We don’t have to go quite as far back as the image above to find the glory days of junior tennis in this country, but with all the mess surrounding the upcoming national clay and hard court tournament selections, it’s worth taking a look in the rearview mirror as a reminder of how things used to be only a few years ago. I believe we can restore the high quality – and, yes, FUN – of junior tennis in the US, but it’s going to take some major re-thinking and additional work on the part of our national governing body (USTA) as well as the other organizations connected to US tennis development (ITA for one). A great place to start would be to include parents of current junior and college players in the discussion and planning process.
Tournament director and tennis historian Robert Sasseville wrote a very thorough history for ParentingAces of our junior competitive system. You can click here to read the whole piece. Robert also posted the following [excerpted] Comment (it’s Comment #49 for those who want to read it in its entirety) on the Clay Courts Confusion article:
In the early 80′s all players to National Championships had to be endorsed by their home section, or they didn’t play. There were no Wild Cards. Players who failed to be endorsed, whether by choice or otherwise, such as injury, had no recourse but to wait until next year.
National Championship sectional quotas totaled 100. The final 28 players were selected from the remaining sectionally endorsed players, based on player record. The one provision was that each section’s ordered endorsement list was sacred and could not be altered. In other words, the remaining players had to be taken in the order in which they appeared on the sections’ endorsement list. That meant that if alternate #2 deserved to be admitted, but #1 did not, the tournament had to decide if it was better to take an undeserving player (alt #1) to admit a deserving one (alt #2), or just go to another section and not select anyone from that section. At least the tournament got to do the best it could to get the top 100 players in a draw of 128.
Only a head-to-head ranking system, like TRN’s, can give an accurate assessment of a player’s relative merit compared to others. Until such a ranking system is implemented, it is incumbent upon the USTA to offer LARGER draws, not smaller, and offer MORE opportunities, not fewer, to make sure that “the best” actually do get to play “the best”, even if that occurs one or two rounds later in the tournament.
It’s very interesting to look around the world and see how others are doing things in the junior tennis arena. Tennis Europe (click here to go to its website), the umbrella organization for pan-European junior tennis, for example, has set up an incredible system of 300+ competitive events (compare this to the 10 or so national events per age group we have in the US) in over 100 countries for 3 age divisions: U12, U14, and U16. The idea for the oldest age group of juniors (U18) is that they’ll graduate from Tennis Europe events into the junior or pro ITF circuit, a natural progression in the development process for those who are ready. Every tournament has a qualifying draw, consolation draw, and some hospitality is provided at each event. As Geoff Grant reminded me, Europe has roughly twice the population of the US and tennis is a more popular sport, but they are running 20 times the number of national events and they are running them well. With 90% of the world’s top players coming from their system, maybe we should take note. Tennis Europe is not hung up on points chasers, but they are obsessive about providing opportunity to junior tennis players.
The key, in my opinion, to creating future US champions AND growing the game in this country is ensuring a quality junior competition structure while preserving the integrity of the college tennis system and making it a viable goal in and of itself as well as a pathway to the professional circuit. There are many blueprints from which our governing body can borrow if they are in fact committed to doing what’s best for the players and what’s best for the game.