Notes From 6th Listening Meeting in Atlanta
It was an interesting day yesterday, to say the least! I had spent the previous several days preparing my talking points for Sunday’s “listening” meeting as well as for my pre-meeting meeting with Lew Brewer and Andrea Norman, the new chair of the Junior Competition Committee (Andrea was a member of the JCC that created the 2014 changes and is now chairing that same group). Peter Lebedevs, also a member of the current JCC – and an active USTA volunteer, coach, and tournament director at both the junior and professional level – joined us, too.
The pre-meeting meeting was very informative. We talked for almost 2 hours about the changes and the impetus for them (I’m still not 100% clear on the “why” behind them other than that USTA is trying to find a better way to develop our junior players), how I would like to see them change, and what USTA can do better. We spoke at length about USTA coming up with some concrete ways of helping tennis families save money, like discounts on hotels and airlines and the like, rather than telling us that these new schedule changes will accomplish that goal. I tried to explain to them how fewer opportunities drives up costs – basic supply and demand – but I’m still not sure Andrea understands what I was saying (more on that in a minute). She told me that the schedule goes from 15 competition blocks to 12, that fewer blocks means families have to spend less money. I took issue with that statement, explaining that fewer blocks means fewer options, and fewer options means potential additional expense, especially if those remaining options require further travel for families.
On the issue of smaller draw sizes at the 2 remaining national tournaments, Peter said that he is in favor of leaving the draws at 192, that going from 192 to 128 isn’t a significant change in the amount of work for tournament directors and that he feels giving more juniors the opportunity to compete at that level is a good thing. I hope he sticks to his guns on that point when the JCC has its next meeting. Andrea brought up the idea of holding a 64-draw qualifier before the Nationals. I asked if the Qualifier would be “one-and-done” or would there be a backdraw? And, would players earn ranking points in the Qualifier or would it be like the ITF qualies where no ranking points are awarded. She said there would be a guarantee of 2 matches in the Qualifier but that a backdraw probably wouldn’t be played out, and, yes, ranking points would be awarded but USTA hasn’t created those point tables yet.
I emphasized how having the opportunity to compete at the national level and to see the country’s top players in action can be a huge motivating force for those players on the bubble. I have to say, Lew was uncharacteristically quiet during the meeting, only getting involved when I started talking about my son’s ITF experience this past Fall. He asked me if competing in our section’s top events wouldn’t provide the same motivating force as traveling to an ITF or Nationals. I explained that, at least in my son’s case, he’s friends with all the boys at the top of our section and that there’s something different about watching your friends play versus watching top kids from the rest of the country (or world, in the case of the ITFs). I think he understood what I was trying to say. One thought I had after leaving the meeting is that if USTA is truly concerned about those players who get “rounded” at the National events, then why not use their resources to provide match-play opportunities and/or coaching to those players in hopes that they’ll be motivated to improve before their next tournament? That way, if the family has had to fly to the tournament, they won’t necessarily have to change their return flight but can stay and receive free coaching for their player(s).
The “big” meeting started at 1:00pm and was led by Dave Haggerty (USTA President), Gordon Smith (USTA Executive Director and COO), and Scott Schultz (USTA Managing Director of Youth Tennis). Also in attendance were current JCC members Andrea Norman (Chair), Peter Lebedevs (Vice-Chair), and Chuck Kriese, as well as previous JCC member Eddie Gonzalez. The room was filled with some incredible tennis experience, and those folks didn’t hesitate to share their thoughts. We heard from Walker Sahag, an incredible junior coach from Mandeville, Louisiana; Jerry Baskin, who has over 40 years of experience developing and coaching players at the junior, collegiate, and professional level; Chuck Kriese, former Clemson coach and current Senior Director of Competition and Coaching at USTA’s Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland; Jessica Amick, Junior Competition Coordinator at USTA Southern; Patricia Hy-Boulais, former collegiate and professional player who now coaches in Hilton Head; Amy Johnson, long-time USTA official; Julie Wrege, former Georgia Tech coach and creator of TennisRecruiting.net; Robert Sasseville, long-time tournament director; and Johan Kriek, former Australian Open champion and current junior coach. All told, there were over 100 people in the room, including Manny Guillen, who has 40+ years of experience in the tennis world as an endorser and ranker for juniors; Lucy Garvin, past President of USTA; Doug Wrege, co-creator of TennisRecruiting.net; Julie Thiets of High-Tech Tennis; J.P. Weber, junior tennis coach and tournament director; Bill Ozaki, USTA Southern’s Director of Programs & Player Development; and Sam Kennedy, junior tennis coach, among others.
I think the simplest way for me to convey the points made is to do a bulleted list, so here goes . . . For those who were there, please pardon me if I’ve put any of the statements in the incorrect order – I was trying to listen and take notes (and keep those notes organized) all at the same time but may not have been successful. And, for the record, the statements below are NOT direct quotes but rather paraphrasing or summaries of what I heard during the meeting. The meeting was recorded by USTA Southern – I will make that recording available to you as soon as I get it.
- Dave Haggerty: Welcome and thank you all for coming. [He then introduced those on the stage and the committee members in the audience] I would like to open the floor to anyone who would like to speak.
- Walker Sahag: Reducing draws at the national events limits the chance for players to be seen by college coaches. As the system stands now, if players don’t make the cut in the 12’s, they never catch up. Grouping sections into larger regions creates additional sacrifices for those who will have to travel further in order to compete. Particularly in the western part of the Southern Section, including Florida and the Caribbean exacerbates the travel and expense issue and will likely see the best tournaments migrate toward Atlanta. Regarding international players taking college scholarships from American players, we’re being asked to pay for something [via our tax dollars] but are being excluded from it.
- Dave Haggerty: College is the rainbow for 99.9% of junior players. We’ve been hearing all of Walker’s points from others, too. I understand that if a player doesn’t have visibility, it’s tough to be seen by the college coaches.
- Lisa Stone: My son aspires to play more national events and needs to know that it is a realistic aspiration, that he can achieve it through hard work, that USTA hasn’t set up road-blocks to keep him away from the big events. But the new 2014 schedule is extremely restrictive, decreasing the number of national calendar dates from 12 in 2012 (17-24 in 2010) to 7. Having fewer opportunities for national play is not decreasing the cost of play – it will only make it more expensive. USTA, why are you doing this?
- Scott Schultz asked Andrea Norman to address the rationale behind the changes.
- Andrea Norman: We had a charge from our previous president (Jon Vegosen) to create a better pathway. By going from 15 to 12 date blocks, the cost to compete is reduced. Regarding the smaller draws, some kids don’t belong at that higher level; they should be playing Regionals instead. The tournament sites are chosen by an application process and awarded to quality sites. We try to distribute the sites geographically based on the size of the airport, ease of travel, number of courts, etc. We are trying to push play back to the Sections like in the “olden” days – the idea is to get back to Sectional play. At the ITA “listening” meeting, there was concern about going from a 192 draw to 128, and Jon Vegosen brought up the idea of holding a 64 qualifying draw to be held over 2-3 days prior to the National Hardcourts. The coaches there thought that was a good idea.
- Jerry Baskin: Andrea, which college coach said he viewed 64 qualifiers on the same level as the 128 main draw players? At least the USTA is now listening but every point Andrea makes can be debunked by coaches who develop collegiate players. Memphis and Kalamazoo are the most influential tournaments for college recruiting. High-level coaches come in now for the round of 16 anyway. Other coaches are looking at players 96-192. If you reduce the size of the draw, you reduce the exposure for these players. Regarding the simultaneously-held Regional events, how can a coach be at 6-8 events at the same time? They can’t! So those players at those Regional tournaments won’t get seen. Bill Ozaki [Director of Programs & Player Development, USTA Southern Section] has developed top players. If you reduce the draw sizes at these events, you’ll kill college recruiting and will see half the number of coaches attending the tournaments. The most exciting day of the year for me is sitting with my players on Signing Day and having my picture taken with them as they sign their NLI. Do you know why the Thanksgiving indoor tournaments have been so important? It’s because they come right after Signing Day so those coaches who didn’t get the players they thought they would get can go and see the next crop of players. The top coaches are in panic mode if they didn’t get the players they expected! And, what’s the purpose here – to develop world class players or to get college scholarships? And, quotas being based on strength of the section? That’s too subjective! Basing them on size is a whole lot more objective. It’s ridiculous to have people on the Junior Comp Committee who have never coached, never developed a player, making decisions for those of us who know what we’re doing.
- Gordon Smith: I would like your feedback on the fact that junior competitive tennis hasn’t grown. How do we change that? USTA hasn’t been involved with the NCAA Tennis Committee, but I want us to be more active in that aspect.
- Dave Haggerty: I believe strongly that the rainbow for 99.9% of kids is a college scholarship, but 40% of those scholarships are now going to foreign players. We need to come up with a robust environment for juniors to aspire to that is better for our players.
- Jerry Baskin: Thirteen years ago, I made a mistake when I gave a presentation in New York about the point system. We need to go back to looking at wins and losses. That would reduce costs because it would cut down on the number of tournaments a junior would need to play. The last year that we had a group of men’s champions at Kalamazoo (Roddick, Ginepri, Reynolds, and Fish) was the last year before the point system went into effect. The point system drives up costs because kids have to play so many events.
- Scott Schultz: The STAR system gave players the opportunity to duck play. Is it really a bad thing to have a couple of different systems?
- Jerry Baskin: College coaches only care about TennisRecruiting ratings, not about USTA ranking. USTA is looking in the wrong direction with PPR.
- Eddie Gonzalez: I voted against the 2014 calendar because I know you need to talk to your customer before you make a change of this magnitude and we hadn’t done that. Let’s do a formal survey on TennisLink for players, parents, junior coaches, and college coaches so we can get feedback from our customers!
- Dave Haggerty: Please use LetUsKnow@USTA.com if you think of something after this meeting.
- Amy Johnson: Why isn’t USTA establishing corporate relationships to help every single member? Things like airline, hotel, and rental car discounts?
- Scott Schwartz: The Sponsorship Department divvies up the money to various other departments within USTA. Gordon will take that idea back to them to see what we can do better.
- Julie Wrege: What’s the difference between having a 192 versus a 128 draw plus qualies? Where would the qualifying spots come from?
- Andrea Norman: 8 spots would come from the qualies and 8 from reducing the number of wildcards.
- Julie Wrege: Why do smaller sections award the same number of national points as bigger sections?
- Chuck Kriese: I never thought having too many opportunities would dumb down achievement, but I don’t think we should have draws bigger than 128 at Nationals. That said, coaches should be able to coach however they feel is best. Dave, your 40% number regarding international players receiving college scholarships is wrong – it’s closer to 65-70%. We have to make college a viable training ground again. The USTA needs to have an All-American Team made up of Americans and incentivize coaches for recruiting American players. Title IX wasn’t set up to eliminate men’s sports but that’s what’s happened. USTA must incentivize 15, 16, 17 year olds by making college a strong option. By the way, no one has sued over Junior College’s 2-foreign-player limit!
- Robert Sasseville: When you have an unreliable ranking system to select players into events, you don’t have an accurate predictor of champions. The JCC should halt and start over. Get a task force and re-examine. You need the input of your customers.
- Dave Haggerty: We don’t have any answers at this point but we have a lot of thoughts. We’re hearing the same themes at these meetings. You won’t see the changes as they are now going into effect in 2014.
- Walker Sahag: When you streamline opportunities, you negatively impact players’ opportunity to develop.
- Patricia Boulais: I suggest that USTA work some hotel and airline deals if you’re really serious about saving families money.
- Scott Schultz: The small number of players competing at the national level make it not such a great deal for companies to offer a discount. They don’t get much bang for their buck. How many in this room think we need doubles at tournaments? [Most hands went up] Should we keep the feed-in consolations? [Most hands went up]
- Chuck Kriese: If USTA did nothing to train and develop players, the tournaments should help players develop. Hybrid scoring systems are crippling our children. We should honor the scoring system of tennis. Learning how to win 3 points in a row. Backdraw kids are often the toughest kids! These are the things that make players. But backdraws are only valuable at big tournaments. Experiencing the pain of losing is very important for development. Playing pro sets in doubles is crap! Full doubles matches should take priority over backdraws. The concept of winning 3 points in a row is sacred. Those 3-minute or 10-minute set breaks kill momentum in a match. Just let the kids play. If a player is too tired, then he’ll lose and the match will be over soon enough.
- Patricia Boulais: You have new players coming up but you’re streamlining opportunities for them.
- Dave Haggerty: While there will be fewer national events, there will also be more local events.
- A Dad: If I choose for my kid to miss school, it’s my choice! If I choose to spend my money on tournaments, it’s my choice! I’d like to see a show of hands of how many pros in this room have had a player outside the National Top 100 who got a college scholarship. [Many, many hands were raised]
- Jessica Amick: What about creating more sectional tournaments with national points?
- Andrea Norman: Currently there are 12 sectional events with national points. In 2014, there will be 2 Level 3s and some Level 4s with national points. The Committee can discuss this the next time it meets.
- Jerry Baskin: I’d be a lot happier if the people making these decisions were people who have been in the trenches and who know the pathway to success.
- Dave Haggerty: A lot of thought and care went into the selection of the JCC. It’s always difficult to reach perfection. The Committee wants to do what is right for junior tennis. One thing the Committee heard at the meetings held during Winter Nationals is that families want events where all the age groups play in the same city.
- Johan Kriek: USTA is doing well to listen. I am a former professional player who did pretty well on the tour. I’m now coaching and learning as I go. USTA needs to listen to folks like Eddie Gonzalez, Jerry Baskin, and Coach Kriese.
- Jerry Baskin: If USTA could get together with NCAA and offer prize money to juniors to offset expenses, that would make our system comparable to the foreign system.
- Chuck Kriese: In the late 1990’s, 86 international college players were ruled ineligible by the NCAA because of prize money they had won. The NCAA gave them a 3-match penalty which enabled the teams to arrange their schedules so they could “duck” tough opponents while those players were benched.
- Dave Haggerty: Thank you all for coming. We are listening and will take back all we’ve heard here today. Don’t forget to use the email address if you think of anything else after we leave.
- Lisa Stone: Please, please don’t take away opportunities for our kids!
The opposition to the 2014 changes seemed to be unanimous, and I think the USTA folks recognized that fact. After the meeting ended, several pow-wows were going on around the room. I have heard that many of the attendees emailed those JCC members who were unable to attend with their thoughts and suggestions. For what it’s worth, I left the meeting feeling hopeful.
I urge everyone to attend one of the remaining “listening” meetings and/or to email LetUsKnow@usta.com with your thoughts regarding the 2014 Junior Competition changes. If you need a refresher on the exact changes or dates of the meetings, please click on the 2014 Jr Comp Info tab above.