The Good Ol’ Days

Photo courtesy of www.fashion-era.com
Photo courtesy of www.fashion-era.com

 

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.

 

18 thoughts on “The Good Ol’ Days

  1. Couple of other points on Tennis Europe. Philosophically they have decided to simply supply the market with as many tournaments as the markets will bear. There are 3 grades of tournaments and there is a geographic preference for selection to the grade 3 events – in other words Italian players have selection preference to tournaments in Italy etc. You can fly all over Europe chasing points if you like but it will buy you at most a ranking in the 400-500 range. To be highly ranked you have to win matches in the grade 2 and then the grade 1 events. The top end of their rankings are actually pretty accurate. Stack this up against the 10 opportunities we have here in the US in a system no one can understand and its not tough to see why we are where we are.

  2. I went back and took a look at the USTA’s response to Sean Hannity’s letter which was in some ways the catalyst for the current protests against the changes. If you Google “Hannity Tennis” its the first search result. It is 17 pages long and registers around about a 10 on the cringe meter! It is breathtakingly arrogant and establishes a shameful low in the USTA’s condescending relationship with it’s members. The piece was written by then Junior Competition Chair Tim Russell and introduced by Patrick McEnroe who was fully supportive of the changes. Tim’s opening salvo compares US National tennis to the Olympics highlighting the case of Feliciano Lopez – the 17th ranked player in the world who didn’t make the draw because he was the 5th best player in Spain and he tells America to “Get a grip” – Wow!! Since when have the Olympics represented the pinnacle of global tennis anyway? He then goes on to lament the fact that a girl ranked #888 obtained entry to the Clay Court’s that year ( from her sectional quota by the way) wondering whether the demand for national play really even existed. Well done Tim – your scheme has players ranked over 1000 in the draws and dozens above 500/600/700. I could go on but I’m running short of blood pressure medication.

    The piece vividly illustrates how misguided the thinking was that lead to these changes. We are not talking here with the benefit of hindsight. Everything that has happened so far was predicted over and over again. The USTA in it’s overwhelming arrogance refused to listed! It’s shameful that the kids are paying the price and so is US Tennis.

  3. I looked over Tennis Europe site and I don’t see consolation draws for most tournaments I looked at. Do you know for sure they offer consolation? My kids will play there this summer if possible so I am interested in it.

    1. If you look at the fact sheet it will tell you if there is a consolation. As a US player you will need to be endorsed by the USTA. Lisa can give you my email and we can talk directly if you want more specific info.

      Geoff

  4. I didn’t know about having to be endorsed by USTA. Thank you for that information. If you can give me more information that would be great. Definitely through e-mail is fine. Thanks.

  5. Lisa, could you please let me know Geoff’s Grants e-mail as he suggested that I contact him in regards with Tennis Europe entry. Many thanks. Em

  6. More tournaments with big draws are certainly the answer if one does not go to regular school and one has lots of money or one has parents that don’t work. I personally like the idea that players can qualify for a national championship without leaving his or her Section.

    1. George, I think your statement is only partially true. The way the ranking system works, only a player’s top however many (depending on the section) tournaments count in his/her ranking. So, if a player does well in 6 or 8 tournaments in the section, then no need to play additional events in order to secure endorsement into the national L1s. And, having larger draws during the weeks when traditional school is on vacation wouldn’t impact school attendance – so, why then, did USTA CUT draw sizes at its 2 biggest national events that are held during the summer break? I still can’t wrap my head around that one! Plus, with the new qualies in 16s and 18s, players could potentially have to stay at the tournament more days, increasing overall expense and time away from work for parents. I agree with you, though, that having a sectional pathway to the L1s is a great option; it just shouldn’t be the ONLY option, in my opinion.

  7. Again, the problem with the sectional pathway is that you make all sections equal and they simply are not. If the same number of points are available in sectional competition in SoCal as in Intermountain, SoCal kids, who face much tougher and deeper competition, will end up dramatically under ranked in comparison.
    As Geoff and I pointed out in the other thread, the huge increase in sectional points available completely distorts the NSL, because kids can get ranked very highly just through sectional play (winning the six sectionals gets you 2350 points, which in B12s gets you ranked 32, in B14s it’s 35). This isn’t a hypothetical: there are a whole bunch of kids who have made it to the top 50 greatly because of sectional points. That increases your likelihood of getting into national levels 1-A, 2, and many levels 3 and 4 (the double pathway). It increases those players’ chances of playing in an older category, in tournaments where spots are reserved for kids from the younger category. Being over ranked on the NSL also increases your chances of getting into a level 1 as an alternate, if all the quotas don’t fill. It’s hugely unfair and a clear violation of the guiding principle of the 2014 changes of having the best play the best.
    I’ll re
    Then there are the sectional quotas and their consequences. For that I’ll refer you to the “clay courts confusion” thread.
    And Lisa is right: the tournaments whose draws were slashed, with the exception of spring nationals, were all during holidays.

  8. I thought I would post a short summary of our path through the competitive junior tennis world. First, my son has already been recruited and will begin playing college tennis this fall at the D1 school he wanted and is NOT playing USTA junior events anymore. I don’t disagree that the changes made by the USTA are not well thought out and are indeed misguided. I also agree that the old system which we grew up in was indeed better. Let me describe our path through this system. My son started playing tennis when he was very little at a local club. Several coaches told us that he was very athletic and had good eye hand coordination and suggested that he take some private lessons. WE ARE NOT WEALTHY. It was a stretch to make this happen, but we did and he started playing some local and sectional events and did quite well. This brought us to the next dilemma, ok, he could play well, so we had to get better development and better competition. So we scrounged and found the money to get him to his first 12s national before he turned 10. Wow, he was successful, what were we to do. We simply could not afford an academy or to travel to all these tournaments far away. We begged, yes, the USTA helped a little, we found some local assistance to, some sponsorships, and we took out some loans too. He became highly ranked in USTA and was playing well above his age range. We got advice from people in the tennis world and the consensus was we had to have a coach that could travel with him and he had to begin playing ITF tournaments. We found a very experienced and generous coach who did not charge us much, but the expenses for two traveling are substantial. Yes, this meant no traditional school. Again we begged, he is a very good student, so some scholarships came through and we took out more loans. We live in a large metropolitan area and my husband and I work in opposite directions from the city. We paid for a physical trainer and we lived in cars as we balanced getting him to practice, to the gym, etc. We were not the healthiest eaters when we started down this road, but diet became more important–and more expensive, but we are all healthier for it. Our son traveled a lot over the last couple of years and he was home less. But in the end, he chose to go to a very good University on a very substantial scholarship and may pursue professional tennis at some point. So what are some of the conclusions I draw after this experience. First, it was not FUN. Not for him most of the time, not for us. Spending hours and hours living in a car, eating in a car, sleeping in a car, on the way to the gym on the way to practice etc. is not fun. Rewarding for the sacrifices, the hard work, the end result, but NOT fun. We are not wealthy and we still have debt which we have begun to start paying off and we will do so, but it was necessary if we were going to pursue tennis at this level. That’s the system. Are there conflicts in the process. Yes, my son is ok, but does he have the number of friends that a main stream kid would have–no. But that was the choice we made to pursue the goals we had. When we met people who had been professional tennis players and were now parents there really weren’t very many who thought this life was what they wanted for their kids. One in particular we met and got to know has a son in junior tennis and while he is not at the top of the rankings, he plays for fun. She has often said to me, I wish I could have done that. I’m jealous. While it is true that a junior player who is playing and having fun could develop into a professional champion, it isn’t common. The road to high levels of achievement is often not fun, rewarding yes. My sons coach often said to people who would ask about his day to day world–“this existence isn’t normal, but kids who excel at this are not common. You will have to sacrifice much if you are going to pursue high level tennis. You have to make your own assessment as to whether this is worth it. But it won’t be normal.” So as you sort through what you want from the system, understand that there is inherent conflict in playing a sport for fun and playing a sport to become great. Those two things are often confused. I don’t regret what we did, but I am happy to be done with it.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. After reading your comment, it seems to me that there is a lot in between what you call playing for fun and playing for greatness – would you agree with that? I have spoken with several families with kids who have attained very high levels in tennis – not professional but high-level college tennis – following a more “normal” lifestyle that the one you describe. I wonder . . . how does your son describe his junior tennis experience in hindsight? Is he glad he stayed on that path?

  9. Certainly I agree there is a lot “in between”. But being there is somewhat accidental it seems to me. If you are going to compete for the high level college experience, let’s face it, you are competing internationally. In order to accomplish that and have a more normal existence in the US in my view, you have to live in the right areas. That has always been where the players are. A number of families I know relocated to these areas, like Florida, or Southern California. I think the path to high level college tennis is very similar to the path to professional tennis. I would admit that if my son had not been a top level student, the path might have actually veered toward professional tennis. His coach has had several students that choose college, but MIGHT have had some level of pro career. An interesting question as to how my soon looks at his junior tennis experience. First, and perhaps the most telling, he is happy it’s over. He is looking forward to the college tennis experience. He thinks he is much better prepared for college given the discipline he has learned and practiced. He believes that would not have come without the tennis experience. He has been willing to do the work and make the sacrifices (not always with enthusiasm) and recognizes the benefits. Like all of us, would he have like to have some time for more normalcy–yes. I just don’t believe given our goals, that he would be in the position he is now if we had given into a more normal existence. It certainly is NOT for everyone. I sometimes wonder if tennis parents or the kids for that matter in general understand that it won’t always be fun and in reality most of it won’t be fun. I know–it’s a game. But looking back, it certainly didn’t feel that way much of the time.

    1. Sadly, yours is not a ringing endorsement for choosing tennis. I wonder if other sports are similar for those pursuing them at the highest level? I suspect they are which begs the question, “Are high level sports in the best interest of our kids?” Food for thought…

  10. The USTA needs to fund a ref for every court. Then junior tennis would be a real sport and attract better athletes. Once they do that, then they should work on the structure of the point gathering system so it funnels the best talents into the highest level USTA tournaments.

    Until the sport is officiated like every single other youth or pro sport, the rest of this is a waste of debate. The current USTA ranking system does not represent the most talented kids, it represents, in many cases, which kids are the pushiest and/or best cheaters and/or best point chasers.

    1. Jim, while I would love to see more officials at junior tournaments, until there is better training and accountability for officials, they often times do more harm than good due to inconsistencies in application of the rules and code violations. The current ranking system is problematic as well as Robert points out. There is a lot that needs fixing. We need to continue to hold USTA and the Jr Comp Committee accountable for finding solutions and implementing them.

  11. I agree that officials need to be better trained. On many occasion I, too, saw them do more harm than good. At one tournament they scheduled my son to play two doubles and three singles matches in one day! And insisted they play 2 out of 3 sets for doubles even though they stated on their website that doubles are 8 sets pro game. On the first day of the tourney they scheduled him to play 1 match. And referees often make random decisions, for example once one just asked in the middle of the play “are you sure that was in” while boys were still playing the point. And rather than have them replay one kid got the point.

  12. I suspect most journeys in high level sports are just as emotionally exhausting and financially draining. But when asking the question, “Are high level sports in the best interest of our kids”? you also have to ask, compared to what? To me there is nothing sadder than a kid not pursuing something with passion – be it tennis, football, piano, acting, geography, chess, whatever…

    The question for “rear view mirror” is was it worth it? would you do it over again? I’d be interested to hear the reply.

    In my opinion, at the end of any stage of life, you should look back on it with pride. I would think “rear view mirror” and son look back at the path they chose with pride, and a few regrets (but the results outweigh the regrets?). How many parents and children look back on their childhood, and wonder “what might have been” if we’d tried? I see it all to often… kids and parents both choose the path of least resistance and the convenient over the hard yards.

    I think everyone at this site is trying to be the best parent (tennis parent, in particular) they can be. As a junior tennis alumni, and a tennis parent to a young child, I consider the trade-offs between practice/lessons/tournaments & the finances it requires to be worth it compared to the “normal” childhood, which I think it kind of sad.

    As a parent, there are two regrets I can have: (a) did I push too hard or (b) did I not push hard enough. I struggle to find the middle ground, and thanks to you, Lisa, for bringing these issues to the fore.

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