America’s Flawed System Of Player Development

Presently, at the elite level of tennis, American men seem to be woefully inadequate. Based on Grand Slam results for one year short of a decade now, our male professionals do not appear to be gaining any ground on European and South American pros.

I find this cumulative lack of positive results distressing. The situation should spark both concern and debate amongst tennis enthusiasts from the upper ranks to the grass-roots fan base. A concerted effort to remedy this dearth should be a top priority for the USTA (United States Tennis Association).

The USTA is the national governing body for our sport. In addition to it’s fundamental mission of promoting and growing tennis in the United States, the organization also plays a pivotal role in player development.

American males are not winning Grand Slam singles titles!

There’s little doubt that the player development faction within USTA is acutely aware of this glaring deficiency and I’m sure they’re feeling the heat. Jobs within the organization may even be on the chopping block.

So what is the answer to this ongoing dilemma?

From my perspective as a student of the game, a rabid fan, an admittedly sometimes “over the top” but, I’d like to think, competent instructor, and an average player, I feel that we need a restructuring of our overall teaching dynamic. And I think it should begin with a basic question.

Is it possible in America, that a no-longer viable model for success at the highest level of tennis is still being utilized at a time when the equipment, character and physicality of the game has changed so drastically?

In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Since the Sampras, Aggassi, Courier and Chang period, tennis has undergone a startling metamorphosis. It’s become a totally different game.

With continued advances in nanotechnology, racket frames are lighter, stronger and more powerful than ever before. And the synthetic strings with which these “super frames” are now strung  make it possible to do wicked things to a tennis ball.

Rafael Nadal regularly imparts enough racket head acceleration to cause a tennis ball to rotate at 5500 rpms (revolutions per minute). Federer’s ball maxes out at about 5000 rpms. That’s sick! I’m lucky if my car’s engine can generate numbers like that with the pedal to the metal.

To top it off, the athletes are bigger, taller, stronger, fitter and more agile than ever before. To a mere mortal like me, these guys appear almost freaks of nature. (For the record, Djokovic is different. I’m convinced he’s part man, part cat, part yogi, part bionic, and part something else of which no one yet has a clue).

This aggregate of factors is what convinces me that what worked several decades ago to produce American slam winners just won’t cut the mustard now.

Can we do something about it? Emphatically, YES! How? Change. Change what? Change the way we are training our athletes physically and mentally.

At the risk of redundancy, in a previous post I mentioned that we need to provide greater access for our junior players to develop their games on clay. And I’m not talking about American Har-Tru courts. That stuff is okay, but crushed red brick and it’s complimentary components is the real deal.

I’m sure the courts are a “pain to maintain,” but they can be a key element for teaching stroke perfection, point construction and a more productive mindset: patience. Our juniors desperately need to be learning these critical lessons rather than simply how to hit a ball hard.

I’m quite enamored with the innovative “Quick Start” or “Ten And Under Tennis” format. I think it’s an excellent foundational tool. It creates fun and excitement as well as almost instantaneous success. And, most importantly, it’s slow, sort of like clay. It provides a very good start for very young children.

I’ve watched kids from four to eight years of age, under the direction of competent instructors, developing technically correct strokes regardless of whether they make perfect contact with the big foam rubber balls. What I see is the genesis of successful tennis: patience and ball control.

Ultimately, in tennis, winners in singles are players who can keep the ball within the established confines of a rectangle that is 23.78 meters long and 8.23 meters wide. That’s 78′ x 27′ for those who still abhor the metric system.

Players that have learned to control a ball within the above mentioned dimensions and have been taught to BE PATIENT while doing so, are the most successful at this point in time.

Unfortunately, it ain’t us! It’s Europeans and South Americans.

It’s time for change. And it must come from within our rank and file.

Complacency is the enemy of change. It’s comfortable while change is scary.

American tennis needs to give the boot to the comfortable and plunge head first into the scary. In all probability, embracing change will prove to be the key factor in producing the next wave of American Grand Slam champions.

3 thoughts on “America’s Flawed System Of Player Development

  1. I agree with you on many aspects of your article when you’re talking about stroke perfection, point construction, a more productive mindset and patience. Just on spinning the ball, there are so many ways you can spin a tennis ball. How many coaches have time to concentrate on all of this. I had the chance to work as court maintenance in one of the nicest Tennis Club of GA. On a busy day 80 kids would show up for no more than 4 coaches. How in such a situation can you produce champion? I believe in one and one or so tennis lesson, especially at an early age. The champions for the most come from tennis tradition family where a member of the family can easily pass to his kid what they do not teach in Academy: the love of the game, good knowledge of the game, long hours on a court. Only then should parents think about Academy.

    Among other things that produce champions: practice of other sports like soccer, baseball, football, basket ball, for the natural reflex, sens of anticipation and perception you can develop. And for the mental part, the game of chess even at lower degree, for the ability of mobilizing energy and apprehend space and time.

  2. Marcel. Thank you for expressing your opinion. You raise some very interesting points. Eighty or so kids to four instructors isn’t a good ratio. It’s good that many kids show up but impossible to give meaningful instruction to that many. Still, the initial exposure is a good thing.
    Naturally, some of those kids will not stick with it. Hopefully those that do will be spotted by the right people and encouraged to continue.
    I agree with you that playing other sports is good for kids who are interested in tennis. I must admit, I’d not thought of the chess connection but I can see how it would be another useful tool.
    Thanks again for your insights. Please continue to contribute your thoughts.


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