Among the U.S. players departing the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows were Venus Williams and James Blake. The latter has announced his retirement. If you’ve noticed a dearth of U.S. players among the tennis elite you’re not alone. Tom Perrotta has too, and in his recent Wall Street Journal column, “America’s Sputtering Tennis Factory,” he chronicles the recent failures of the U.S. Tennis Association to develop top talent. He joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: In 2008 the USTA opened a full-time, all-expenses-paid in Boca Raton, Fla., where the country’s best junior players would live and train. The goal was to field more competitive players. So what went wrong?
TP: They’ve had a lot of difficulties, especially with younger players. For the first time they were trying to get players who were really young – 12, 13, 14 – and see if they could keep them in a place for a long time and group them all together and have them feed off each other that way. But they had a lot of turnover. Parents and players complained often that they were pushed too hard. There was one lawsuit from a young girl who said she was trained too hard and sort of pushed to lose weight – this is what she claims in her lawsuit—and she reacted in a bulimic way.
What they’ve done since then now is they’re stepping back. They’re going to work with older kids and they are not going to have as many kids live there full time. Next year they’re only going to have three kids living there when they used to have – I think their high number was 18.
BL: The academies were formed largely because European players have dominated tennis for some time. But as McEnroe admits, there’s no one way that European countries approach the development of talent. So how should the USTA change its program?
TP: It’s very hard to say. Look at Serbia, for example. They have the No. 1 male player in the world right now, and in the last several years they’ve had two separate women become the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Their tennis federation is almost nonexistent. No money, really had no role in the development of those players. There’s very few courts in the country. The weather’s not good for tennis. You look at that and you say it’s very hard to say what you actually do need to make a very good tennis player other than the right athlete picking it up at the right age, somehow stumbling upon the right coach and sticking with it.
BL: Which is a tough thing to organize and orchestrate.
TP: Very hard. No one’s really done that all that well. The best system is in France. They have the most well-organized instruction system, and they do have a lot of players. But they don’t win a lot of Grand Slam titles. Their most recent winner, Marion Bartoli, who actually just retired – she won Wimbledon this year – she was very much an outside-the-system player. She trained with her father, very unconventional way, two-hand forehand and backhand and grew up with the federation saying this player’s not going to win playing like this, that’s ridiculous.
BL: USTA Chairman, CEO, and President David Haggerty is quoted in your piece as saying that his organization has helped American tennis in recent years. How so?
TP: Well I think their belief is that they’re touching a lot more kids. They’re doing a lot in coaching education, too. There’s a lot the USTA is involved in: trying to grow the game, trying to get more people playing, educating coaches. I mean people bicker about how much money should be devoted to that as opposed to actually trying to train elite players. It’s hard in the U.S. There’s a lot of other sports for good athletes: football, baseball and basketball. And all of them, frankly, have more money in them than tennis. Tennis has no guaranteed money. If you’re not good and you don’t win you don’t earn any money.