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How to Walk Forward on the Tightrope of Player Development

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By Craig Cignarelli

The following article originally appeared on

After a quarter century of questionably-successful exploits, the USTA Player Development (PD) division is, once again, making a change.  Patrick McEnroe no longer sports the PD crown, and the National Board has begun the search for a successor.  Having spent the last two decades watching regime after regime take the PD division’s reigns – only to drop them a few years later after effecting policies that have yet to produce a US Champion – I’m inclined to offer some thoughts about the next evolution in PD’s history.

Decide whether you are going to hire a leader or a representative.  When there is a conflict between what constituents desire and the personal principles of the PD chief du jour, how do you want that person to act?

Recently, we’ve seen a mandate imposed against the will of the masses, changes to college scoring against the will of the masses, changes to the national junior schedule against the will of the masses – see the theme here – and the masses have developed some serious skepticism toward the administrative powers-that-be.  Prior PD chiefs have come into the position with their own visions and plans for execution. During the interview process, they broke out their bullet points and impressed the Board with ideas and their ability to articulate a vision.  Except, those visions have never produced a US champion.  In fact, all too frequently, those visions have gone against the wishes of players and coaches and created a chasm between the private tennis community and USTAPD.  There is a pervasive US against THEM mentality that prevents synergy between the parties, and this antagonistic relationship between the tennis world and USTAPD is not helping the nation’s rising stars.

The latest PD regime took many hits – the US has failed to put a male player into the second week of a major for several years – and the former PD chief had little interest in hearing ideas from the tennis community at large.  Some accused him of succumbing to the arrogance of power, while others suggested he was too busy with performing other duties.  At present, there is both animosity and mistrust of the USTA PD, coming mostly from the private coaching community, but too, from parents and players.  Thus, the national governing body has a choice – to hire another leader to create another regime with fresh ideas and to, once again, hope that they work, or to revisit and reconstruct the PD leadership model.

Should you choose to hire a representative, that individual should take time to talk with parents, players, coaches, colleges, former professionals, tournament directors, media personalities, and other players in the tennis world, to gather information about the current state of tennis topography and to procure ideas for developing a national PD plan.  Gather Wayne Bryan, Chuck Kriese, Nick Bollettieri, Robert Lansdorp, Bill Scanlon. Round up Richard Williams, Blanche Roddick, Betty Chang, Steve Johnson Sr.  Bring in James Blake, Lindsay Davenport, Jim Courier, Tim Mayotte, John McEnroe.  Toss in a few PD trench-men like Frank Salazar, Dave Licker and me.  Invite Joel Drucker, Lisa Stone, Peter Bodo.  Buy us all lunch and dinner and let’s talk out what the future of USTA PD should look like.  Hell, I’ll even splurge for an extra magic marker and a white board.  Once there are enough ideas on the table, let’s post them on the USTA website and let the membership have a say in where they want their PD dollars to go.  Even if you are not inclined to heed their advice, at least let them be heard and then make the arguments as to why you believe they are right or wrong.  After all, it’s about them and the country, not you.

Too, the National Board must not be swayed by the international community’s tennis models, for as we have seen with the hostility toward the ROG mandate, not to mention political policies coming from the UN, the international community’s interests do not necessarily dovetail with American interests.  Yes, we can learn from them, but one man’s treasure is often another man’s trash, and to follow on the heels of foreign successes means we will no longer be trailblazing future paths to success.

All of this implies it is critical to select a PD steward whose acumen lies in the arena of synthesis. Visionary thinking is important, however, collecting ideas from the constituent communities and synthesizing them into an effective national program is a far more worthy and desirous talent for an incoming PD chief.

In the hierarchy of international tennis, America’s status has fallen, but few things inspire this country’s citizens like the threat of non-exceptionalism.  Recently, strong voices have emerged onto the tennis landscape.  It seems tennis aficionados want more for this nation of rugged individualists, and the idea of a national governing body is antithetical to that individualism. Some would dismantle the entire PD program and allow the private coaching community to continue its work to produce the next American champions.  “After all,” they say, “PD has never turned out a champion. It’s always been private coaches doing the hard work in the trenches, giving millions of feeds and with intense concentration on the individual athlete, that has produced the Grand Slam titlists.”  Others would suggest PD be reconstituted into something else – perhaps an advisory board for emerging players, maybe a group of coaching educators that travels around the country disseminating the best practices to the private coaching community, or possibly the entity just continues to run tournaments in a fashion that offers enough prize money to help support young Americans trying to make their way in the professional arena.  Whatever the decision, PD requires new thinking.

Whoever you select to wear the crown, help is here.  This is a conch shell call to all parties interested in US player development.  We are at a critical and crucial time for expression.  The absence in PD now needs a significant presence.  We need your thoughts, your ideas, your words – now.

Whatever the Board decides, it is not White Plains, but rather, the fruited plains that are filled with stories of successes.  It is time to turn an ear to the purple mountain’s championship echoes, to touch the fonts of achievements coming from the shining seas.  Player development will always work best when you leave the ivory tower and till the soil with the people doing the work.  In the interest of promoting the marketplace of ideas, I’ll start with the following and hope some others jump in to help the cause:

Begin with addressing the culture of PD in the US so we all know your intentions.  There are some deep wounds that should be resolved before we all attempt to move forward. 

Develop a meritocratic American circuit where rising players can earn enough money to give themselves a shot at professional tennis.  Something like: a series of 50K events where it’s winner take all and once you’ve won one, you cannot play another, American players only, and you must be outside the top 200 ATP/WTA. 

Identify the nation’s successful player development coaches and promote conferences/social media/webinars/other methods of dissemination where they can transfer their knowledge to the greater coaching community.  A rising tide lifts all boats and if more coaches can offer more information, more players will benefit. 

Create more team events for the youngsters.  Most competitive players will tell you that their most enjoyable experiences come from Zonals, Intersectionals, Junior Team Tennis.  Ultimately, kids want to be around other kids who push them and who understand them.  Past regimes have done an admirable job innovating in this area.  Do more. 

Create a SIMPLE tournament system where your average ten year old can figure out what he/she needs to do to get a ranking and to get into tournaments.  Make it so kids can’t duck each other. And then try not to change it every other year. 

Very quickly, archive the knowledge of some of the more senior coaches in this country.  We are about to lose hundreds of years of tennis insight, and while the game may have evolved beyond some of their methods, few things inform like the wisdom of experience.  Think Lansdorp, Segura, Bolletieri. Braden, Gould, DePalmer, Fox etc.. And then open-source that information for comment and analysis. 

And finally, how about an honest conversation with kids and parents about “What it Takes” in today’s world of international competition?  Certainly, there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but none of them exclude athletic development and hard work. If parents, players, and coaches had a better understanding of professional habits, we might gain an edge early on in the development process.  With their access to all of the top players, I’m a believer that one of PD’s greatest offerings could be information. 

The point is, there are hundreds of passionate advocates screaming out for American achievement. We all have ideas and energy, and most importantly, PLAYERS – with hearts and strokes and ambition. We are a corps of very invested folks out here, and we are prepared to help.  Whoever the National Board chooses, if the new chief can find a way to harness it all, to find a balance between vision and collective wisdom, perhaps the next regime will finally be successful playing its role in returning America to a dominant place upon the international tennis landscape.


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