The combination between the current US player drought at the top of the men’s game and the announcement of the change of the head of the USTA’s Player Development Program has opened the door to heated discussions about what the USTA needs to do to bring American tennis back to its old glory.
Debate topics range from the 10 and under initiative to pro tennis and everything in between: ROG tournaments, bigger or smaller draws, more or less foreign players and changes in the scoring system in college tennis, the merits of academies, USTA National Centers, etc.
The task for the next head of the USTA Player Development Program seems daunting. Navigating the political waters to get US tennis back on track is a colossal undertaking. But… how bad is the situation? Can the USTA really turn things around?
In order to answer these questions it is important to truly understand the player development process, and the truth is that at its core, player development is not rocket science. You need an extremely talented athlete in love with the game, willing to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, with the support of his or her family, the right coach or coaches, money to cover all expenses and plenty of competition - and the more of these you have the better!
That is it, plain and simple.
But if that is the case, where are the US Players? There is certainly no scarcity of any of these factors in the US. And I say US players because although the US is not producing as many top US players as they once did, the system does seem to be good enough for foreign players to develop. Just think of Sharapova, Nishikory, Del Potro and Bouchard - the very top among hundreds of international players who come to the States to improve their games.
But let’s ask the question again: Where are the US players? The reality is that US players are everywhere, except for their thin representation at the very top of the professional game.
If we look at the juniors, the US just won the Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup (the premier events for players under 16 in the world), and leads the ITF junior rankings (under 18) with the most players in the top 100, 11 top hundred players on the boy’s side and 12 on the girl’s side. The picture of the professional game is not much different. Looking at the number of players in the top 200 in the world, the US ranks 2nd after Spain on the men’s side with 15, and first on the ladies side with 23.
Where is the crises? Objectively speaking, the only “real problem” at the moment is the lack of superstars, but in all fairness, no one can produce superstars. It is not a matter of better coaching or a better environment or anything else. Top twenty players are geniuses and genius happens. The USTA cannot do anything about it, nor can anyone else. The only thing the USTA can do is keep working to provide the necessary infrastructure to increase the odds. That is, introduce initiatives to increase the number of competitive players, help improve the coaching level of the nation as a whole, provide aid to the top up-and-coming players and establish and support the necessary competitive channels to give as many players a chance to follow their dreams. How this can be achieved will continue to be highly debatable and as with any political entity, the next few years will not be much different than the last few; about half the country will be happy and half upset regardless of what the USTA tries to do.
Let’s face it, the USTA has its challenges and there are a myriad of things that it can improve to make the system better, but as a whole it is still the leading Federation in the world and the structure and support it provides are the envy of most nations.
Numbers do not lie. The US continues to be a world leader in player development and a top producer of competitive players. It’s amazing tennis infrastructure: academies, coaches, colleges, clubs, number of courts, etc., together with its powerful governing body ensures that the US will be at the top of the game for a long time - perhaps, not as dominant as in the past but definitely a leader. As the game becomes more global and many more players around the world have equal opportunities, the battle at the top will be harsher and it is very likely that no one country will ever again monopolize the summit of the sport.
However, one thing is certain, US superstars will emerge sooner or later, maybe not at the rate we are accustomed to but they will certainly reappear.
Does it really matter who the next USTA Director of Player Development is?