College Players Soar at US Open

With all the proposed changes NCAA is trying to make, you would think there was a problem with US college tennis.  This first week of the US Open is proving otherwise.

We have seen some incredible wins by our young guns in Flushing.  Stanford’s Mallory Burdette took out Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland in her first round match in straight sets then did similar work against Lucie Hradecka (you may recognize this name as one of the silver medal doubles winners at last month’s London Olympics) of the Czech Republic in Round 2.

On the men’s side, USC’s Steve Johnson (NCAA Singles Champion in 2011 and 2012) beat former University of Illinois player Rajeev Ram in the first round then partnered with Jack Sock to oust the top seeds in the Men’s Doubles draw.  Stanford’s Bradley Klahn had an incredible 5-set win over Jurgen Melzer – I’m guessing playing out those tight 3rd sets during the college season was instrumental in helping him get the W yesterday!  And UCLA’s Dennis Novikov, who is also the 2012 Kalamazoo champ, won a hard-fought battle against Jerzy Janowicz in his first round match.  Our best-known college player and former Georgia Bulldog, John Isner (this year’s 9 seed), had an uneventful first round win over Belgium’s Xavier Malisse.

Both the men and women are having success in the doubles as well.  Besides Johnson and Sock’s win, Ram partnered with Belmont College coach and Comeback Kid Brian Baker to beat Emmrick and Sijsling in the first round.  Novikov partnered with fellow junior player Michael Redlicki to get a win over veteran Americans Bobby Reynolds (former Vanderbilt standout) and Michael Russell (1997 NCAA Rookie of the Year at University of Miami).  And former Georgia Tech star, Irina Falconi, partnered with former USC standout, Maria Sanchez, to win their first match versus Cadantu and Johansson.

To be fair, not all of our college players fared so well.  University of Tennessee grad, Rhyne Williams, had a very tough match, drawing Andy Roddick in the first round.  Williams put up a good fight and definitely made Roddick earn the win.  And Jesse Levine, a former Florida Gator, fell in 5 sets to 14 seed Ukranian player Alexandr Dolgopolov.

It would seem that the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is applicable here.  The young men and women mentioned above are living the dream of countless junior players – going to college, getting a degree, improving their tennis, then parlaying all those skills into success at the professional level.  While I realize that a first- or second-round win doesn’t prove that college tennis is a viable stepping stone to the pro circuit, it certainly shows that a young player can take that path and have positive results.

Good luck to our players as they move on to Round 2 and beyond!

We’re in Good Hands!

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. – George Orwell

Last week was quite a whirlwind in the tennis world.  I spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through Facebook posts and Twitter tweets trying to keep up with all the conversations involving the NCAA changes to college tennis and the USTA changes to junior tennis.  One very positive thing that came out of all this craziness was the creation of a new Facebook group that just may be the unifying force we need.

Started by two young men – Bob Van Overbeek (University of Florida) and Evan King (University of Michigan), both top D1 college players – this group grew from 0 to 8000+ members over the course of the weekend.  It’s made up of current college players – both men and women – from D1, 2, and 3 programs as well as coaches, parents, fans, past players, and aspiring junior players.

I wondered how these 2 college boys came up with the idea of using Facebook to make a statement to the NCAA about its proposed changes to the year-end Championships.  Bob told me, “Evan and I were talking about Manny Diaz‘s tweets about the NCAA changes, and then shortly after that we saw the document with all of the writing and official changes on it. We started out sort of joking that we should do something about it. The joking led to us actually deciding to make the group and spreading it to everyone we knew. Our only goal was to simply share the information because sometimes the NCAA does these sorts of things and it gets swept under the rug. I think once people learned about what the changes were it got a lot of people angry so the word spread quickly.”

Boy, did it!  Not only were these guys able to organize a “Twitter Rampage” on Saturday, causing the #SaveCollegeTennis topic to trend several times throughout the weekend, but they’ve also tapped into the group’s resources to create an online petition (which now has more than 3000 signatures in only 2 days) asking NCAA to reverse the changes .  And, the mainstream media is certainly paying attention.  The boys’ efforts have been written about in USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times.

These two young men have turned their passion into action, and it’s been absolutely amazing to watch the explosion.  They are obviously intelligent guys given their educational institutions, but, more than that, they are wise beyond their years .

I decided to take advantage of their wisdom and get some advice.  I asked Bob if he had any advice for junior players who want to play college tennis.  His answer:  “The most important piece, something I tell everybody I meet, is to take every visit you possibly can. Every school will feel awesome when you are there, so make sure you see as many as possible. The second is don’t choose a school based on how good they are because teams can be great and then awful within a year or two. Make sure you choose based on the feel of the people who will be your teammates (people your age also looking at school), the coaches, and overall the city is something you can see being a lot of fun for four years because school and tennis can get stressful, but as long as you enjoy where you are and what you are doing, it will all be so much easier.”

And his advice for us parents?  “First, check to see if playing tennis is really what THE PLAYER wants to be doing, not what the parent wants the player to be doing. If the player is only playing because the parents want him/her to, then I would suggest getting out of tennis ASAP. But, if the player truly wants to play and loves it, then the second step is to back off as much as possible. If it is something that the player truly loves, the player will make all the effort needed and will learn by making the mistakes on their own. Obviously the parents need to give their support, but  all too often, tennis parents will get way too involved on and off the court. I see parents watching matches and freaking out, assuming that this match is the match that will solidify their child’s place in a college or at top 10 in the ranking. Parents have to remember, just as players do, that 1 match is only that, one match, and it is not life or death.”

Wise words from one who knows.

USTA Steps Up

I received the following from USTA this morning:

USTA Statement on Proposed NCAA Changes to Collegiate Tennis

The USTA is aware of the proposed format changes being made by the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee to the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships.  Working with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), the USTA is preparing a joint opposition letter to these changes.  The letter will be distributed to the committee in advance of its Monday, August 20th meeting.

NCAA Changes

When we are confronted by challenges, we have a choice:  sit back and accept them (glass half empty approach) OR take action and attempt to turn them into something positive (glass half full approach).  Concerning this week’s announcement by the NCAA that it is changing the format of the Division 1 year-end tennis tournament, I’m choosing to join several of the current, future, and recently-graduated players and take action.

In a nutshell, NCAA has decided that, during its year-end tourney, (1) players will have no on-court warmup; (2) the six singles matches will play first and will play a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a third set; (3) changeovers will last 60 seconds instead of the current 90; (4) the three doubles matches will be played after a 5-minute break; and (5) doubles matches will be one 6-game set with a 7-point tiebreaker played at 6-all.  These changes go into effect beginning September 1, 2012, for the 2013 Championships.  To read the complete report from the July NCAA meeting, click here.  The report includes a list of the committee members in attendance along with their university affiliation.

Hayley Carter, a high school senior who recently committed to play for UNC, emailed me the following:  “Although I sincerely appreciate all the NCAA does for us in providing us with scholarships to play the sport we love, I do not agree with the new rules they have put in place. My plans are to use college tennis as a stepping-stone into professional tennis. Looking at the WTA success of former college players, such as Irina Falconi and more recently Mallory Burdette, I have no doubt that I can use the experience of college tennis to help me make it on the pro tour, but with the recent rule changes it will make it that much more difficult.”

Hayley goes on:  “No matter if it results in a win or a loss, third sets are times when players give everything they have when they have no energy left, when they learn to fight and compete for every point no matter the adversity, and when, most importantly, they grow as a player. In my opinion, the change to a 10-point tiebreaker greatly diminishes all of the things that are learned through a hard-fought third set. Skill and hard work become more easily replaced with luck, when just a few points can have such a big impact on determining the outcome of a match.”

Hayley’s sentiments are echoed by many of her tennis compadres as evidenced by the number of members (over 2400 after less than one day) and posts on the *OFFICIAL* Against the changes to NCAA tennis Facebook group.  These young players are outraged by the seemingly revenue-driven changes to the sport they have devoted over half their lives learning and mastering, all for the chance to play at the collegiate – and maybe professional – level.  All the NCAA is doing is “dumbing down” our sport, eliminating the fitness factor for players, and making college tennis a less attractive option for our juniors.

Wise words from another collegiate player:  “The bottom line is in tennis you are either going to have fans or you aren’t. Don’t keep using that excuse as a way to change the rules. Fans will stay whether the matches are two hours or ten hours. Those who aren’t fans don’t show up anyway. Tennis is one of the few sports that doesn’t have a clock involved and that is what makes it special. Do you think the matches between Nadal and Djokovic, Federer and Nadal would have been as inspiring if they played a 10 point breaker for the 5th set?”

I hope you’ll join me on Sunday’s radio show to discuss these changes and what, if anything, we tennis parents can do to convince NCAA to overturn them before any long-term damage is done to junior tennis in the U.S.  My guests on Sunday’s show are Drake Bernstein, Assistant Women’s Tennis Coach at the University of Georgia, and Colette Lewis, tennis journalist and creator of ZooTennis.com.  Please plan to tune in and call in (714-583-6853) so we can try to figure out the next step.

A Matter of Fitness

AUSSIE OPEN SEMIFINAL MATCH SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

If you don’t want to know the outcome of the Djokovic-Murray semifinal match, stop reading now!

I watched that match with great interest, especially as it moved into the 5th set.  Both players were looking a bit fatigued, and it was obvious that this match was going to come down to who was the most fit – both physically and mentally.  While Djokovic has traditionally been plagued with physical ailments which caused him to either retire matches or lose them outright, Murray has been plagued with fatigue of the mental sort but has always been a beast physically.  Today was different.  Murray seemed to lose his legs early in the final set, struggling to stay in points long enough to do damage to his opponent.  Somehow, he found a last burst of energy to come back from a 2-5 deficit, but, eventually, Djokovic had a little more in the tank and was able to close out the match 7-5 in the 5th.

Why is this important to note?  Because our junior players are no longer being pushed to their physical limits in tournament play.  Many tournaments, even those at the highest national level, have gone to playing a 10-point tiebreaker in lieu of a 3rd set and to playing short sets in the case of weather delays.  When our American kids are across the net from their European or South American or Asian counterparts, are they going to be able to withstand the physical – and mental – pressure of playing for three full sets?

And, it’s not just the length of the match that is in question – it’s also the style of play our kids are being taught.  As Greek coach Chris Karageorgiades told me,  “The game in Europe is more physical because their philosophy is different. In the US it has traditionally been about developing players with big weapons (namely serve and forehand). This is changing in order for players to better prepare for what has become a more physical game which is played from the back of the court.  Whether this is a good or bad decision for the future of American tennis remains to be seen.”   If you watched any of the Djokovic-Murray match, you saw some incredible points that involved 20+ shots moving the ball side-to-side and front-to-back.  To stay in that type of point – over and over again for an entire match – takes incredible leg strength, stamina, and fitness.  I’m concerned that our American juniors are not being adequately prepared for this type of protracted battle.

Two-time Australian Open Champion and current junior coach Johan Kriek shared with me the following:  “May I say, that growing up in S[outh] A[frica] on a farm with no TV, no X-box, no video games was a huge plus in my future physical make-up…today’s kids are digital…they need to be pushed, and push I do …the good ones will excel, the wimps will bail!”  Johan puts his players through fitness training every day:  the older kids working out in the gym, the younger ones working with resistance bands.  His biggest worry is that mediocrity is being accepted as normal, which he views as a societal ill that he just doesn’t tolerate with his players.

I know there’s been a lot of talk on the part of USTA about having the junior players train and compete more on clay, taking a page out of the Spanish book.  But, I’ve also heard that our American green clay is very different from the red dirt and that it doesn’t provide for the same type of movement and long points as the red stuff.  If that’s the case, are we wasting our time?  What can we do better?

Johan goes on to say that “Murray and Djokovic are fit, but that does not mean that the mind fatigues as well, and that has equal input in the body not functioning, the two are hugely connected. If you believe you can win ,the mind will push the body beyond human capacities, we see that in tennis and people that had to use enormous courage to survive near death etc, it is not the body that controls the mind, it is the mind that controls the body.  That is what separates the good players from the awesome players, not the strokes, they are all great! But the ‘head’.”

This is not only about being competitive on the professional level because, let’s face it, most of our kids aren’t on that path.  It’s also about positioning our kids to be competitive when it comes to playing college tennis.  They are up against foreign players again and again for scholarships and spots on college teams.  If they don’t have the physical and/or mental fitness skills to fight through long points and matches, how are they going to convince college coaches to give them one of a very few coveted spots on the team?