by GILAD BLOOM [Spring, 2003]

In the ever-evolving, often unpredictable world of tennis, in which the world's No. 1 man is an Aussie baseliner, an Argentinean reaches the final of Wimbledon, a backhand slice is nowhere to be found and serve-and-volley is an obscenity, one thing has not changed: the U.S. junior tennis system, or the lack thereof.

Historically, the United States has relied on its huge resources of talent and great tennis tradition to produce world-class players through private coaching or through the commercial academies that popped up during the '80s, with very little or no connection to the USTA. That worked quite well for decades, partly due to a healthy college system that gave players the opportunity to develop their games and receive high-level coaching while being in a competitive environment, preparing them for the grind of the pro tour.

        In the past two decades, however, pro tennis has radically changed. Big money is pouring in and kids are turning pro before finishing high school. This makes the early and mid-junior years (12-16) much more crucial in a player's development. By the time a player turns 16, he is expected to be technically sound, have good practice habits and be physically and mentally prepared to compete.

        To achieve that goal one needs a plan and a system overseen by skilled professionals. It starts with the recruitment of young players, fishing out the outstanding athletes, conducting IQ tests, mental strength tests, etc. Then the best juniors must play together in the right environment and with the right coaching for each particular stage of their careers. There must be a constant focus on technique, footwork, coordination, work habits, strategy, fitness, match play and the mental aspect of the game. Long-term thinking requires a mindset , dectating that results are almost irrelevant in the early years. For, unfortunately, being a champ at age 14 is too often the kiss of death rather than a reliable predictor of a successful career.

        Most national federations in Europe (and some in South America) adopted these principles years ago, and countries such as Spain and France have almost perfected a formula for producing generation after generation of world-class players through their national junior development programs. The USTA, in contrast, is still stuck with its regional coaches and monthly weekend training camps, designed mainly to justify coaches' salaries and to keep track of the top players and take credit in case somebody breaks through. The selection of players to USTA teams is based mainly on a rather confusing, mostly illogical, if not even deceiving ranking system. In all fairness to the USTA, logistically, this country's size makes it very hard to get the best players together and to create some kind of full-time, national academy, and a lot of players who have the means to get private coaching might choose to stay private anyway. A USTA program will attract the nation's best only if it provides full-time, year-round programs with a highly skilled coaching staff and a long-term plan.

        While the present "system" produced Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier (and before them John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors), USTA officials should ask themselves honestly if these champions are the product of a long-term program or simply rare talents? Andy Roddick's emergence as the next big star in American tennis may help sweep some of the problems under the carpet for a few years. Realistically, he could carry the torch for U.S. tennis for years, even though he still has not won a Slam. But if you are concerned about the not-so-distant future, you might notice that with Sampras practically retired and Agassi a year or so from riding off into the sunset, Roddick is the only American in the Top 20 in the world. Yes, James Blake is on the verge of cracking the Top 20, and there is a new crop of young guns such as Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish, among others. But there is a big difference between being a good tour player and a Top 20 player, someone who is a contender at the Grand Slams, someone who will draw the crowds.

        It is no secret that Europeans rule the tour these days; just look at the numbers. Thirteen of the world's Top 20 players are from Europe; 27 of the Top 50. Small countries, such as Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium, are producing generation after generation of world-class players, and countries such as Germany, Spain and France have so many good players they can practically have their own tour. USTA officials in charge of junior tennis might do well to take a look at the numbers, then look in the mirror and ask themselves, "Are these numbers a coincidence, or what?"

        The bottom line is top European and South American juniors are practicing more hours; are getting better, more professional and methodical coaching at a younger age; and end up turning pro early on, while American kids are still in high school worrying about their sectional rankings or which college to attend. (Interestingly, America's emphasis on education might reduce the professional opportunities for many talented prospects, who, unlike European or South American juniors, spend hours in school, keeping them from a dedicated practice regimen of five or six hours a day.) As a result, Europeans stand a better chance in defying the odds and actually making it on the tour. It's as simple as that. If I were Paul Roetert or Eliot Teltscher, the newly appointed pros in charge of High Performance, I would get on a plane to the old continent, go to Barcelona or to Paris, take out my notebook and do something that few Americans like to do--learn from the Europeans.

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