I had a sense that that glutted cow known as USTA Player Development has gotten a lot bigger since its inception three years ago, but . . . wow!
This morning, primarily because of Harold Solomon’s incisive remarks on Monday about the USTA’s incredible waste of money during my radio podcast (listen here: http://primesportsnetwork.com/tennis.html), I called up the organization chart for General Manager Patrick McEnroe’s ever-expanding program and I came away thinking, “Is there really a recession in this country.”
What started out, under the impetus of former USTA pro tennis executive Arlen Kantarian as a fairly modest program with just a handful of coaches, has turned into a money-eating monster.
At the top, McEnroe, and there’s no criticism there for a guy who has been an outstanding Davis Cup captain and one of the real “givers” to American tennis.
But, under him, as documented on the USTA’s website, there eight major coaches (Jose Higueras, Jay Berger, Ola Malmqvist, Leo Azevedo, Ricky Acuna, Jean Desdunes, Tom Gullikson and David Roditi), plus another five men’s coaches and seven women’s coaches.
That’s 20 coaches and you’re supremely entitled to ask what they’ve produced.
At our Grand Slam, the U.S. Open, we had 35 American men and women entered in the two qualifying tournaments, many of them of course with wild cards. Three got through the three rounds of qualifying to reach the main draw — former Georgia Tech All American Irina Falconi, young Texan Ryan Harrison and 30-year-old Robert Kendrick.
None of the three was developed by the USTA. Now, you can argue that it has only been three years since the USTA program began, but to me that’s enough time to get a lot done. It’s not happening and the evidence is evident. The USTA development program has put exactly zero players into this U.S. Open.
Whatever skills Falconi has picked up came largely at Georgia Tech, where she spent a couple years maturing. Harrison is coached by his father, Pat, and the staff at the Bollettieri IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. As for Kendrick, he’ll be 31 on Nov. 15. Not exactly a prime candidate for anyone’s development program.
What’s the problem here for the USTA? Listen to Solomon, the 1976 runner-up at the French Open and a consistent top-10 player during his career.
“It’s a very expensive proposition and this is a very big country. What works in France and Spain doesn’t necessarily work here,” said Solomon, as he pointed out that the USTA, which began with a training camp in Boca Raton, Fla., has now added Carson, Calif., the United States Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., where the Open is played, plus a series of satellite centers around the nation. In addition to the 20 coaches and various secretaries and other office personnel, there are another 22 people employed as supervising support staff for the program.
We really need to spend all this money? That would be fine if it was producing something, but where are the results?
“I’m kind of shocked there’s not more of an outcry from people,” said Solomon. “People should be asking, ‘Are you guys getting the job done and, if not, what do we need to do and how do we do it.’ ”
Solomon has his own views on that subject and he begins by pointing out that the USTA has never developed a top player. Andy Roddick? Spent his junior career with a couple of private coaches. Mardy Fish? He was in the same group with Roddick. The Williams sisters? Coached by private academy coach Rick Macci in Florida and by their father, Richard. John Isner? Four years at the University of Georgia. Sam Querrey? Private coaches in California.
“A number of academies do a very good job,” said Solomon. “The USTA should just certify an academy based on certain criteria and let young players have the choice of going where they want to go so that the USTA doesn’t have to put together this huge bureaucracy that is getting bigger and bigger all the time. There is a much less expensive way of doing things.”
There was a time when the USTA jealousy guarded “its” players, minimizing contact with private academies altogether. That has changed under the McEnroe regime. A player getting USTA financial help today can go to Bollettieri’s or Nick Saviano’s in Sunrise, Fla., or to Solomon’s academy in Fort Lauderdale or just about anywhere else, as long as the USTA remains involved.
Meanwhile, the USTA maintains its own facility in Boca Raton on the site of the Evert Tennis Academy, complete with dorms and cafeteria. The problem, as Solomon sees it, is that it’s largely a waste of money. Why not just let the private academies do what they do best. Produce players.
“These foreign kids out there are hungry, hungry, hungry,” said Solomon, drawing the difference between them and U.S. players.
Not long ago, the USTA asked Solomon to run a week-long camp at his academy for some of the USTA’s prospects.
“I tried to put them through a week of what it will take to be successful in professional tennis,” said Solomon. “And they looked at me as if I’m crazy. This is something we don’t really want to do, they were saying. They weren’t up to the task. It’s not in their culture. That culture needs to shift in American tennis.”
He advocates smaller national junior tournaments, more elite, not open to everyone who picks up a racket. It needs to be special, he said, so that only the most committed players get in.
When Solomon came out of college to turn pro during one of the golden ages of American tennis, if you were a top U.S. player, you were a top player in the world. You were toughened and highly committed. “I don’t want to refer to it as the good old days, but if you won the opening set of a match, you probably were going to win the match. We were mentally tougher than players from other parts of the world,” he said.
That attitude, Solomon said, has shifted. “I shake my head at this last group of Americans. We had seven guys who should have been top 10, but most of them didn’t have the work ethic to reach their potential.” The names of Robby Ginepri, Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish came out.
I’ve known Harold Solomon for years. This isn’t some guy with an anti-USTA agenda or trying to square a fight with someone. This is one of the most thoughtful, incisive minds in the game and a man who has coached Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Mary Joe Fernandez, Jennifer Capriati and Anna Kournikova.
People need to listen to what Harold Solomon has to say. Not just listen, but take his advice.