Team USA

Image courtesy of USTA
Image courtesy of USTA

 

Several weeks ago, I got a call from USTA’s media department informing me of – and inviting me to – an upcoming (July 29, 2014) webinar on its new initiative, Team USA. I was unable to tune into the webinar live, but I did take the time to listen to the recorded version and wanted to share it with all of you.

The webinar was hosted by USTA General Manager of Player Development, Patrick McEnroe, and USTA Director of Coaching, Jose Higueras. According to the invitation I received, the Team USA initiative is an effort to create a structure that includes personal coaches, USTA Sections, and USTA Player Development working closer together to create the next wave of world-class American players. During the webinar, Patrick and Jose provided information on the initiative while gathering feedback via instant polls from those coaches and parents online with them.

I urge you all to listen to the webinar at the link below, especially in light of the recent events concerning USTA’s Player Development. It may shed some light on the direction USTA is heading in terms of our junior players.

If you were online during the live version, please share your thoughts in the Comments below. If, after listening to the recorded webinar, you have feedback to share, I’d love to hear from you, too.

http://www.usta.com/About-USTA/Player-Development/first_team_usa_forum_held/?CategoryId=12660&Year=2014

 

Patrick McEnroe Leaves USTA PD

press conference

I was sitting in Arthur Ashe stadium yesterday afternoon when I saw the tweet from the NY Times: Patrick McEnroe Out As USTA Player Development Head. A little while later, I received an email from USTA’s communications department alerting all media on site of the press conference to explain in more detail exactly what was going on. Of course, I was there amid some very powerful media representatives, including the author of the original NY Times piece as well as folks from ESPN, Inside Tennis, and others.

Colette Lewis of ZooTennis.com has written a detailed account of what went on yesterday – click here to read it along with links to several other related resources. Rather than restate what Colette has already presented so well, instead I’ve included below the audio from the press conference. I’m sure I will be writing more about this latest USTA development once I’ve had time to process it fully (and get some sleep – it was a very late night at the Open last night!), so please check back over the next few days. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on who should succeed Patrick and why you feel that person is qualified for the job – please share your ideas in the Comments section below.

 

 

A Look Back … The Past 30 Years of National Junior Tennis

Little Theatre

[The following post was written by Robert Sasseville, long-time tournament director and participant in the world of competitive junior tennis. While quite long, Robert’s post gives a thorough history of the junior tennis tournament and ranking structure and explains how we got where we are today. A huge thank-you to him for doing this extensive research and presenting it in an easy-to-understand format!]

The extended discussion that occurred on ParentingAces.com about a week ago (terminating on February 16, 2014) would be amusing if the situation weren’t so sad. The issues associated with tournament admittance and rankings are fraught with contradictions, largely imposed by the national organization.

Although opinion is sprinkled within these notes, an effort was made stick to the facts.* Some older dates have been approximated.

Technology and increased population mobility have served to change all youth sports in the United States. The concept of sports academies (residential or local), and more recently, homeschooling, were foreign to tennis in 1980 except in Soviet Bloc countries.

There have been dramatic philosophical changes that irrevocably altered the landscape of junior tennis between the early 1980’s and 2010, the year before the National Schedule began to be compressed. These changes not only affected the structure of the competitive environment, they also created expectations on the part of players, parents. and coaches.

In 2014 we see abrupt changes to a system that had evolved over a 20-year period. It’s no wonder that many are confused, conflicted, and downright mad.

Changes in the past three decades include:
• Computer Rankings
• Limiting Results that counted for ranking
• Establishment of Tournament levels
• Optimum schedule and the first use of National Standing for selection for National tournament play
• Points Per Round Rankings (PPR)

In the 1980’s tournament play and rankings were independent and existed in “parallel universes”. Rankings were of little practical import except for early year seeding. But all that changed 14 years ago with the adoption of the Optimum Schedule. In 2000 tournament structure and rankings became intertwined and remain so today, so it is impossible to discuss one totally independently of the other.

Any discussion of tournament structure would be incomplete without a “rankings” component. Tournament history without mention of ranking denies the existence of the symbiosis that now exists by USTA fiat. Today almost every aspect of one affects the other, from event levels to draw formats to PPR point tables, one influences the other. And, they all affect how players make their competitive participation decisions.

Appendices
Everybody knows about tournaments. You register… you check your match time… you show up and play your match … and you do it over again … and again until you lose twice. However, the history, evolution, and utility of “Rankings” are unfamiliar to a great many. A detailed history of USTA ranking concepts is in Appendix A.

The selection process has been closely tied to Rankings since 2000, so Appendix B shows the apparent philosophical inconsistency which has now been imposed on the 2014 schedule.

Appendix C addresses the 2014 national point tables.

Appendix D is for those who appreciate details. It contains the laborious selection process for National Selection Tournaments and Open Regionals.

Now let’s look back to see how we got to 2014.

1983
When was I first involved with a National Championship (1983 Girls’ 14 National Championship), most of tennis as we know it didn’t exist. Draw size was 128. Format: Full FIC in singles; Single elimination in doubles. All matches played the best of 3 sets.

In 1983 there were no computer rankings. In fact hand-held cell phones and the wide-spread use of personal computers were still in the future. The National tournament calendar basically followed the traditional school year. The Hard Courts were in late June, the Clay Courts were in July, The Nationals (Kalamazoo, etc.) were in August, and the National Indoors were during Thanksgiving. The Easter Bowl was a traditionally strong invitational event held during the March-April Easter spring break period.

Age Control Date Change
Rankings (national, sectional, and district) were generated once a year at the end of the ranking year. In 1983 the ranking year ended on September 30. Around 1988 the 12 and under age group began transitioning to the calendar year age control date to align the U.S. with the international age convention. Older age groups continued to use the October-September ranking year until they aged out around 1994.

Player Record Sheets and Rankings 1983
Since no computers were used, the USTA had a Ranking committee made up of one or more “rankers” for each age group. Tournament records were submitted on player record sheets by players for consideration by the committee. [The very first thing a player had to do at check-in at our Girls’ 14 Nationals was turn in an updated copy of their player record sheet. That record, along with the tournament draw sheets would be given to the tournament rankers for Girls’ 14 and was the basis for those players’ year-end national rankings. Other players were free to submit their records to the ranking committee for consideration.]

Results from any event played were considered for ranking. Events like the Easter Bowl, Midwest Open, Texas Open, Florida Open, and even smaller local events generated results that were taken into account. In like manner each section, and even each district in larger sections, had a ranking committee. They generated year-end rankings based on paper player record sheets submitted by the players who “applied” for ranking. Rankings were an evaluation of 12-month’s play and an attempt to order players based on whom the committee felt would likely prevail in head to head match play based on that year’s results. Since rankings were “after the fact” they had limited utility for seeding and tournament selection purposes except early the next year.

Because rankings were static for 12 months, and widespread out-of-section travel and play weren’t common, a system for admittance of players to national championships was devised that relied on sectional play.

Sectional Endorsers and Entry Process 1983
Again, since computer rankings were still in the future, sections had committees that created ordered “endorsement” lists based upon the criteria that each section independently determined. Each section had an individual who was the “Endorser” for each national age group. That person was responsible to collect the paper entry forms, player records, and entry fee checks for all applicants from their section (including alternates) and submit them along with their sectional ordered endorsement list to the national championship. The endorser was the tournament’s point of contact with the section and often with their players as well.

Sectional Quotas 1983
Since there was no equitable way to evaluate player strength other than on-court, each section was given a “quota” of players based on the section’s percentage of junior membership. The total of all quota spots in 1983 was 100.

Selection Process 1983
The remaining 28 players were selected based on an analysis of all alternates’ player records submitted by the endorsers. However, alternates had to be selected in the order in which they fell on the sectional endorsement list, unless permission was granted by the endorser to select a player out of order. Some sections permitted it, others didn’t. This created the situation where a deserving player was denied entry by the intransigence of the section, or a weaker player (in the opinion of the National tournament) was admitted to allow the selection of a strong player ordered below him. The tournament made an effort to get the best players possible in the event based on the information available. It was our goal to get the best 100 players in the draw of 128. Obviously, weaker players were admitted because of quotas, but it was amazing to see some of those weaker players blossom in later years. Who knows, maybe that tournament is what made the difference? This was the national structure in the “Golden Years” before tennis became an Olympic sport and tennis became a true international sport.

12 and Under Nationals Eliminated and, National Hard Courts Discontinued
However, in 1989 USTA Junior Competition Committee was convinced that National Championship competition for ‘12 and under players’ was too much too soon, so the members voted to eliminate all National 12 Championship play. They also felt that the summer calendar was too crowded, so the National Hard Courts (mainly in California) were eliminated, as well. So, in 1990 half of all summer National Championships were eliminated. In 1989 there were 24 events. In 1990 there were only 12, and Kalamazoo had 2 of the 12. The National Indoors at Thanksgiving dropped from 8 events to 6.

Computer Rankings
Around that time computer rankings started creeping into use. Eventually, all sections adopted a version of computer ranking and most used the STAR system. Midwest used ‘Sapphire’, and the experimental ‘WinRank’, probably the best of all, was piloted in parts of the Southern section. With the introduction of computer rankings, it became possible for sections to use the generated lists as “endorsement” lists.

192-Draw
In 1996 at least two summer National Championship tournaments conducted 192-draw pilots. Based on responses from players, parents, coaches at the pilots, the 192-draw size was adopted for the 1997-2013 National Clay Courts and The National Championships (August). In 1997 the 192 draws were filled in the following order:
• 144 players from sectional quotas
• 4 wild cards
• 48 (or more) sectionally endorsed players not already selected in the order they fell on the National selection list. Selecting endorsed players to fill remaining vacancies at the end of the process allowed the tournament to mitigate inequities in the quota selection process. Our goal was to get the best 128 players who applied in our draw of 192.

12’s Restored in 1999
In 1999 the 12 and Under National Championships were restored. Initially, 12’s had the same draw size (192) and draw format (full FIC) as the other age groups. In 2000 the draw size for 12’s was reduced to 128, and in 2004 (or 2005) the draw format was changed to compass.

Ranking Challenges and the Creation of Tournament Levels
In 1999 to qualify for a ranking players participating in “The Nationals” (August) had to submit their updated “Player Record Sheet” before beginning play and submit additional tournament results to the ranking committee by September 30. Any subsequent results until the end of the year were to be submitted “as they occur.” Year-end National rankings were also generated by computer. Initially, USTA entered national events and any results submitted by the players from any event played.

Since the summer National Championships expanded to 192 players and there was the expectation that all results should be entered in the computerized ranking program, a problem arose at the national level. There were so many results to enter from across the country that USTA was unwilling to invest in sufficient staff to input the player data. This reluctance on the part of USTA to input all tournament data resulted in a limit being placed on the number events whose results would be considered for ranking, and ultimately caused the creation of tournament levels. It is ironic that when technology finally enabled the USTA to input all data through their sections and districts (which was happening) and import all the data into a national database that they elected to exclude the majority of data. So, in 2000 the concept of levels was born. Initially, ranking levels were to used to limit the quantity of results that counted for national ranking and to determine participation points. Events below District qualifier were designated as level 6 and did not count for ranking. Below is the 2000 table of levels:

Level 1 USTA Super National Championships (6 pts)
Level 2 National Open Championships (4 pts)
Level 3 Other events on the National Junior Tournament Schedule (4 pts)
Level 4 Sectional Championships (2 pts)
Level 5 District Qualifiers and sectional designates (2 pts)
Level 6 All other events (1 pt)

To qualify for a National ranking in 2000 a player had to have played in at least one National Championship or two National Opens, have acquired at least 22 participation points, and have at least 2 wins over players who had qualified for national ranking. Otherwise, he was ineligible for national ranking. Even though results were not being imported into the ranking system, USTA’s crediting participation in Level 6 events did allow players to qualify for ranking without having to travel to only major events to acquire every one of the 22 points required.

If it ain’t broke … The Optimum Schedule
At about the same time, around 1999, members of the junior committee felt that certain inequities existed in the sport that could be addressed using recently acquired ability to generate rankings instantaneously, if needed. Among them were:
1. Fixed ranking year
2. Uneven distribution of National Championships
3. Single pathway to National Championships

Fixed Ranking year: The calendar year rankings were viewed as unfair to those who had “bad” birthdates. They felt that there was institution inequity for those who were born late in the ranking year and that the concept of “Rolling Rankings” would mitigate those inequities. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, looks at youth sports and found that those with “good” birthdays had a significant advantage throughout their youth and adult careers, so maybe the committee members were way ahead of their time on this issue.

Uneven Distribution of National Championships: If the traditional school year was to be honored, but “Rolling Rankings” were to be implemented, the national tournament calendar had to be revised.

Single pathway to National Championships: There were always horror stories of deserving players not being admitted to Nationals because of overly strict sectional requirements, players foregoing opportunities to compete in other tennis events or other worthwhile activities, or deserving players who were injured and couldn’t meet endorsement requirements.

On August 1, 2000 the Optimum Schedule was born and for the first time:
• National ranking (standing) was used as a basis for player selection to National Championship events.
• Remote Qualifiers (National Opens) for succeeding National Championships were created
• Sectional endorsement was no longer required for the top nationally ranked players, nor was it required for National Open qualifiers.
• Age Eligibility was based on month of birth rather than the former birth year.
• Birth month was the criteria for inclusion in ranking lists.
• Rankings were generated monthly (Rolling Rankings) and year end rankings used a composite of the players highest monthly rankings during the calendar year.
• Sectional endorsement was not required for entry
• Sectional endorsement order had no bearing on player selection except for those who fell within the section’s quota.

The Optimum Schedule:
• Eliminated the National Indoors at Thanksgiving
• Created the Winter Nationals in late December and
• Established the Spring Nationals (which absorbed the former Easter Bowl).

This gave a more year-round national schedule, while still leaving the fall and winter school year unaffected. In 2000 the selection order for 192-draw summer National Championships was:
• All who entered listed in the top 60 on the Super National Selection List (rankings)
• 24 National Open Qualifiers (6 from each site)
• 100 Sectional Quota Players*
• 8 Wild Cards
• Remaining Vacancies selected from Super National Selection List

By 2003 the selection order for 192-draw events changed to:
• Players listed in the top 24 on the Super National Selection List
• 24 National Open Qualifiers (6 from each site)
• 100 Sectional Quota Players*
• 8 Wild Cards
• Remaining Vacancies selected from Super National Selection List
* Because Sectional Quota players were selected after ‘Top 60’ or ‘Top 24’ and after ‘National Open Qualifiers’, much lower ranked players likely fell within the quota and made quota player selection much less reliable than they had been in the previous years, when sectional quota players were selected first. The Optimum Schedule created a radical break from tradition and was the first step away from sectional play being the staple for most players.

2004: Points Per Round Ranking System is Hatched
2004 was a watershed year and the face of junior tennis experienced a radical change, both in perception and in reality. In 2004 the Points Per Round ranking system (PPR) was adopted and each section was directed to designate 12 Sectional Ranking Tournaments which would offer national ranking points. Regardless of the section’s size, each section was allotted 12 events with identical national ranking points. In small sections with few strong events this offered an opportunity to grant National status to events that previously could not qualify based on strength, while in some larger sections it caused some event to lose National ranking points, since some events had been granted National Level 5 status based on strength of field (e.g. GA Jr. Open). The points per round ranking concept took on a life of its own, and the junior competitive landscape was forever changed. The rationale for implementing a PPR ranking system was that players needed more match play and head-to-head ranking systems discouraged play because of fear of losing. The proponents were right! Data indicated that there was a dramatic increase in match play, so PPR had succeeded in getting more players to play more matches.

Exit: DUCKING
Enter: POINT CHASING
(That seems like that is the reason PPR was adopted in the first place.)

USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller.

By 2005 the following changes occurred in summer Nationals:
• In 18’s players listed in the top 40 on the Super National Selection List were admitted.
• The number of National Open Qualifiers admitted was reduced to 12 (3 from each site – effective 2004)

NOTE: At some point June Closed Sectional Championships were elevated to Level 3.

National Junior Tournament Schedule Expands “Regional” Play
There had been many popular and often unique Level 3 events on the National Junior Tournament Schedule scattered throughout the year. Several were “Bowls” (Copper, Fiesta, Gator, California, etc.), others were “Opens” (Florida, Texas, Midwest, Southern), while many identified a sponsor, a memorial, or location (Pacific Coast, Kentucky Derby, St. Louis Gateway, Peach State, K-Swiss, Muterspaw, Columbus, Franklin, Quicksilver, Roxy, Sportwall, Gamma). These events offered unique and very competitive environments. In 2006-07 the USTA decided to institutionalize the concept of “Regional” play, renaming what had formerly been National Junior Circuit Tournaments as Regional Tournaments. They actually decided to INCREASE the number of Regional events. Apparently, the belief was that players would limit their play to the events held in the player’s geographic “region”. In 2006-08 the number of Regional events increased. Events like the Mike Agassi No Quit in Las Vegas, NV filled vacancies in the calendar. However, the term “Regional” was just that, a “term”. It was not predictive of who would enter the event. Because these events were geographically near transportation centers and well dispersed throughout the calendar, they were very attractive.

Instead of keeping players close to home, “Regionals” attracted players who wanted good competition, new unfamiliar opponents, and an excuse to travel. The first year of the Mike Agassi No Quit in Las Vegas (2007) we had more than 700 applicants for 256 spots. It’s hard to imagine that 700 players were all “Point Chasers”, particularly since the tournament was very strong.

USTA had set in place a system that encouraged play and was offering more opportunities to do so. USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller, and yet …

Death of National Schedule Events and the Ascent of Concurrent “Regionals”
Around 2010 someone decided that the system was working too well and …
• Players were playing too much.
• Players were traveling too much.
• Players were missing too much school (at least those who were still attending traditional school).
• More Sectional play was needed.
• Point Chasing was rampant and was the downfall of US Tennis.
• Parents were stupid and didn’t have sense enough to keep their kids at home.
• Most players wouldn’t be professionals anyway

So, in a blinding moment of enlightenment, in 2011 the committee concluded:
• Why don’t we neuter all of the National Junior Schedule Level 3 tournaments and rename them “Regional (name of location)”,
• Make them all the same, except summer events can have 64-draws (for a while)
• How about let’s pick 4 weekends out of 52 weeks on the calendar and stack all of the formerly unique events one upon the other.
• In fact let’s have 8 concurrent events on each of the 4 weekends and let’s break up age groups and disperse them throughout the U.S.
• Never mind that we don’t have a computer entry system that will accommodate such a structure.

In 2011 the following changes occurred in National Championships and the tournament calendar:
• The number of National Open Qualifiers admitted was reduced to 8 (2 from each site)*
• The draw sizes of summer Boys’ and Girls’ 14 National Championships were reduced to 128.
• All Boys’ and Girls’ 14 National Championships adopted the compass draw format.
• National Open draw sizes were reduced from 64 to 32 (4 sites)
• Generic Regionals replaced National Schedule events
• Regionals were limited to 4 weekends with age groups scattered at different sites, as determined by the National Junior Sanction and Schedule committee to spread the wealth among competing sites.
• 8 concurrent events were held in each age group.

So what happened?
• Players desperately entered 4 sites in 2 age groups to assure that they could play in one of the few events available.
• Because of the awkward and confusing entry process, families of selected players often found that siblings had been accepted at events 1,000 miles apart.
• Others had other commitments on one or more weekends and missed 25% of the “Regional” year for each conflicted weekend.
• Strength of field took a tremendous hit and was much lower. With 256 spots available on a weekend vs. 64 or 96, it doesn’t take a savant or rocket scientist to realize that the last 100 players selected will be much weaker when there are 8 concurrent events.
• Many, many events that had rich histories of service to the sport were destroyed.
• Rest in peace Copper Bowl, Peach State, Muterspaw, Fiesta Bowl, et al.

Even that didn’t work. Apparently, Point Chasers cannot be discouraged so easily. It appeared that the only way to eliminate them was by putting a stake through their heart, or by just doing away with their quarry. Take away the point-bearing events and there is nothing left to chase.

Charge of the Lite Brigade
A well-meaning committee directed by what appeared to be disenchanted leadership, decided that “enough was enough.” The committee was to reinvent junior tennis and the sport would be better for it. No longer would players spend tons of money chasing a dream that was merely a vapor. It would be back to the real world, and back to school. So, subcommittees met and talked, planned, maybe even argued about the future of junior tennis. Not all sections were included in the subcommittee doing the heavy lifting. In fact, the largest section, Southern, was not included in the subcommittee charged with recommending the new and improved tournament landscape.

2013-2014 Proposed Competitive Structure is Unveiled
On November 16, 2011 a document was prepared and sections were given a peek at what was to happen. Here are some of the things the original proposal contained:
• Elimination of Spring Nationals

• Elimination of Winter Nationals

• Reducing The Nationals (August) to 128 draws for 14-18’s effective in 2013.

• Reducing The Nationals 12 draw size to 64.

• Increasing the number of wild cards for The Nationals 18’s to 16.

• Reducing the 2013 Clay Court Nationals to 128-draws for 14-18’s

• Reducing 2014 Clay Court Nationals to 64-draws and moving event to Memorial weekend

• Replacing 4 National Opens 4 times a year with 2 National Selection tournaments held 2 times per year (Level 2)

• Mandating that concurrent National Selection tournaments play on 3 different surfaces- hard, clay, and indoor (one 32-draw on each … Can you say, “Huh?”).

• Creating Grand Masters event in which four 14’s play to advance one player to join seven 16’s who would advance two players to join 14 18’s and play do determine a champion. Losers would stay and train while the others played. (Level 1, but not sure which age group)

• Creating National Masters for 14’s and 16’s at same time as ITF Easter Bowl (Level 1A) [All sixteen participants who completed the event would be admitted directly to the 64-player National Clay Courts].

• Created a July National Masters for 14’s and 16’s (Level 1A) [All sixteen participants who completed the event would be admitted directly to the 128-player National Championships].

• Creating a Level 1 Winter Team event for 32 players to replace Winter Nationals

• Creating a Level 2 Winter Team event for 32 players to replace Winter Nationals

• Replacing 8 32-draw Level Regionals held 4 times per year with: 4 32-draw Level 3 Regionals held 3 times per year played concurrently with National Masters and National Grand Masters tournaments and 4 32-draw Level 4 Regionals held 2 times per year played concurrently with National Selection tournaments

• All Regionals would be closed to players within the region and selected based on sectional quotas.

• Each Sections would be given an additional National Level 3 event (total of 2) and 4 National Level 4 events to do with as they pleased.

• The 8 sectional Level 5 events previously allowed would be eliminated altogether, so sectional designated events no longer had national value.

• The Level 3 August doubles event would be elevated to a Level 1 National Doubles Championship.

• Entry to National Clays and The Nationals based solely on Quotas (except wild cards and the sixteen National Masters entrants directly admitted to 14’s and 16’s).

• Sectional Championship winner admitted directly to The Nationals.

• Quotas would be determined by 60 % on strength (players ranked in the top 150 nationally) and 40% on membership.

While few knew about this November 16, 2011 proposal, or even understood it after a cursory review, those who understood it had grave reservations.

Resistance to the Proposed 2013-2014 Structure and the ‘Listening Tour’
Although it took a few months to coalesce, individual and industry stakeholders began to express their disapproval through Facebook, online petitions, blog articles and discussions, and other public and private communications. The pushback to the proposal took a quantum leap forward when Sean Hannity published an article on his website questioning the wisdom of a system that eliminated more than 50 percent of national competitive opportunities and more than 75% of national play outside a player’s region compared to the 2010 opportunities, and calling on the tennis community to get involved. (June 26, 2012)

Patrick McEnroe responded publicly on the USTA.com website, but deferred to Timothy Russell, chair of Junior Competition, for comments. Dr. Russell used a little sarcasm in his response, so the battle was on. Because of the uproar created when these changes became public and began to draw fire, the USTA made an effort to educate the tennis community by sending Patrick McEnroe and others from Player Development to the 2012 National Championships to conduct player/parent/coach forums to explain why the changes were in the best interest of tennis. At the meeting at the Girls’ 14 Nationals in Peachtree City, GA there were civil and courteous interchanges of opinions, but the vast majority of the comments were negative. It became obvious that Patrick McEnroe had very limited knowledge of the changes and had been recruited to make an appearance simply because of his celebrity status. [About 3-4 months later Junior Competition was moved under the Community Tennis umbrella.] In September and October 2012 two meetings were held between USTA staff and officials and a group of individuals who were labeled as “industry” representatives. As a result of the October meeting, USTA agreed to maintain draw sizes for all events in 2013 and to conduct a “Listening Tour” at various events and sections’ annual meetings around the country. While some events were very well attended and opposition to the new schedule was generally overwhelmingly expressed, the die had been cast. The USTA staff and board were unwilling to pause implementation of the plan for a year to have further review, but were willing to make some modifications to the original plan. However, at the end of the day, the opportunity reductions from 2010 (or even 2013) to 2014 were dramatic and the attempt to “pause” the proposal for at least a year failed. USTA had been encouraged to have a “blue ribbon” task force look at the proposal and make suggestions regarding modification, implementation, or scrapping it and starting over.

If you compare the proposed changes above with what actually occurred in 2013 and what is scheduled for 2014, you will see that the “Listening Tour” resulted in some important changes , namely the restoration of the Winter Nationals, maintaining the National Clay Courts in July with larger draws, and keeping 128-draws for the 12 Nationals. Qualifiers were added to the 16 and 18 summer Nationals in an attempt to mitigate the reduction in draw size from 192 to 128.

The Final Product
After analyzing what was being added and what was being deleted from the 2011 and 2010 schedules, the data showed at least 50% of the individual national competitive opportunities that existed in 2010 had been eliminated. The continued stacking of events of different levels scheduled concurrently on the same weekend exacerbated the reduction of opportunities. A player cannot compete in both a Level 2 and a Level 4 event, even if he would be qualified to do so, if they are held at the same time.

Additions to the schedule seemed to favor the highly ranked players. After years of access to national events and national championships, USTA decided to limit both access and availability to events that had become cherished and desired. USTA by implementing a PPR ranking system had created a demand for national play, and with the stroke of the pen (or delete key) USTA was slashing the supply. The effect is that many will give up trying to acquire the product at all (they may find other sports are more appealing).

Top Players Will Suffer

Since the number of events are fewer, and thereby creating geographical dispersion, it will be more costly for players who do have the necessary standings to compete. Lower ranked players who don’t qualify and remain close to home will have to appreciate a reduced number of opponents and hope that unhealthy relationships and habits don’t ingrain themselves because of boredom or familiarity. The select few who are the top players have recently realized that they don’t have any periods during the year that can be set aside for training and preparing for major events because of the changes.

Top players have the traditional National Championships, the Orange Bowl, Eddie Herr and other ITF events that important to them. Now USTA has created new boutique events for top players, and on top of that, mandated that they play within their sections, since National Championship admittance is exclusively at the pleasure of the sections’ endorsement order (except the June Sectional Champion who qualifies for the Nationals in August). So, top players must add sectional events to their list of “must play” events. The concept of “periodization” is a casualty of the latest tournament structure.

Sections are back in control (partially)?
In 2000 Sectional Play was an unintended casualty of the Optimum Schedule. With multiple pathways to National events, players no longer had allegiance to their sections. Southern California was an extreme example, where their sectional championship could likely have been held without their top 10 players in some age groups. The current schedule attempts to restore sectional sovereignty. Unfortunately, it has overlaid sectional control over a process that has evolved for over 15 years and relied heavily on the nationally ordered selection lists. The tennis community is now being asked to revert to an older more nostalgic time when interstate travel was uncommon and intersectional play was almost unheard of except 4 times a year. It’s no wonder that there is discontent about quotas. The discontent is about the entire system and the perceived withdrawal of opportunity for the majority of those who were formerly competing in National events. The attempted reversion to a pre-Optimum Schedule structure is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. You might get it back in there, but you certainly wouldn’t want to brush your teeth with it.

Simple Solution Overlooked!
The saddest part is that all of the constituencies could have been satisfied by maintaining the 2010 tournament calendar and merely adding the requirement that all players admitted to National Championships must be endorsed by their home sections.

Players would have more flexibility, and likely lower expense, with a year-round schedule of events which offered all age groups at the same or nearby locations. Sectional influence over their stronger players would have been restored to pre-Optimum Schedule levels, and those who needed or wanted an expanded menu of opponents and surroundings would have been free to fulfill those needs and desires.

It’s not Quotas that are the problem, although they tend to illuminate the problem. The real problem is the contraction of the system to which players and families had become accustomed and largely satisfied with for more than a decade.. It’s taking a system that was using protocols like PPR rankings to expand, then diametrically deciding to compress it.

The Ideal Gas Law says it best: PV=nRT

If you increase the pressure on a closed system, the temperature within the system will rise. And so it has!!!!

Appendix A:
National Rankings – The Past 30 years – A Brief History, Just in Time
In 1980 rankings were an evaluation of how well a player had played against those in his age group. Because they were head-to-head based, they were a starting point for college recruiting and the basis for qualifying for manufacturers’ “Free Lists”. Number of players ranked Rankings were based on head to head results, not points. The total number of players with 1994 year-end National rankings per age division were:
Boys’ 18 – 199; Boys’ 16 – 181; Boy’s 14 – 180
Girls’ 18 – 177; Girls’ 16 – 164; Girls’ 14 -1983

The total of all Nationally ranked players in 1994 was 1,084. Standings did not yet exist. For perspective, there are 2,111 Boys’ 18 players in the 2/20/14 national standings.

Rankings give way to “Standings”
The Optimum Schedule spelled the end of the line for year-end “Rankings” as the standard. Starting in 2000 “Standings” became functionally important while “USTA Rankings” became a beauty contest with no prize for the winner. The Optimum Schedule used ordered lists to select players, so the rankings used for that purpose were renamed “standings”. In addition, they were further used to order alternates, so “rankings/standings” took on an absolute value. Since the ordinal aspect of standings was absolute, it was important to have them include as many players as possible. Subsequently, when that was realized, the minimum point threshold needed to be listed in the “standings” was removed. Under the Optimum Schedule if a player, particularly a sectional player ranked near, or just below, the bottom of the sectional quota, wanted to assure that he would have a chance to get to play in National events through at least one of the pathways, he would have to acquire a national “standing”.

After 2004 and the adoption of the Points Per Round ranking system acquiring a national standing meant harvesting points. This system was easy to understand, eliminated fear of losing, and encouraged more match play. A points-based system is by its very nature an incestuous creature. Those who are in the system and have the points are able to get into more events where points may be accumulated. It’s an imprecise and generally arbitrary way to apportion competitive reward, but because it has been shown to increase play and eliminate “ducking”, its concomitant inequities can be overlooked.

USTA created a ranking environment that begets inequity, but encourages play, so the only way to keep deserving players from “falling through the cracks” is to increase the number of opportunities and make draws at major events larger, not smaller.

Rankings have been used as a behavior management tool. Doubles play had long been promoted as being essential to a well-rounded all-court game, but some coaches and players had decided not to play doubles and rest or drill instead. Since the committee agreed that doubles was essential, they decided to establish standings (used for selection purposes) that combined both singles and ranking points into a single standing list.

In 2008 combined standings became the norm, and guess what? Doubles play immediately increased, and remains so today.

You may ask, “If we allow people who can afford to travel to gobble up all of the ranking points, then how will players of lesser financial means ever have the chance to be recognized?” Those with resources will have an advantage if they choose to exercise it. But that is the case in all endeavors, not just tennis. However, removing the opportunity to travel and play events outside of their home area won’t have any effect on those who don’t have the resources or inclination to do so. The elimination of national play opportunities levels the playing field for everyone, but it does so in a “lowest common denominator” fashion. It also removes the developmental and social benefits that may be associated with those events. Elimination of events also reduces the chance that a player will have a national event close to home or a relative’s home.

One other point here …
The Sectional pathway to National Championships has never gone away! A player who elects to play only within his section, still can compete in all four National Championships, Zonals, and any other national event held within his section. There is no requirement that a player leave his section to qualify for national play. Contrary to what has been alleged, players of limited means can still play within their section and have the opportunity to play at Kalamazoo, San Diego, or any of the other National Championships. Because of the evolution of rankings from a year-end ordering process to the basis for entry into many national events, a demand has been created in the playing population to have opportunities available to seek an improved ranking and thereby improved chances to be included in more national events.

Appendix B:
2014 Selections … Sectional Quotas or National Standing? It Depends!!
Selections for Level 1 National Championships (Clay, The Nationals, Winter) and Level 4 Closed Regionals are via sectional quotas and wild cards. (8 players for 16-18 Clay and The Nationals are qualifiers.) Selections for the Level 1 Grand Masters and National Doubles Championship (gold ball), Level 1A Sweet 16’s, Easter Bowl 12-16 National event, Level 2 and Level 3 National Selection Tournaments, Level 3 National Warm-up Tournaments, and Qualifiers for 16 and 18 summer Nationals are made based on USTA National Standings.

What this means is that if a player wants to play Level 1 national championships and other Level 1, 2, and 3 national events, he must have a high sectional standing plus maintain a national standing, as well. The system bounces from sectional quotas to national standings in a whimsical selection process that forces players meet both sectional and national ranking requirements if they want to have the opportunity to play in the complete national menu of events. The selection process has evolved over the 10 years that the Points Per Round “ranking” system has been in place. The point/ranking criteria for selection for national play has been periodically adjusted.

These selection criteria demand a large pool of players with national standings, while the structure itself serves to limit the numbers of players in the pool who qualify through intersectional national play and substitute them with players who acquire national ranking points in sectional events.

To see detailed 2014 selection criteria, see Appendix D.

Appendix C:
Radically Increased 2014 Point Table Values
Point totals will change radically in 2014 as the year progresses. While the opportunities to acquire points nationally drops, the points awarded to each win are 200-300% higher than their corresponding level in 2013. [The #1 player in Girls’ 16 just won one of four Level 2 32-draw National Selection Tournaments and received 1500 base points, compared to her 1250 base points for winning the Girls’16 National Championship in San Diego.] It is hard to understand this logic, since the relative weighting within the table is relatively close to 2013. Multiplying each value by 3 only serves to devalue results acquired in 2013 and excessively weight results from sectional events with National points. The winner of a 2014 sectional National Level 3 event will acquire more points that the 5th place finisher at the 2013 Nationals at Kalamazoo.

Increasing the point values for rounds reached by 200-300% basically keeps the players point totals similar to 2013 while representing many fewer matches played. Had the point tables been applied retroactively, the desire to increase the importance of National Championships or finishing in the top echelon of any National event would have been satisfied without the skewing that is now occurring, particularly as a result of early-year closed Sectional Level 3 and Level 4 events.

One parent related that his child had no points to defend in January and February and yet has dropped 50 places in the standings

Appendix D:
Selection Process for National Selection Tournaments and Open Regionals
According to the 2014 USTA Junior National Tournament Committee Manual. selection of players for National Selection Tournaments sets no minimum number of points, but rather uses “top 200” of the National Standings List of the next-younger age division, and has no limit on the age division of the event.

Ordering of alternates for National Selection Tournaments uses the top 600 of the natural age division, followed by top 400 of the next lower division, followed by all below 600 on the Standings list of the division, followed by all below 400 on the Standings list of the next younger division.

The 2013 Year-End National Rankings have only one age division (Girls’ 16) with more than 400 “ranked” players. They have 401. None come close to having 600 players, so “rankings” give way to “standings” in the National Selection tournament selection process.

The Open Regionals selection process has different set of tiers, using “top 250” as the cutoff for next-younger age division selection and no cutoff or the age division of the event. Filling remaining vacancies has no restrictions except that the age group of the division is considered first. Alternates are ordered first from the division of the event considering all those with 100 or more points, then those in the next-younger division with 100 or more points.
_____________
* Sources include:
• 2002 and 2009 National Junior Tournament Schedules
• Friend at Court: 1994 to 2014 (except 1995 and 1998)
• USTA Yearbooks as far back as 1995
• 2014 USTA National Junior Tournament Committee Manual

The Emperor Has No Clothes (reblogged from 10sBalls.com)

[The following article was originally published on the website 10sBalls.com – I saw the link posted in a Facebook group frequented by tennis coaches and former players and felt it would be appropriate to repost it in its original form here.  Please take some time to read through the author’s words and share your thoughts in the Comments box below.  Although the author chose to remain anonymous, there are some very viable suggestions contained in the article that could help all of us parents help our junior players achieve their tennis goals. — Lisa]

 

(Editor: This story was submitted to the site. It’s 4,300 words composed from years of frustrations and first hand experience By: An American Guardian Of The Game)

Patrick McEnroe, you are responsible for directing the quite extensive resources of the USTA into junior player development.   In the absence of producing successful players, rather than taking responsibility, you have chosen to throw the junior tennis players and their coaches under the bus.  It is time to call you to task.

“For the first time since 1912, when no American men entered the tournament, not one advanced past the second round.

Patrick McEnroe concedes there may be some truth in the claim that young Americans aren’t willing to sacrifice as much as their counterparts around the world. “Blaming our players is not the answer,” he said. “We need to educate them at a younger age about what it takes, so they learn the right things to do early.” –Washington Post

Not willing to sacrifice?  There are thousands of kids out there that spend a fortune to travel to USTA national (you know, the ones with the absurd $151 entry fees) and international tournaments in search of competitive match play and rankings.  Many of them sacrifice normal adolescent lives and relationships in order to pursue something greater.  They forego fun weekends and post- school-day hangouts with friends and social interaction, and they incur injuries and debt and failure on a regular basis.  They spend five hours per day on court and another hour in the gym, and give up fun fatty foods for those which will fuel their bodies.  They suffer weeks where the mood of the house is dependent upon their performance and, sadly, they may only be ten years old when that pressure begins.  They endure losses and failure and some of that may be attributable to their unavoidable lack of talent or athleticism.  They give up dates with boyfriends or girlfriends and Friday night football games and family vacations so they can boost their rankings or get in one more practice.  They tolerate constant soreness and dehydration – and a future with swollen joints – for a shot at what is almost impossible.  They risk what would be college tuition money in hopes of avoiding injury and perfecting their games in order to receive an athletic scholarship. And you have the audacity to claim they are not willing to sacrifice as much as their counterparts around the world?  Let’s look at who is the pot calling the kettle names here.

YOU are the Czar of Player Development for juniors in the US, and presumably make the recommendations to the USTA how to structure player development across the United States.  It thus appears that YOU agree with shortening matches from three sets to two-plus-a-breaker.  YOU marginalized or eliminated doubles matches.  YOU attempted to constrict draws so fewer kids would get to compete at nationals.  YOU decided to introduce and promote Ten and Under Tennis/Quickstart to make the game EASIER, and to prevent talent from advancing when they are ready.  YOU imposed a mandate based upon unproven research to make the game easier and then accuse us of not working hard enough. YOU transformed from someone, who avoided accepting juniors with collegiate intentions into your player development program, into someone who thinks college can be good preparation for professional tennis. YOU claim our children are not willing to sacrifice and then you lower the barriers to progress in every way.  YOU have only YOURSELF TO BLAME for America’s current state in the game.

To claim Americans don’t understand hard work or that we are unwilling to sacrifice is to go against the character of this nation.  When the competition gets tough, Americans step up – WE always have.  WE do not look without for excuses. WE do not blame the competitive arena for better competitors, or suggest that the global nature of sport makes it tougher for us.  That’s what YOU do. WE get tougher, more dedicated. WE do not turn to a bureaucracy to cure our ills, but rather, WE seek that innovative individual spirit and revolutionary wherewithal that allowed this nation to overcome tyranny and thrive in the face of despotism. WE are as blue collar as it gets and WE are more than willing to jump into the trenches to fight for what we believe.  WE are willing to work harder than any competitor and to sacrifice everything for a shot at titles.  Ask the Brothers Bryan and the Sisters Williams.  Every two years, our Olympians confirm that the American athlete is still one of the greatest in the world.  In spite of your efforts to shorten matches and hold kids back from the yellow tennis ball, WE teach our children to overcome obstacles, to thwart dictatorial regimes, and to prosper through perseverance. To us, sacrifice is one step on the trail to greatness, and to suggest we are not willing to forfeit everything for a chance at glory is to demean our character. WE take umbrage at your insolence.

The truth, however, is success requires leadership.  And our present leader is performing a half-ass job for one organization, while taking money from another, and then scapegoating the people he is presumably responsible for.  That is hypocritical, irresponsible and arrogant, so we leave that for YOU, with the hope that you never again confuse the letters ESPN with USTA.

YOU continue to blame the kids for not being able to construct points and accuse them of not being willing to sacrifice (Yes, I know you said “blaming our players is not the answer” but that is exactly what you are doing), to blame the parents for being poorly educated about the sacrifices required for this game.  And yet, YOU are the one who will avoid junior tournaments like the plague.  YOU refuse to commit to the private coaching hours required to develop talent by tossing and feeding millions of balls, and sitting with players to explain what is needed to become an elite professional, and getting to know them holistically – their families, their schools, their personal relationships, and emotional setbacks, and injury-filled pasts, and myriad other petty and unsexy things that make up a human being first and a tennis player second.  YOU would rather sit in your comfortable commentator’s booth or White Plains office and offer scathing opinions of America’s best young talent.  The pivotal lines of leadership are not sketched on some whiteboard.  They are created through inspiration and participation.

Leadership’s robes do not come from making appearances, but rather, from fighting in the trenches with the troops, and surrendering one’s self for your team, and giving up media jobs and high-powered luncheons and seven-figure salaries to tough it out when the lighting is dim and the courts are cracked and the body is exhausted.  That is sacrifice, and it is YOU who are unwilling to make it. I’ll say it again, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

YOU have hired foreign coaches who prepare the curriculum for player development and who should have the motivational tools to get players to push to the levels required for professional tennis.  YOU have chosen to abandon the American coaches who’ve been responsible for the development of so many world champions, including those from other countries.  YOU have chosen to take top junior players away from their private coaches and bring them to your foreign coaches, coaches who continue to fail to produce champions from the obscene crop of talent we private coaches continue to push into your funnel of failure – If these foreign coaches aren’t succeeding, why haven’t you fired them?

Here’s another one of your loathsome comments:

I can guarantee you there are more, better coaches in other countries than in this country, percentage-wise.”  – Men’s Journal

Really? Then perhaps you should go join them.  A leader doesn’t praise the enemy and belittle his own troops, but rather, a leader leads by example.  Leadership is about role modeling and solving problems.  It requires hours of helping people break habits and putting in the effort and motivational time to rebuild them as confident competitors, not blaming them for lack of hard work and scapegoating them for your own personal and professional failures.  Assuming you actually believe these foreign coaches are better, leadership means getting your presumed “better coaches” out to the masses to educate the “lesser American coaches” so that a rising tide will lift all ships.  This makes more sense than cherry-picking the best kids and taking them from their private coaches who do all of the grunt work.  Leadership is the place where responsibility and accountability kiss, and right now that seems to be where the sun don’t shine.

Maybe if you got your ass out of the media booth for those eight weeks per year that you are supposed to be doing your player development job, and placed it on a court with some of the country’s best developmental coaches, you’d understand what I’m talking about.  You want respect from the tennis community?  Grab a racket and a few beginners and come earn it!  Until you join us in the trenches, we have neither the time nor the inclination for your disparaging words.

Wrongly, YOU believe our job as private coaches is to bring talented and successful kids to you because you believe you can do it better than us. YOU expect us to slog hours through the developmental muck and to help young children develop character, work ethic, passion and commitment.  YOU expect us to bring you perfectly formed little champions so you can ride their coattails of success and expound upon your own sagacity. And when they don’t make it, you accuse these kids of NOT SACRIFICING ENOUGH FOR YOU?  That is a condemnation of the coaches, the kids and the families.  To blame others for your own ineptitude is the highest form of arrogance.  I commend you on your achievement!

You hire ex-players as coaches assuming – with NO evidence – the skill set for coaching is the same as the skill set for competing.  Though these are great people who want the best for the kids, this demonstrates your complete lack of understanding of the requisite talent comprising the developmental coaching community.

Meanwhile, you sit in your high-salaried office having your coaches recruit/steal America’s top juniors by offering them travel and coaching incentives from your $300 million dollar US OPEN trust fund – a fund we private coaches cannot compete with  – and then blame everyone but yourself when the kids do not make it.  YOU and your coaching staff have access to every single top player in America, you have a massive player development budget compared to other nations, you have training centers and the best technology money can buy, you have private housing for kids and coaches and an absurd expense account for your personal needs, you have equipment manufacturers and trainers and past champions at your beck and call.  Annually, the US produces juniors who win international championships at both individual and team competitions, and then the USTA PD staff picks them up to presumably “take them to the next level.”

And with all of that – more resources than any nation on the planet – the USTA PD program has failed to produce a champion. Yet, the organization continues to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of just one success story to justify its existence.  American tennis is at its worst place in our nation’s history and you are manning the helm of a ship that continues to sink into the depths of international waters now thick with better boats.  And you have the gall to impugn us?  At what point do you begin to blame yourself for the recent dearth of American champions? The mirror never lies, Patrick.  THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!

Frankly, I am not even questioning your intentions.  I truly believe you’d like to see American tennis rise again. But intention and arrogance are rotten comrades.  With intention should come humility, and an honest assessment of one’s accomplishments and failures.  On this account, you are lacking.  It is time for you to go. Before you do, though, please put some clothes on because someone has now exposed your nakedness and the crowd is starting to speak up.

It would be irresponsible of me to cast aspersions without offering some remedies for our current state.   And so, in the interest of bettering American tennis:

 

ACTION ITEM ONE

After twenty-five years of abysmal non-performance, the USTA player development program needs to reassess its purpose.  According to the establishment’s current mission statement,  “To grow the game…” they should be directing their resources toward community tennis initiatives, tournament structures, and league tennis.  However, believing the development of an elite cadre of American athletes will contribute to the growth of the game, the USTA has taken on the daunting role of player development.  Several high level coaches contend this approach does not fall within the boundaries of the organization’s proposed mission, and deem the USTA’s approach antithetical to the private coaching community’s success.

Patrick McEnroe sees the private coaching community as a conduit into the USTA PD national program.  “Coaches should be promoting their programs by touting the number of players they send to us,” stated McEnroe at an event in Southern California.  Within the private coaching profession, a vocal community reflects on the PD program’s lack of success and questions whether PD really can do it better.  They feel the USTA is cherry-picking the nation’s best players with promises of free coaching, grant money, wildcard opportunities, and travel expenses to ITF events.

“The USTA tells parents the players have to attend their workouts 4-5 days a week, and play within their development system.  Too often, this “system” goes against the private coach’s theory on player development and the kid ends up leaving the private coach for the USTA perks.  It is not the direct theft of a player, but what parents and kids are going to say “No” to the sport’s governing body?  Then, when the player underperforms, the USTA drops the kid for the next presumed prodigy.  Two decades later, with no accountability for their failures, they are still searching for someone to hang their hat on,” says one prominent Southern California coach wanting to maintain anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Having traveled the world with junior and professional players, I feel the USTA has a less-than-outstanding understanding of how to construct an elite player development program.  The professional tennis world is an ocean of talent.  The current PD model has PD scouts traveling from small pond to small pond, all across the country, in search of a few talented drops of water.  They remove these players from their small ponds, offer them the world, and expect them to enter the professional ocean and make an impact.  Handpicking twenty or so kids per year has about the same odds as buying a winning lottery ticket, and, with millions dollars going into the program, appears to be an abhorrent waste of money.

Instead, the USTA should change its model.  With PD coaches who’ve had tour experience and a good understanding of professional tennis life, they have an under-utilized and improperly directed asset. These PD coaches should not be centrally located to work with players, but rather, travel around the country working with players and their private coaches.  By passing on their knowledge to private coaches, they are no longer limited to affecting a few players per year, but now access and inform all of the players under all of the coaches with whom they communicate.  Once done, the few drops in a pond will become strong currents of players in a river that flows mightily into the ocean of professional tennis.  John Kennedy said A rising tide lifts all boats, and in this casePD should allocate its resources to raising the floodwaters of American coaching.

But this would entail removing the egos from the equation, the desire to have OUR OWN USTA kids, under OUR OWN tutelage, so we can show how good WE ARE as national coaches.  It would require these national coaches to stop hoarding their presumed wisdom for their post-USTA careers and to focus on educating the nation’s coaches so we can grow the quality of American tennis as a whole.

Sadly, USTA PD now sees itself in competition with the private coaching community.  The PD coaches work with talent taken from private coaches, and then, to the detriment of the other U.S. kids, sit behind court fences cheering on their OWN charges.  Few things are more offensive to a tennis parent than seeing his/her own child cheered against by the organization that presumably attracted the kid to the game in the first place.  It is nepotism inverted.

Get the information into the hands of the people that can use it and let the kids compete.

Step one on the path back to American success involves sending USTA’s PD coaches out to the country’s tennis clubs such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available.  Do this only until their contracts run out and then move on to Action Item Two.

 

ACTION ITEM TWO

In a quest to repudiate the USTA PD’s belief that they are responsible for producing the next generation of US players, and in the hopes that the USTA will stop cherry-picking America’s top players in the search for a champion, I herewith offer another solution for American player development.

The USTA has made an assumption that hiring former professional players is the equivalent to hiring quality professional level coaches.  Frankly, there is almost zero correlation between the playing and coaching skill sets.  Coaching requires creativity, an ability to articulate information through aural, kinesthetic and visual means.  It demands incredible patience and an ability to motivate others.  Moreover, coaching involves a wholesale commitment to a player in order to understand: 1) the psychological barriers which might impede a player’s progress, 2) the familial and training environment the player must deal with in addition to tennis practices, 3) a history of the player’s emotional and physical development so as to modify training for trauma, injury, and various other stressors, 4) etc.

Playing, however, requires a wholly different skill set.  Great players feel the ball, the urgencies and vacillations, and the instinctive shot making. This is not to say great players cannot be great coaches, but rather, only that great players are not necessarily great coaches.  Blessed with supreme talent, many professional tennis players frequently cannot articulate how they perform technical skills.  Their learning experience is concentrated upon their particular learning style, and their sole concern is motivating themselves.  Better than most people, great players recognize the hours required to master certain skill sets, and to suggest they can become great coaches without putting in the requisite hours is to belittle the coaching profession and to express a level of arrogance not conducive to a supra-standard organization.  Only a poorly educated organization would hire employees based on assumptions rather than evidence.

However, these coaches have wisdom from playing experience, and clearly it would be irresponsible not to include them in the national player development plan.   But, their knowledge should go to the coaching community whose professional skill in developing players is far better.  To help American tennis, the governing body should focus on the infrastructure, not the end product.  Rather than commandeer the talented few, build the framework and let champions emerge.  This is the American way.

Develop a website where professional players can submit their information.  Pay them based on the number of hits, or re-tweets, or feedback.  If the information is quality, they will benefit, but if it’s not, at least they won’t be receiving USTA PD dollars with ZERO accountability.  In other words, leave the value up to the voter.

Hypothesizing about successful solutions and failing – while burning through millions of dollars – is no longer a viable solution.  Let’s remove the player development staff and throw things back to the private coaching community, the ONLY historically successful player development entity in this country. By eliminating the constantly flipping USTA PD regimes, we can open up dollars to try new ways to develop America’s upcoming generations.

Step Two on the path back to American success involves creating a website where former players can provide coaching insight via video, while generating a small revenue stream, such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available.

 

ACTION ITEM THREE

The greatest wealth of tennis wisdom rests in the minds of men and women who are nearly done raging against the dying of the light.  Let us not be thrust into darkness.

The USTA should allocate dollars to document the knowledge from the game’s elite coaches. Send out an educated interviewer – Paul Annacone perhaps – one who presumably understands the requisite questions one should ask to glean the wisdom from these masters.  Talk about strategy and tactics, mid-match adjustments, mental fortitude and what it takes to become a champion.

In this nation, we have several coaches with incredible insight into the elite levels of professional tennis. Robert Lansdorp has coached five number one players in the world. Nick Bollettieri and his staff have coached over a dozen.  Egos aside, we can document this for future generations.  Tyson studied Ali.  Sampras studied Laver.  Our coaches should be able to study history’s best coaches.  It would be a tribute and a lasting legacy for all of these aged wise ones. Pay them their hourly rate to talk, to discuss, and to inform.  How sad to think we might not archive the strategic mind of Pancho Segura.

You want to boost USTA membership? Make the information available on the USTA website for members only.  How many of the nations lesson-takers do you think would pony up $40 for this kind of information?  You claim the coaching in the country is sub-standard, and yet, aside from a few high performance seminars each year, you do nothing to address the problem.  This is a solution that will last for generations.

Step Three on the path back to American success involves documenting wisdom from historically successful coaches, such that more coaches and players have access to the best information available.

 

ACTION ITEM FOUR

The US junior tennis ranking system is as difficult to decipher as the US Tax Code and adjustments are all too frequent.  The upshot of this obfuscation is a cadre of confused parents sweating and straining to navigate the rankings labyrinth.  We hear phrases like “spending a fortune to chase points,” and “have to play these to get into that,” all said with a face that suggests imminent diarrhea.  And yet, somehow the multi-national ITF junior circuit requires no new iterations.  Why not copy a successful model?   How does an ITF player earn his/her way into the junior U.S. Open?  They accumulate enough points at each ITF tournament level and that gains them access into higher-level events.  The private website Tennisrecruiting.net has now gained more credence than the national organization’s system. At some point, even the $300 million dollar elephant in the room is going to get old and infirm.  Study the successful model and adapt, or be relegated to extinction.

In cohesion with the simplification theme, let’s provide parents with better education about the competitive pathways for player development.  Create a simple chart to explain the USTA tournament system, the ITF tournament system, and the professional path to success.  Let’s further inform them of the possible expenses, obstacles, and expectations they should have during their road to competitive tennis.

When the USTA offers wildcards, developmental grants, and invitations to their developmental centers without providing specific selection criteria, it exposes itself to accusations of nepotism and subjectivity.  Worse yet, if the criteria are posted and exceptions are more frequent than the rule, parents and players will condemn the powers-that-be.  Thus, the current state of junior tennis disenfranchisement in America.

Step Four on the path back to American success involves simplifying the rankings system so your average ten-year old can understand how to advance.  After all, the rankings are for the kids, right.  Additionally, let’s provide clear and simple roadmaps for the various competitive pathways.

 

 

ACTION ITEM FIVE

At present, unless you are hand-picked, by the USTA, to be one of the chosen – which is probably the death knell of your career by the way – there is little chance of financial support coming your way.  Therefore, let’s take $2,000,000 of the PD budget and run 20, $50,ooo winner-take-all prize money tournaments, for men and women, across the United States, with the following caveats:

·      US players only

·      No one in the top 100 WTA or ATP is eligible to compete in them.

·      Once you’ve won one of these events, you are no longer eligible to play in another one for twelve months.

·      Once you have won three of these events, you are no longer eligible to play in them.

These events will motivate more players to compete and subsidize those who desperately need it to fund themselves on the pro circuit.

The alternative to this is a performance-based financial support system for rookie professionals, with funding recoverable if rankings improve.  This financial assistance program involves grant money for achieving specific ranking levels.  For example:

Players reaching 800 WTA/ATP receive a $10,000 stipend.

Players reaching 600 WTA/ATP receive a $20,000 stipend.

Players reaching 400 WTA/ATP receive a $25,000 stipend.

Players reaching 200 WTA/ATP receive a $25,000 stipend.

Players reaching 100 WTA/ATP or higher, would pay 10% of their annual prize money back to the granting organization, until all grant monies have been recovered or until the player retires.

Certainly the details can be worked to make this financially feasible, but as an idea in its fetal stages, it may hold some merit to incentivize performance and to allow underfunded players to stay out there long enough to build a career.

Step Five on the path back to American success involves finding alternative ways to fund talented players for their initial forays into professional tennis.

I’m sure others have many more ideas and I’m hoping to compel the forces of American tennis to speak out.  As the Americans’ brief traipse across Wimbledon’s lawns suggests, the time for new leadership is at hand.  Let the search begin.

—An American Tennis Guardian

“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.

USTA Follow-Up

The rules have changed all right, and it’s not just for the 10-and-under crowd.  I recently reported on the Q&A sessions that USTA hosted at various national hardcourt championships earlier this month.  As promised in that piece, I reached out to Tim Russell, Patrick McEnroe, Lew Brewer, and others to get a better understanding of what USTA is trying to accomplish with its changes to the 2014 Junior Competition schedule.  I emailed them the link to my article along with some specific follow-up questions.  While Patrick did reply that he would call me to discuss my questions, I haven’t yet heard from him.  However, I did have multiple lengthy phone conversations with both Tim Russell and Lew Brewer – a big thank you to both gentlemen for taking the time to talk with me – and here’s what I found out during those calls:

  • First of all, parents, coaches, and players need to read the New USTA Junior Competition Structure FAQ – click here – several of your questions are probably answered within it.  Why did the USTA make these changes?  According to page 9 of the FAQ, among the goals is to “prepare an appropriate national tournament structure and rating/ranking system for the future which is affordable [emphasis added] and will ensure that competitive tennis opportunities are available for all American juniors regardless of their economic circumstances and where they reside; and supports the importance of a traditional American education [emphasis added] and does not require students to short-change their academic careers.”  Please keep those 2 things in mind as you continue reading.
  • Regarding the Regional Tournaments and Sectional Ranking Tournaments, they are explained on page 6 of the FAQ.  It is interesting to note how the regions are arranged.  When I asked Lew Brewer how this will reduce costs and missed school days, he told me that juniors will be able to stay closer to home and still get good competition.  However, when I look at my new region (comprised of the Southern, Florida, and Caribbean sections), I’m hard-pressed to understand how a junior from the Virgin Islands is better served traveling to Lexington, Kentucky (for example) for a tournament rather than staying closer to home to compete.
  • Tim conceded that USTA does a poor job of communicating with its membership, and Lew said they do need to do a better job.  They both told me that they had been advised by the USTA legal department that they were prohibited from emailing junior members since they were under the age of 18.  When I pointed out that USTA could circumnavigate that issue by adding a box on the membership form allowing junior members to enter a parent’s email address and opt-in to an email distribution list or e-newsletter, they agreed to look into it.  I also suggested that USTA use its Facebook and Twitter accounts to do a better job of communicating with both juniors and their parents.  Again, both Tim and Lew agreed that it was a good idea.
  • When I asked why USTA doesn’t have staff or even volunteers who report on top junior and college events, I was not given a clear answer other than “we need to do a better job at that”.
  • When I asked what Patrick meant when he said, “We know at 13 or 14 who the top players are”, Lew responded that every American top 100 professional player in the “Open Era” was ranked in the national top 50 at age 13 or 14 and that there are very few who break through after that age.  He pointed out that Sam Querrey happened to be one of those players, and that Sam was given a USTA wildcard for the Junior US Open (and got to the quarters that year) despite the fact that he had a lower ranking than many others in the draw.  He also told me that the goal of Junior Comp is to cast a wide net for the younger players then funnel it up as the players get older.
  • I asked Lew to explain how the wildcard system will work under the new schedule.  I told him that the word on the street is that the wildcards will be reserved for kids at the USTA Regional Training Centers.  He told me that the number of wildcards will be reduced in 2014 in all age groups except the 18s.  The wildcards will be used, among other reasons, for (1) players whose ranking has dropped due to injury, (2) local players who may not be ranked highly enough but bring local interest to the tournament, and/or (3) players who missed the entry deadline but would have qualified for the tournament by their ranking otherwise.  Lew said that it never hurts to ask for a wildcard into any event – USTA even has an online application to make things simpler – and asked me to remind players and parents that the universal deadline for wildcard applications is always 5 days after the event’s entry deadline.  (Please note: tournament directors have the discretion to accept late entries, but in national championships, all late entries must go to the bottom of the alternate list – that is why a wildcard might be used in that circumstance.)
  • I also spoke with Lew about the aging-up dilemma that we all face.  He recommends players start playing up at least 3-4 months ahead of time.  The rolling ranking and the events that take players based on their younger ranking make things easier, though Lew agreed that it’s still very tough for juniors to transition to the next age group.
  • USTA has stated that it decided to reduce the draw sizes (see page 3 of the FAQ) partially because it wants to reduce costs for families and shorten the tournaments so players miss fewer days of school.  Justifying the 128 draw size in the boys nationals in Kalamazoo, traditionally a great recruiting opportunity for college coaches, Lew said, “Honestly, while there are coaches who are interested in the 129th player to the 192nd player, more are looking at that top 128.”  He told me that there were complaints from coaches and players that too many early-round matches at the national tournaments aren’t competitive, and that there are too many withdrawals from the backdraw.  He shared that there have been several cases of players who lost 0 & 0  or 0 &1 in their first round main draw match, had a similar loss in the first round backdraw match, and another bad loss in the first round doubles match.  Lew’s point was that, obviously, those players didn’t belong at a top national event, that they just weren’t competitive at that level, and that cutting the draw size to 128 would save others from that type of “triple-crown” humiliation.  Lew went on to say that if a player wants the Kalamazoo t-shirt that badly, he (Lew) would send him one.  I pointed out that there is an aura around Kalamazoo and that sometimes simply the experience of being at the tournament is enough for some players.  Why eliminate that experience for someone who is willing to take the risk and travel there?  I think the USTA folks understand that point of view but still feel the smaller draws are the best way to go.  When I suggested USTA hold a qualifying tournament for those on the bubble right before the national events, Lew said that at this point they are not considering any change before 2014.
  • We discussed how the section quotas will change in 2014 (see page 4 of the FAQ).  The biggest change concerns looking at the strength of the section and not just membership numbers when determining quotas.  Beginning in 2014, USTA will base 60% of the quota on the percentage of players in the top 150 nationally and 40% of the quota on traditional membership numbers.  He told me that it’s possible that a strong section like Southern California, Texas, or Southern may actually see its quota increase in 2014.
  • We also discussed how voting works in USTA.  Lew explained that individual members do not have a vote.  Rather, club and organization memberships determine the number of votes each section is allocated.  Apparently, USTA was set up to operate in that manner from the get-go in 1881.
  • Lastly, we discussed the online survey that USTA did a couple of years ago.  Overwhelmingly, those who took the time to answer the survey questions said they would prefer tournaments have smaller draws so they would take fewer days to complete (and, as a result, be less expensive for families and require missing fewer days of school).  I pointed out to Lew that nowhere in the survey was it mentioned that the results would be used to justify the changes that we’re now seeing in the national schedule.  I told him that if USTA had disclosed the fact that they were going to use the survey responses to justify cutting the draws at our country’s top junior events, I was sure parents would have answered differently.  Best case scenario is that this is a case of poor communication on USTA’s part.  Lew Brewer says, “No one expects everyone to agree with the plan for 2014, but it WILL become effective on January 1, 2014.  I think a lot of this mirrors the health-care debate.  There are many who want to appeal the affordable care act.  It is scheduled to become fully effective on January 1, 2014.  Just like our plan, very few Americans have read the affordable health care act and are reacting to what is broadcast on the news or the blogs.  The smart money – the insurance companies and healthcare providers – are preparing for 2014, because they can’t afford to be left behind if the law is not repealed.  I think tennis parents and coaches would be wise to begin preparing for 2014 as well.  I think players, parents, and coaches ought to be focusing on what they can do to help players develop their games so that they are ready for the enhanced competitive environment in 2014.  No player should be left behind because they think something will change with this plan.”
  • Despite Lew’s comment that this is a done deal, some folks have created an online petition in hopes of getting USTA to rethink its stance.  You can find the petition at www.gopetition.com.  Please consider signing and sharing with others in the tennis community.  And, in the meantime, take Lew’s advice and get your junior player ready for the New Normal.

To Sum It All Up . . .

It’s been a crazy week in the world of junior tennis!  In case you’re feeling as overwhelmed as I am, I thought I’d summarize what’s going on and my recommended action items.

  • USTA has adopted changes to its Junior Competition calendar that will become effective in 2014. If you haven’t yet seen it, the new 2014 tournament calendar is here. Some interested parties who feel that the changes should, at the very least, be delayed for further study, have created an online petition and are seeking signatures. If you would like to view and/or sign this petition, click here.
  • NCAA has passed new rules affecting its year-end Championships effective September 1, 2012, for the Spring 2013 tournament.  The rules are purported to be in the interest of bringing additional fans to the sport and garnering tv coverage.  To read the new rules, click here.  To their credit, USTA is partnering with ITA to write a joint opposition letter to the rule changes.
  • A group of current and former collegiate players have formed a Facebook group to try to get NCAA to reconsider the rule changes.  They have created an event to organize a Twitter rampage on Saturday at Noon EDT.  To learn more, click here.  They have also created an online petition to overturn the changes.  To read and/or sign it, click here.
  • Sunday’s ParentingAces radio show will feature a discussion of the NCAA rule changes and what we as tennis parents can do to help preserve the integrity of the college system for our kids.  Tune in live at 6:30pm EDT by clicking here then call in with your questions and/or comments at 714-583-6853.  If you miss the live broadcast, you can hear the podcast by clicking on the Radio Show tab in the menu bar above.