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.