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Road-map for American Success in Tennis

A discussion has arisen as to what it would take for the US to, once again, achieve dominance in the tennis ranks (particularly for men). Although the factors are numerous, here as some thoughts to consider:

1.         Set Goals Early. Parents and players need to have a clear vision of where they want to end up 10-11 years down the road (assuming that the player picks up the racket at age 7-8) in terms of tennis. Are the parents simply interested in treating tennis as an after-school activity (“play it by ear”) or do they (and the player) intend to take this game seriously. This decision should be made early – although it doesn’t mean that the youngster becomes a “tennis monk” (i.e., foreclosed from other childhood activities) – in order to provide the player with the maximum chance to improve. Initially, many parents intend tennis to be merely a fun activity in order to keep the player off the streets and out of trouble; then, after 3-4 years into the process, they figure out that the child may have some innate knack for the game and a passion, and proceed to reverse course. For many players (not all), this may be simply too late; their competition (whether it’s Juan Carlos from Spain or Anna or Maria from Russia or Ukraine) will have spent many more hours on court developing their technique, eye for the ball, footwork and tactical understanding. In other words, while the American player is striving to become "well-rounded" (and there's nothing really wrong with that), their foreign peers would have played 500-600 hours more. There are, of course, stories about some athletes who played multiple sports and still achieved great success. You have to ask yourself whether they are the exception or the rule. 

2.        Understand the Odds of “Making It”. Whether you are intending to push for the “pros” or merely college tennis, you have to understand the odds of achieving your results. Tennis is open to people from all demographics or walks of life. In addition, for most of the world, tennis is a very, very popular sport (maybe 2nd or 3rd in popularity after football/soccer). The popularity adds to the pool of players and talent. When it comes to playing pro tennis, I will quote what Jose Higueras told me when I had the opportunity to train with him as an 18 year old: “you know, your chance of making it is ZERO [needless to say, I felt crushed]. But you know what?! Jim’s [Courier] and Michael’s [Chang] chances were also zero.” In other words, the reality is that tennis is, from a financial point of view, a zero-sum game for most people. However, despite the odds, some people take up that challenge and work hard towards their dreams while others get discouraged. Both Jim and Michael were tremendous work horses who spent a great deal of time improving their games and fitness levels. Not many people would be willing to put in the miles that Jim was doing in the middle of summer with truck tires behind him. 

3.         Avoid Negative Influences. Despite the odds, it is OK for the parents and players to admit that they have lofty goals (e.g. Top-200 in the world; D-1 scholarship; etc.). Many people, however, will not admit to harboring such dreams because they feel that other people will laugh at them - particularly if the goals are not attained. Screw those people! Why allow them to dictate your dreams?! If the child wanted to become a doctor, lawyer or astronaut would you pour water on her dreams too?! Set the standards high and then aim for them with all your energies and resources. Very few people finish a marathon if they’re only training for a 5-K race. The reality is that if you aim for the “top” (let’s say, for purposes of discussion, top-200ATP/WTA) and fail, you are still a helluva player. If you’re an accomplished (i.e. world-class/ranked) player, you can more easily get into a good college and have your education paid for and, thereafter, "make a decent life for yourself". But you cannot allow the negative noise to deter you from your goals. 

4.        Forget About Rankings. This will be a constant theme on CAtennis.com but it’s worth hammering the point home. When you’re young, worry about developing your game...all of your game (technical, tactical, physical and mental); get addicted to winning; play tournaments to see how your practices and training are coming along and then fine-tune your training further (don't "live" on results alone); seek to dominate all levels starting from the simplest one (your "backyard") first and working your way upwards (sectionals -> nationals -> internationals); stop trying to “buy” success. Some parents think that if their kids play “bigger” tournaments even if they are not ready (i.e., because they have not achieved worthwhile results at lower levels), the competitors' level/success will somehow rub off on their own kids as if it were mud (or something more colorful). Success must be earned; it cannot be borrowed from someone else

5.    Know the Difference Between Organizations. The USTA is, technically, in charge of tennis development. The ITA (NCAA) is in charge of college tennis. They are not related! They have different rules and interests. One (USTA) cares about one thing (tennis development); the other (ITA), about something entirely different (scholastic development). If we, as a country, are to succeed and have a long-lasting impact, we need to have coordination efforts between these organizations in order to allow players to transition from the auspices of one organization to those of another.

6.       Amateurism. A strong argument exists that antiquated notions of amateurism may be detrimental to the game. After all, many foreign players have no concept of college tennis (or the rules are more relaxed or not completely enforced). Thee aim of some of these players is the pro tour; for them, there is no secondary target. Thus, while our players are setting their sights relatively low, their foreign peers are setting their sights considerably higher.

Perhaps we need to devise a circuit of events where the players can at least be reimbursed for their travel expenses. For example, we could make it a requirement that "national" events reimburse the winner's and runner-up's expenses up to a point; no more scalping the parents for $120/event in exchange for a tournament T-shirt and "national points". It might be tough to monitor (for NCAA purposes), but the concept is that the players will learn how to view the sport as a professional endeavor and college as a mere stop along the way and not the final destination. For example, in France, cash prizes are sometimes awarded in junior events (even the smallest ones). This breeds a completely different mentality – “yes, we can make a living at this game.” While Johnny (USA) is playing for plastic trophies, Francois, Rafael, Jurgen, Dmitri or "-ova" are playing for something completely different. I wonder who will have a better chance of making it.

Nevertheless, this is really not a novel concept. Some ITF events actually reimburse the players' travel expenses so there's no reason - well, besides greed from the tournament organizers and short-sightedness - for not implementing this at other events (e.g. national tournaments). We're simply saying that more tournaments could follow the ITF approach and not be in violation of any EXISTING amateurism rules

7.         Player Assistance. We need to provide actual, tangible incentives for people to play the sport and push for the higher echelons of the game. The more players we have in the ranks, the greater the likelihood of players breaking into the top-100, top-50 and toop-10. Remember, when the US dominated the top spots in tennis, the US also dominated the entire ranks. As of Oct. 24, only 17 American men are in the top 300. While everyone focuses on what we need to do to get a player in the top 4, we need to focus on energy in getting more players into the top 200-300. This is the pool of talent from which we can make a push into the top-100, top-50, top-20 and top-10. As a nation, we can't afford to continue to gamble on one or two players making it big. We need to actually increase the odds of it happening. 

Again, foreign countries have a different approach than ours. Rather than adopting a “sink or swim” mentality, many foreign federations provide actual financial/development assistance to their players. In some countries, assistance is provided by the clubs themselves. Here, we could devise a system where the USTA could provide grants/loans to players attaining certain rankings. For example: if you’re top 500 ATP/WTA, you receive (from USTA) $15,000 per year (to assist with further travels); if you’re top 350 ATP/WTA, you receive $25,000 per year; if you’re top 200 ATP/WTA, you receive $30,000 (figures are arbitrary and for purposes of discussion only). Players participating in this program (i.e., it's not mandatory) could then either agree to pay it back (from future earnings; when they "break through" top 150ATP/WTA) or trade on-court time for grass-roots tennis events or exhibitions in order to “grow the game”. The reality is that the USTA is spending a lot of money in trying to develop players, but it’s doing so on salaries of non-players. The players are the face of American tennis – not the executives or administrators. 

8.         Put More Money Into the Lower Tiers. Although prize money has increased in the Grand Slams and top-tier events, it has more or less remained constant in the futures and challenger series. $1000 20 years ago meant a whole lot more than $1000 today. Not many Americans are willing to grind out, week-in and week-out, sleeping 6 to a room or in their cars, for little or no compensation (even if they manage to get good results). Again, we need to provide an incentive for people to stick with the game through the grind-stages. Otherwise, players will simply quit and start teaching or get “real” jobs. 

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    That's a very interesting road map. Will note it down for future reading.
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