At a time when recreational tennis is on the rise in the United States and emphasis is being placed on recruiting youngsters, Americans are conspicuous by their absence in the late-round singles draws at most professional tournaments.
Officials of the United States Tennis Association say junior development has never been more organized, with national and regional training centers, dozens of former pros as salaried coaches (with Patrick McEnroe as the general manager of elite player development) and a serious commitment to finding future champions.
“There’s no secret formula, and that’s our strength,” says Martin Blackman, a former touring pro, college coach and now the senior director for talent identification and development with the U.S.T.A. He acknowledges a “paradigm shift in the late ’80s” that opened opportunities for players in Eastern Europe and in Latin America.
“What we’re doing at the national level now is complementary and inclusive,” Blackman said.
But critics like Robert Lansdorp, the California stroke guru, and Pete Fischer, who developed Pete Sampras’s serve and his tactical all-court game, say the focus is misguided.
“Everything is fragmented,” Fischer said during a recent telephone interview from California, citing conflicting coaching techniques and different competitive priorities as inhibitors to producing champions. “I don’t see one vision. The U.S.T.A. is graded on how their players do in I.T.F. events. Who cares about that? Short-term goals get in the way of long-term goals.”
Lansdorp, who prefers one-on-one coaching to academy and training centers, said he talked to McEnroe recently.
“He has the right ideas,” Lansdorp said, “but you don’t get a champion out of a group. You have to find talent. And then you have to develop that talent.”
In a phone interview, McEnroe acknowledged the appointment of José Higueras as a national director of coaching.
“The No. 1 important thing is to get a coaching philosophy in place for our program,” McEnroe said.
Of the top 100 ranked players on the WTA Tour as of March 23, only four were American, and two were in the top 10, the Williams sisters, Serena (No. 1) and Venus (No. 6). (The other two were No. 37 Bethanie Mattek-Sands and No. 85 Jill Craybas.) By contrast, 14 Russian women were ranked among the top 100, including 10 in the top 50 and five among the top 10.
The situation is little better on the ATP men’s tour. Spain has 14 players among the first 100, including Rafael Nadal at No. 1. France has 13. Of the seven Americans in the top 100, only one, Andy Roddick (No. 6), is in the top 10.
Ten years ago, four American women were in the top 10, and 15 among the top 100. Three men from the United States were in the top 10, and 12 in the top 100.
Historically, American tennis champions have developed through a combination of player skill and drive, parental pride and persistence, and the technically sound acumen of a dedicated coach.
For all of his eccentric off-court pronouncements, Richard Williams recognized his daughters’ natural gifts and work ethic, and extracted mechanical refinements and support from a number of quality coaches (Rick Macci and Nick Bollettieri, to name a few). The result: the Williams sisters have combined for 17 Grand Slam singles titles in the last 10 years.
Bollettieri, whose tennis academy in Florida produced Andre Agassi and Jim Courier among others, said players had to be ready to work 365 days a year.
“This is what it takes to be successful in tennis in America,” he said.
The latest examples of works in progress reflect the scope of the search.
Victoria Duval, 13, whose family is from Haiti, won the U.S.T.A. National 14s last year. She lives with her mother and grandmother in Bradenton, Fla., near Bollettieri’s academy, now owned by IMG Academy. Madison Keys, 14, was a finalist in the Orange Bowl 16s, and is scheduled to make her pro debut Monday at a WTA event in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
The Williams sisters played a limited age-group schedule until the age of 14 and tailored their tournament commitments. That may explain why they still have a competitive zest while other No. 1 pros like Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis left the game before turning 25. Clijsters is planning a comeback.
The notion that young Americans won’t pay the same price for success as Russians, Serbs or other Europeans — long hours on the court, weeks away from home, fighting through competitive qualifiers or satellite events in less-attractive places — is as much a topic for debate as whether United States tennis is losing the biggest and best athletes to college scholarships in basketball, soccer and even lacrosse.
“Kids should learn to play tennis exactly the way they learn to play basketball,” said Ray Benton, a lawyer based in Washington who has been involved in the sport for decades as a player, promoter and entrepreneur. He is now the chief executive of a regional training center in College Park, Md.
Recreational recruitment is growing. QuickStart Tennis, a format for three age levels announced last year, is in 1,200 facilities, according to the U.S.T.A. The youngest, 5 to 8, play on a 36-foot court with a foam tennis ball. For preteens, the court is expanded to 60 feet with low-compression balls. The third level plays on the standard court.
“You’re going to see a dramatic improvement in our junior players between 13 and 18 in three years,” Blackman said.
Pancho Segura, who is considered a tactical Yoda in the sport, seems more skeptical. Too many young Americans, Segura said, are using extreme Western-style grips, which yield tantalizing topspin but inhibit an ability to slice, volley and adequately cover low balls.
More important, he added, “They don’t know how to win tennis matches.”