have worn me down and they just don’t listen or care.” That was disappointing to read. I hope it’s not a pervasive attitude among tennis parents because I do think we need to continue fighting for our kids and their tennis opportunities while there’s still a chance to get USTA to put a pause on the 2014 changes.

When is USTA going to listen – REALLY LISTEN – to its constituents and pause these changes until they can be properly vetted?  When is USTA going to engage the people who are in the trenches, spending several weeks each year at these junior tournaments, to create a schedule that makes sense?  The 2014 schedule was created by – and is being defended by – people like Scott Schultz, Ellen Ehlers, Andrea Norman, and Lew Brewer, who, by the way, have NO CHILDREN PLAYING JUNIOR TENNIS either at a competitive level or at all.  They are NOT the ones who should be determining the fate of junior tennis in the U.S.  What’s it going to take for USTA to push the pause button?

Please note that the next (and final!) listening meeting is Friday, February 15th at 4:30pm at the DFW Airport Hilton in Grapevine, Texas.  Dave Haggerty, Bill Mountford, and Lew Brewer are scheduled to be the USTA representatives there.

Notes From 6th Listening Meeting in Atlanta

It was an interesting day yesterday, to say the least!  I had spent the previous several days preparing my talking points for Sunday’s “listening” meeting as well as for my pre-meeting meeting with Lew Brewer and Andrea Norman, the new chair of the Junior Competition Committee (Andrea was a member of the JCC that created the 2014 changes and is now chairing that same group).  Peter Lebedevs, also a member of the current JCC  – and an active USTA volunteer, coach, and tournament director at both the junior and professional level – joined us, too.

The pre-meeting meeting was very informative.  We talked for almost 2 hours about the changes and the impetus for them (I’m still not 100% clear on the “why” behind them other than that USTA is trying to find a better way to develop our junior players), how I would like to see them change, and what USTA can do better.  We spoke at length about USTA coming up with some concrete ways of helping tennis families save money, like discounts on hotels and airlines and the like, rather than telling us that these new schedule changes will accomplish that goal.  I tried to explain to them how fewer opportunities drives up costs – basic supply and demand – but I’m still not sure Andrea understands what I was saying (more on that in a minute).  She told me that the schedule goes from 15 competition blocks to 12, that fewer blocks means families have to spend less money.  I took issue with that statement, explaining that fewer blocks means fewer options, and fewer options means potential additional expense, especially if those remaining options require further travel for families.

On the issue of smaller draw sizes at the 2 remaining national tournaments, Peter said that he is in favor of leaving the draws at 192, that going from 192 to 128 isn’t a significant change in the amount of work for tournament directors and that he feels giving more juniors the opportunity to compete at that level is a good thing.  I hope he sticks to his guns on that point when the JCC has its next meeting.  Andrea brought up the idea of holding a 64-draw qualifier before the Nationals.  I asked if the Qualifier would be “one-and-done” or would there be a backdraw?  And, would players earn ranking points in the Qualifier or would it be like the ITF qualies where no ranking points are awarded.  She said there would be a guarantee of 2 matches in the Qualifier but that a backdraw probably wouldn’t be played out, and, yes, ranking points would be awarded but USTA hasn’t created those point tables yet.

I emphasized how having the opportunity to compete at the national level and to see the country’s top players in action can be a huge motivating force for those players on the bubble.  I have to say, Lew was uncharacteristically quiet during the meeting, only getting involved when I started talking about my son’s ITF experience this past Fall.  He asked me if competing in our section’s top events wouldn’t provide the same motivating force as traveling to an ITF or Nationals.  I explained that, at least in my son’s case, he’s friends with all the boys at the top of our section and that there’s something different about watching your friends play versus watching top kids from the rest of the country (or world, in the case of the ITFs).  I think he understood what I was trying to say.  One thought I had after leaving the meeting is that if USTA is truly concerned about those players who get “rounded” at the National events, then why not use their resources to provide match-play opportunities and/or coaching to those players in hopes that they’ll be motivated to improve before their next tournament?  That way, if the family has had to fly to the tournament, they won’t necessarily have to change their return flight but can stay and receive free coaching for their player(s).

The “big” meeting started at 1:00pm and was led by Dave Haggerty (USTA President), Gordon Smith (USTA Executive Director and COO), and Scott Schultz (USTA Managing Director of Youth Tennis).  Also in attendance were current JCC members Andrea Norman (Chair), Peter Lebedevs (Vice-Chair), and Chuck Kriese, as well as previous JCC member Eddie Gonzalez.  The room was filled with some incredible tennis experience, and those folks didn’t hesitate to share their thoughts.  We heard from Walker Sahag, an incredible junior coach from Mandeville, Louisiana; Jerry Baskin, who has over 40 years of experience developing and coaching players at the junior, collegiate, and professional level; Chuck Kriese, former Clemson coach and current Senior Director of Competition and Coaching at USTA’s Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland; Jessica Amick, Junior Competition Coordinator at USTA Southern; Patricia Hy-Boulais, former collegiate and professional player who now coaches in Hilton Head; Amy Johnson, long-time USTA official; Julie Wrege, former Georgia Tech coach and creator of TennisRecruiting.net; Robert Sasseville, long-time tournament director; and Johan Kriek, former Australian Open champion and current junior coach.  All told, there were over 100 people in the room, including Manny Guillen, who has 40+ years of experience in the tennis world as an endorser and ranker for juniors; Lucy Garvin, past President of USTA; Doug Wrege, co-creator of TennisRecruiting.net; Julie Thiets of High-Tech Tennis; J.P. Weber, junior tennis coach and tournament director; Bill Ozaki, USTA Southern’s Director of Programs & Player Development; and Sam Kennedy, junior tennis coach, among others.

I think the simplest way for me to convey the points made is to do a bulleted list, so here goes . . . For those who were there, please pardon me if I’ve put any of the statements in the incorrect order – I was trying to listen and take notes (and keep those notes organized) all at the same time but may not have been successful.  And, for the record, the statements below are NOT direct quotes but rather paraphrasing or summaries of what I heard during the meeting.  The meeting was recorded by USTA Southern – I will make that recording available to you as soon as I get it.

  • Dave Haggerty: Welcome and thank you all for coming.  [He then introduced those on the stage and the committee members in the audience]  I would like to open the floor to anyone who would like to speak.
  • Walker Sahag: Reducing draws at the national events limits the chance for players to be seen by college coaches.  As the system stands now, if players don’t make the cut in the 12’s, they never catch up.  Grouping sections into larger regions creates additional sacrifices for those who will have to travel further in order to compete.  Particularly in the western part of the Southern Section, including Florida and the Caribbean exacerbates the travel and expense issue and will likely see the best tournaments migrate toward Atlanta.  Regarding international players taking college scholarships from American players, we’re being asked to pay for something [via our tax dollars] but are being excluded from it.
  • Dave Haggerty: College is the rainbow for 99.9% of junior players.  We’ve been hearing all of Walker’s points from others, too.  I understand that if a player doesn’t have visibility, it’s tough to be seen by the college coaches.
  • Lisa Stone: My son aspires to play more national events and needs to know that it is a realistic aspiration, that he can achieve it through hard work, that USTA hasn’t set up road-blocks to keep him away from the big events.  But the new 2014 schedule is extremely restrictive, decreasing the number of national calendar dates from 12 in 2012 (17-24 in 2010) to 7.  Having fewer opportunities for national play is not decreasing the cost of play – it will only make it more expensive.  USTA, why are you doing this?
  • Scott Schultz asked Andrea Norman to address the rationale behind the changes.
  • Andrea Norman:  We had a charge from our previous president (Jon Vegosen) to create a better pathway.  By going from 15 to 12 date blocks, the cost to compete is reduced.  Regarding the smaller draws, some kids don’t belong at that higher level; they should be playing Regionals instead.  The tournament sites are chosen by an application process and awarded to quality sites.  We try to distribute the sites geographically based on the size of the airport, ease of travel, number of courts, etc.  We  are trying to push play back to the Sections like in the “olden” days – the idea is to get back to Sectional play.  At the ITA “listening” meeting, there was concern about going from a 192 draw to 128, and Jon Vegosen brought up the idea of holding a 64 qualifying draw to be held over 2-3 days prior to the National Hardcourts.  The coaches there thought that was a good idea.
  • Jerry Baskin: Andrea, which college coach said he viewed 64 qualifiers on the same level as the 128 main draw players?  At least the USTA is now listening but every point Andrea makes can be debunked by coaches who develop collegiate players.  Memphis and Kalamazoo are the most influential tournaments for college recruiting.  High-level coaches come in now for the round of 16 anyway.  Other coaches are looking at players 96-192.  If you reduce the size of the draw, you reduce the exposure for these players.  Regarding the simultaneously-held Regional events, how can a coach be at 6-8 events at the same time?  They can’t!  So those players at those Regional tournaments won’t get seen.  Bill Ozaki [Director of Programs & Player Development, USTA Southern Section] has developed top players.  If you reduce the draw sizes at these events, you’ll kill college recruiting and will see half the number of coaches attending the tournaments.  The most exciting day of the year for me is sitting with my players on Signing Day and having my picture taken with them as they sign their NLI.  Do you know why the Thanksgiving indoor tournaments have been so important?  It’s because they come right after Signing Day so those coaches who didn’t get the players they thought they would get can go and see the next crop of players.  The top coaches are in panic mode if they didn’t get the players they expected!  And, what’s the purpose here – to develop world class players or to get college scholarships?  And, quotas being based on strength of the section?  That’s too subjective!  Basing them on size is a whole lot more objective.  It’s ridiculous to have people on the Junior Comp Committee who have never coached, never developed a player, making decisions for those of us who know what we’re doing.
  • Gordon Smith: I would like your feedback on the fact that junior competitive tennis hasn’t grown.  How do we change that?  USTA hasn’t been involved with the NCAA Tennis Committee, but I want us to be more active in that aspect.
  • Dave Haggerty: I believe strongly that the rainbow for 99.9% of kids is a college scholarship, but 40% of those scholarships are now going to foreign players.  We need to come up with a robust environment for juniors to aspire to that is better for our players.
  • Jerry Baskin: Thirteen years ago, I made a mistake when I gave a presentation in New York about the point system.  We need to go back to looking at wins and losses.  That would reduce costs because it would cut down on the number of tournaments a junior would need to play.  The last year that we had a group of men’s champions at Kalamazoo (Roddick, Ginepri, Reynolds, and Fish) was the last year before the point system went into effect.  The point system drives up costs because kids have to play so many events.
  • Scott Schultz: The STAR system gave players the opportunity to duck play.  Is it really a bad thing to have a couple of different systems?
  • Jerry Baskin: College coaches only care about TennisRecruiting ratings, not about USTA ranking.  USTA is looking in the wrong direction with PPR.
  • Eddie Gonzalez: I voted against the 2014 calendar because I know you need to talk to your customer before you make a change of this magnitude and we hadn’t done that.  Let’s do a formal survey on TennisLink for players, parents, junior coaches, and college coaches so we can get feedback from our customers!
  • Dave Haggerty: Please use LetUsKnow@USTA.com if you think of something after this meeting.
  • Amy Johnson: Why isn’t USTA establishing corporate relationships to help every single member?  Things like airline, hotel, and rental car discounts?
  • Scott Schwartz: The Sponsorship Department divvies up the money to various other departments within USTA.  Gordon will take that idea back to them to see what we can do better.
  • Julie Wrege: What’s the difference between having a 192 versus a 128 draw plus qualies?  Where would the qualifying spots come from?
  • Andrea Norman: 8 spots would come from the qualies and 8 from reducing the number of wildcards.
  • Julie Wrege: Why do smaller sections award the same number of national points as bigger sections?
  • Chuck Kriese: I never thought having too many opportunities would dumb down achievement, but I don’t think we should have draws bigger than 128 at Nationals.  That said, coaches should be able to coach however they feel is best.  Dave, your 40% number regarding international players receiving college scholarships is wrong – it’s closer to 65-70%.  We have to make college a viable training ground again.  The USTA needs to have an All-American Team made up of Americans and incentivize coaches for recruiting American players.  Title IX wasn’t set up to eliminate men’s sports but that’s what’s happened.  USTA must incentivize 15, 16, 17 year olds by making college a strong option.  By the way, no one has sued over Junior College’s 2-foreign-player limit!
  • Robert Sasseville: When you have an unreliable ranking system to select players into events, you don’t have an accurate predictor of champions.  The JCC should halt and start over.  Get a task force and re-examine.  You need the input of your customers.
  • Dave Haggerty: We don’t have any answers at this point but we have a lot of thoughts.  We’re hearing the same themes at these meetings.  You won’t see the changes as they are now going into effect in 2014.
  • Walker Sahag: When you streamline opportunities, you negatively impact players’ opportunity to develop.
  • Patricia Boulais: I suggest that USTA work some hotel and airline deals if you’re really serious about saving families money.
  • Scott Schultz: The small number of players competing at the national level make it not such a great deal for companies to offer a discount.  They don’t get much bang for their buck.  How many in this room think we need doubles at tournaments?  [Most hands went up] Should we keep the feed-in consolations?  [Most hands went up]
  • Chuck Kriese: If USTA did nothing to train and develop players, the tournaments should help players develop.  Hybrid scoring systems are crippling our children.  We should honor the scoring system of tennis.  Learning how to win 3 points in a row.  Backdraw kids are often the toughest kids!  These are the things that make players.  But backdraws are only valuable at big tournaments.  Experiencing the pain of losing is very important for development.  Playing pro sets in doubles is crap!  Full  doubles matches should take priority over backdraws.  The concept of winning 3 points in a row is sacred.  Those 3-minute or 10-minute set breaks kill momentum in a match.  Just let the kids play.  If a player is too tired, then he’ll lose and the match will be over soon enough.
  • Patricia Boulais: You have new players coming up but you’re streamlining opportunities for them.
  • Dave Haggerty: While there will be fewer national events, there will also be more local events.
  • A Dad: If I choose for my kid to miss school, it’s my choice!  If I choose to spend my money on tournaments, it’s my choice!  I’d like to see a show of hands of how many pros in this room have had a player outside the National Top 100 who got a college scholarship.  [Many, many hands were raised]
  • Jessica Amick: What about creating more sectional tournaments with national points?
  • Andrea Norman: Currently there are 12 sectional events with national points.  In 2014, there will be 2 Level 3s and some Level 4s with national points.  The Committee can discuss this the next time it meets.
  • Jerry Baskin: I’d be a lot happier if the people making these decisions were people who have been in the trenches and who know the pathway to success.
  • Dave Haggerty: A lot of thought and care went into the selection of the JCC.  It’s always difficult to reach perfection.  The Committee wants to do what is right for junior tennis.  One thing the Committee heard at the meetings held during Winter Nationals is that families want events where all the age groups play in the same city.
  • Johan Kriek: USTA is doing well to listen.  I am a former professional player who did pretty well on the tour.  I’m now coaching and learning as I go.  USTA needs to listen to folks like Eddie Gonzalez, Jerry Baskin, and Coach Kriese.
  • Jerry Baskin: If USTA could get together with NCAA and offer prize money to juniors to offset expenses, that would make our system comparable to the foreign system.
  • Chuck Kriese: In the late 1990’s, 86 international college players were ruled ineligible by the NCAA because of prize money they had won.  The NCAA gave them a 3-match penalty which enabled the teams to arrange their schedules so they could “duck” tough opponents while those players were benched.
  • Dave Haggerty: Thank you all for coming.  We are listening and will take back all we’ve heard here today.  Don’t forget to use the email address if you think of anything else after we leave.
  • Lisa Stone: Please, please don’t take away opportunities for our kids!

The opposition to the 2014 changes seemed to be unanimous, and I think the USTA folks recognized that fact.  After the meeting ended, several pow-wows were going on around the room.  I have heard that many of the attendees emailed those JCC members who were unable to attend with their thoughts and suggestions.  For what it’s worth, I left the meeting feeling hopeful.

I urge everyone to attend one of the remaining “listening” meetings and/or to email LetUsKnow@usta.com with your thoughts regarding the 2014 Junior Competition changes.  If you need a refresher on the exact changes or dates of the meetings, please click on the 2014 Jr Comp Info tab above.