Tennis Prose




Apr/24

1

Analysis: State Of American Tennis

By Johan Kriek

Waiting to watch the Dimitrov versus Sinner final at the Miami Open…. Just thinking back to the times I played at Key Biscayne etc. and listening to the “Fanduel” ad even spouted by the commentator on TV. Amazing…. How far we have come.. or fallen. The betting companies never came close to us in the ‘80’s. We had the MIPTC (disbanded shortly after 1989) for “illegalities” like taking money “under the table”) now it’s just part of business …. Gambling? If we were caught during our playing days we were done! Gone! ( I don’t gamble.) Today players get incredibly nasty text messages from the public bettors (they get to know your info) and God forbid these morons lose money by betting on you and you lose a match….I have seen a player’s text messages. Grotesque and vile! Why the ATP or WTA ever allowed betting companies to sponsor the sport of tennis is beyond me…. How wholesome did they think this was going to turn out… I know there has been a tremendous growth in prize money in tournaments….that’s great! But very few people are talking about the drop in junior tennis participation in the US. The USTA has us believe that tennis is growing…… perhaps for the Wall Streeters and major sponsors coming to the US Open for their parties and such. It’s a fact that by age 14/15 a very large portion of competitive US juniors quit tennis … flat out quit the sport. Sorry, no amount of money from Wall Street or the Saudi sovereign funds will grow junior tennis if there isn’t a major effort planned well and starting yesterday to gain kids in pre-k schools and bring back tennis to schools and do it consistently! Tennis is being pushed back and back despite the amazing pro events we see….how long will this last?? In my humble opinion if we don’t look at grassroots tennis in a very very serious way and put a major effort into markets like Africa (youngest population on earth under 25 at 40%) and rebuild the tennis market in the US, tennis will continue to lose market share to pickleball (embarrassing for tennis) and now we know Padel tennis is building steam and will become huge in 5-10 years in the US. You read it here….tennis is in trouble! Wake up!!

Kriek: There is a letter from Jose Higueras, the former head coach of USTA Player Development. I read it with interest and actually agree with him on the wasteful ideas and efforts. But I have a different take on this. The USTA is a 501-C-3 which is a tax exempt organization. Their main goal is and should be to grow tennis in America. But that is not exactly what is happening. We are not gaining young players. America used to have a ton of US players at the very top of the world’s rankings but Roddick was the last No. 1 and now we see the Europeans dominate the very top ten players in the world on the men’s side. They did dominate a few decades now…. Why? The reasons are many and some have to do with culture not the “culture” in the USTA in my humble opinion is totally flawed. I also have an insider “tidbit” information.

Many years ago around the time the National Training Center was being built – or the idea of it was formulated – I had a conversation at dinner with a person who was intimately involved with the USTA Junior Development Program. I will keep this person’s name protected. This person told me that the worst decision was to create this program. It makes no sense to take a talented junior “out of their comfortable environment, their home/ family/ friends/ their home coach/ school and so much more and put them into a training facility be it in Florida, NY or California. This person was deeply disappointed at the fact this person was part of that program. This person also said it would have been so much more effective to have done a deep dive into the top development coaches in the US and begin funding those coaches wherever they are with these little “golden nuggets” and keep funding them to continue their coaching to make these kids the best they can be. I agree!

But instead Lake Nona was built to the cost of $100 million (insider info also) and player development happened there. USTA hired many coaches under Jose Higueras (Patrick McEnroe was not particularly successful during that time…) and many hired were good guys that either played pro tennis before etc. I knew many of them… But on a personal level for me… I lived in Naples Florida from 1978 to 2006 and started coaching juniors in 2006 in Sarasota and been doing that for US and international juniors in my programs from Sarasota to Roanoke VA, Charlotte NC and now in south Florida in Jupiter and Boca Raton. Even Sebi Korda as an 8 year old was in my program in Saraosta for a while and not to claim “we did it” but as a former no. 7 ATP singles player with two major singles titles and a top 12 doubles player in the world me and my coaches over the years changed lives, parents loved to see their kids improve and do well and many went to various colleges getting scholarships the past 18 years I have been coaching tennis.

I know my craft. But in all those years the USTA has asked me only twice to come to Lake Nona to help with a special weekend to coach boys and girls ages 12/14 for a weekend. Many came to train to play against other top kids they normally would perhaps never see or play against but honestly, what could I teach a 12 or 14 year old in two days? To me it was a waste of time for the most part. Perhaps something would stick but again, very doubtful. So the point is, the USTA is always spending the money but not the brains to do things. Amazing facility built for sure but not necessary in my humble opinion.

Pay the coaches “who deliver the goods” some for decades in quiet places and they almost never get recognized. Tennis coaching is part art and part consistent hard work! There are so many ways to coach and to “grab talented kids” and thrust them in an environment that is not necessarily a good fit for the kids! Some kids do very well in a “group environment” but many don’t! Tennis is a “lonely” sport so in my humble opinion the USTA should never have wasted decades and tens of millions of dollars to start the player development program. It is not their duty to train the next No. 1 in the world! It’s not! Leave that to the people that are in all the corners of America that have unique talents to find these kids and train them in their own environments where it worked!

But I suppose with “blinders on” and a fat checkbook the egos were taking over. Stealing kids from great teaching pros is STEALING!! That’s bad but broke parents will say “yes!!” Only to regret it years later. Now the USTA sold the Cincinnati tournament to Ben Navarro. Smart man who bought it…. Why did the USTA sell their prized possession? Hhhmmm… Tennis is in serious trouble in the USA. It is not just me saying this… Writing is on the wall! We need fresh new leadership that know what they are doing. Be smart USTA! Leave this business to the “PROS”!!

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10 comments

  • catherine · April 1, 2024 at 10:00 am

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 1, 2024 at 11:31 am

    Catherine, it was said Yannick Noah was discovered in primitive Africa by Arthur Ashe but is this story really true or was it highly embellished? Noah looks half white. If the establishment could manufacture a grand slam champion out of Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, or Congo, it would do it in a NY minute.

  • catherine · April 2, 2024 at 4:11 am

    Scoop- Noah was spotted in Cameroon by Ashe while on a US goodwill tour. Cameroon was a French colony and Yannick was developed as a player in France. He considers himself French in many ways.

    Promising African players have to leave Africa to develop and this might be politically fraught in some countries. So it’s not easy.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 2, 2024 at 8:07 am

    Catherine, yes that is the official narrative but may it have been embellished? The story could be a wonderful publicity marketing stunt. Noah clearly has some mixed race features, he is not 100 african, I’d guess half white half black. Lovely story though.

  • Steve · April 2, 2024 at 9:00 am

    They paid Patrick McEnroe a gigantic salary and nothing improved. On a smaller level, if you volunteer to captain a USTA team you get zero support, not even a free hat. If you go to a juniors tournament in the US there are no umpires on court so cheating runs rampant and many kids quit and go back to baseball which always has at least two umps on the field during play. If they have million dollar holiday parties they can get a referee on court or start funding the new line calling technologies that some clubs have. Despite these great letters like Wayne Bryan’s and this new one from Higueras nothing will be done. They are now more a political entity and the top brass see themselves as diplomats.

  • catherine · April 2, 2024 at 10:00 am

    Scoop – Richard Evans went with Ashe on this trip and wrote about it in World Tennis – I read it at the time. I don’t think there was any embellishment. Yannick was already picked out as very promising. His colour didn’t matter. French colonies were quite mixed, and the French were passionate for a RG champion which they eventually got.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 2, 2024 at 10:14 am

    Steve, your points are all legit. My biggest takeaway from this is the mishap of taking a successful rising junior from his developmental origin and dropping him/her into a new totally foreign environment with new coaches and voices. Kozlov did this. Surely many others. USTA has done this so many times and I can’t think of a success story. Fritz, Paul, Opelka, Tiafoe did not commit to USTA like Kozlov did. Osaka did not either, actually the USTA didn’t want her. One thing for sure is we will never get a full in depth story about all the top juniors the USTA took and stalled their evolutions.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 2, 2024 at 10:16 am

    Catherine, if I remember correctly, or maybe I got the story twisted, is that Ashe supposedly found a raw Noah essentially in the jungle and spotted his natural talent and athleticism. Or was the story more like Noah was already playing junior tennis in the Cameroon system? Because African tennis has a history, as I showed with the interviews I did with the Congo player in 2023.

  • catherine · April 3, 2024 at 5:15 am

    Your second story is the right one – Noah was already an eye-catching junior player and would have emerged eventually through the French system.

    But I’ve no doubt someone saw the Ashe/Noah connection as good PR.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 3, 2024 at 8:14 am

    Catherine, before you mentioned this I had the impression Ashe found Noah playing barefoot on a dirt court in the jungle with homemade racquets of sticks and vines for strings. Who knows what the truth is ) Be nice to see an African player emerge someday. Frances Tiafoe is the closest thing right now as his parents came from somewhere in Africa and his dad was the janitor at the JCC academy in Maryland.

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