Gosh, as long as I can remember, the tennis experts continually debate the plight of USA tennis. Do you remember the 1994 Sports Illustrated article by Sally Jenkins that proclaimed, “Is tennis dying?” Fortunately, the sport of tennis has come a long way since the epitaph was written but Americans are panicking because our current stars are fading and many are unsure if we have a new crop of players coming up the pike.
Good or bad, the person in charge of resurrecting our USTA junior program is Patrick McEnroe. McEnroe, the younger brother of controversial John McEnroe, just retired from his position as Davis Cup coach to concentrate on his job as the general manager of junior development for the USTA. Now for the second time in twenty-five years, the USTA has enlisted a group of former tour players to train our promising players of the future.
With training centers in Carson, California, Boca Raton, Florida and New York City, the project is well funded and well-staffed. Clearly, the USTA would like to see the same type of results as the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain; winning multiple Davis Cups and placing countless players in the top fifty in the world rankings.
On the other side of the debate is Patrick’s big brother, John, who states, “so far the USTA sponsored programs have produced ‘nada’, no one thus far.” With his passion for the sport and his desire to see young Americans rise in the tennis rankings, John has put together his own academy in his hometown (New York City) and claims to have a different approach than the current USTA model run by his brother, Patrick. Here is John McEnroe’s mission statement:
• To develop world-class players at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
• To excite New Yorkers, especially kids, about the game of tennis.
• To provide opportunities to motivated and deserving NYC area kids- – young players who would not otherwise have the resources to reach their full potential as players and/or scholar-athletes.
John’s passion and belief is that great players can be developed in urban settings, while still having the opportunity to live at home, pursue their educational goals, and participate in a variety of sports and extracurricular activities.
How does this differ from Patrick’s overall mission statement? Younger brother Patrick’s kids will live full-time at one of the training centers and devote most of their day to serious on and off-court tennis work-outs. In other words, the kids will eat, sleep and think tennis without too much interruption. John’s model emulates his early training in New York with renowned tennis coach Tony Palafox; both he and Patrick lived at home and then went to their after-school tennis program in Port Washington which produced innumerable tennis prodigies including Naples own Mary Carillo and the late-great Vitas Gerulaitis.
In fairness to Patrick McEnroe’s plan, he and his USTA team is really trying to emulate the success of the Spanish Tennis Federation model where many of the current European stars have lived and trained at the world famous Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. With Spain dominating Davis Cup and the top of the ATP world rankings, it would be difficult to argue with their accomplishments.
My one big gripe centers around who is coaching our rising stars and how is it determined who is invited to the training centers around the United States? The only coaches who are invited to join the USTA initiative are former touring professionals–this is a one-sided approach. What about the leading academy coaches in this country which include Robert Lansdorf, Rick Macci, Nick Bollettieri, Brett Hobden and countless others who have produced many young champions?
There are too many great coaches who are clearly flying under the radar and have been ignored by the USTA. And, if the USTA or others only pick the highest ranked 12 and 14 and under ranked kids, they are missing out on the juniors who are late-bloomers. For example, most kids who utilize a one-handed backhand never develop until their bodies begin to mature. Does that mean that all one-handed backhand players will be left out? Perhaps, yes, most of the kids who desire an all-court game and need time to find their way will be ignored by the establishment.
So, there are many inherent problems that need to be addressed. Which McEnroe brother is going to be the big winner? It is premature to even speculate as we need a minimum of three to five years to assess which program is firing closest to the target. With all of the money and guidance from the USTA, it is going to be almost impossible for Patrick’s team not to produce some solid players. From a practical standpoint, I love John’s vision as it encompasses the overall well-being of the person and his future.
At the end of the day, it is more important to develop solid human beings who will contribute to our society versus a kid who only knows how to rip a forehand drive from the baseline. So, I’m going to give the edge to John McEnroe. After all, John, the musician, has performed on stage with the likes of Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy–it just doesn’t get any better than that!