Saturday, August 29, 2009
Updated: August 31, 6:31 PM ET
Jump-starting tennis talent
By Melissa Isaacson
It was just hours after Andy Roddick lost his epic five-set Wimbledon final to Roger Federer last month, when Patrick McEnroe came calling.
"We had to talk about Davis Cup," recalled McEnroe, Davis Cup team captain and general manager of USTA development, "and I told him that one match will do more for his reputation and American tennis than any wins he has ever had."
There is no way to quantify how many American boys and girls watched the Roddick-Federer match and became inspired to pick up a racket. The topic, "What's Wrong with American Tennis?" is almost older than Roddick. But McEnroe and the USTA are still faithfully hoping to find and develop future American champions in a game that continues to play catch-up to every other major sport in the U.S.
Toward that end, the USTA recently announced that three Chicago-area tennis facilities will serve as the Midwest Training Center, part of a network of USTA regional training centers. One of those facilities, the Midtown Tennis Club, was a pilot site for a program that is based on the common-sense principles that Little League baseball and Pop Warner football have been utilizing for years.
Simply put, the game is introduced to kids as young as 3 and 4 years old, the idea being to build proficiency and confidence by shrinking the equipment and the court and enlarging the tennis ball, which doesn't bounce as high. It's called QuickStart and -- surprise -- the Europeans have been using it for years. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters of Belgium are two of its more well-known graduates.
"It's smaller, but it's real tennis," said Butch Staples, head tennis pro at Midtown. "It's phenomenal when you see these 6- and- 7-year-olds playing tennis tactically and putting spin on the ball like Serena Williams."
Unfortunately for U.S. tennis, we may have to wait for those 6-year-olds to grow up in order to see the next players of Williams' caliber. After Serena and sister Venus at Nos. 2 and 3, you have to go all the way down to No. 67 and 17-year-old Melanie Oudin from Marietta, Ga. -- who recently defeated No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic en route to the fourth round at Wimbledon as a qualifier -- to find the next American in the world rankings. After that, it's 35-year-old Jill Craybas, who hardly fits the profile of potential champion.
Former pro and CBS commentator Mary Carillo called the dearth of women's champions in this country "a continuing frustration."
"It's a lot easier, especially now if you're living in Europe, training from the time you're young on clay, being able to drive to another country to play in a junior tournament," Carillo said this week. "There are advantages now that exist in Europe that don't exist here."
Women's tennis in the U.S. is also facing the same competition that once was the sole excuse for the men.
"It used to be that tennis and golf were the only women sports in town and that's just not true anymore," Carillo said. "When I was growing up [she's 52 years old], tennis was the only sport I ever looked at as something I could maybe try to do for a living, but now ... women can play all sorts of team sports. I have a 17-year-old daughter who is being offered volleyball and track and field scholarships now. That stuff didn't even exist when I was a kid. It's a problem. "
On the men's side, beyond fifth-ranked Roddick and No. 22 James Blake -- both at the midway points of their careers -- and No. 23 Sam Querrey, who is probably not a top 10-caliber player, the prospects are equally grim for Americans.
Donald Young, 20, originally from Hyde Park, turned pro at 15, moved with his parents to Atlanta to train soon after, and was ranked as high as 73rd at age 18. But he is currently 185th in the world and does not appear headed to the top echelon, either.
Seven-time grand slam champion John McEnroe, Patrick's older brother, thinks that expanding the U.S. training centers beyond Florida and California to cities like Chicago is a move that's a long time in coming.
"It baffles me that it hasn't happened [sooner]," John McEnroe said this week.
The best part about adding regional training centers like the ones in Chicago, say McEnroe and others, is what has always set tennis apart from other sports. And not in a good way.
"I know I want to be part of something eventually that gets kids out there and says you don't have to do it 12 months a year, seven days a week, six hours a day," John said. "I think there's another way. I was just with Roger Federer the other day for a Nike appearance, and he attributed his success at a young age -- admittedly, by 12 or 14 [years old] he had honed in on tennis, obviously -- but he was playing other sports: soccer, basketball, trying other things.
"A lot of these [American] kids burn out at a very young age. The danger is a lot of kids here are sent away from home at a very young age, and I'd like to see other options. Then you could keep kids at home a little bit longer and then move them along. Not everyone has to leave their parents when they're 6 and 8 years old in order to succeed."
There are no shortages of theories for why a country the size of the U.S. has consistently failed to produce more than a handful of top-tier players in tennis over the years. Are we too greedy?
Should the Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras stronghold of the '90s have been enough to satiate us? Is it the same with the Williams sisters, who were coached by their father and did not come up through the USTA training system?
Is it simply too much to expect talented athletes to bypass football and basketball and baseball for tennis?
"We can always do better," said Patrick McEnroe. "A lot of African-American and Asian kids are playing major tournaments in our country and doing well. But we can do a better job of going to the inner-cities and countrysides, rackets in hand, and get kids excited about tennis."
In women's tennis, Carillo pinpoints a problem that goes beyond U.S. boundaries.
"Patrick has become a great expert on [developing players at the grassroots level] and he's trying to gather a collection of coaches who can really make a difference that I think is really important and key," she said. "I can't believe the coaching that goes on in women's professional tennis ... they never leave one coach or mother or father or stepfather. That makes no sense to me. I wish women and girls would take the coaching part of the game more seriously and make better use of it instead of just trying to keep it this little cottage industry. I think it's one of the great problems in women's tennis."
In Chicago, the training centers at Midtown, Score Tennis & Fitness in Countryside and the CARE Academy in Libertyville will provide coaching to players identified through open houses and school visits, kids who may well have never picked up a racket before.
"The nice thing about QuickStart," said Staples, "is that it can occur in a gymnasium. There's not a facility challenge. Give me a rec room with enough space, and I can do a lot of skill development and games. The cool part about it is the equipment in our sport. It's not like hockey and football. We should not have a specialization of sports at a young age."
Staples said he has had to convince overzealous parents that starting out with miniature rackets on miniature courts will not hamper their children's development.
"We did have a fair bit of resistance when we started [three years ago], but today, we have proof that it works," he said.
Proof, at least, that 6- and 7-year-olds can put spin on the ball like Serena Williams.
Now all we have to do is wait 10 years and see if they can play like her, too.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.