Commentary

Some parents welcome USTA change

Patrick McEnroe's resignation met with dissenting opinions

Updated: September 4, 2014, 2:07 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Parents of top current and former U.S. junior tennis players said Wednesday night they were relieved to hear of the shakeup at the USTA with the departure of player development head Patrick McEnroe.

"I think it's overdue," said Sheila Townsend, mother of 18-year-old Taylor, the best junior player in the world in 2012 now ranked 103rd in the WTA. "Nothing against [McEnroe] personally, I just think if this were a for-profit company and it had a CEO who hadn't produced any kind of positive results for this amount of time, the shareholders ourselves would have let that person go long before this."

[+] EnlargeTornado Alicia Black
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesTornado Alicia Black, a highly touted American, is still alive in the junior girls competition.

Gayal Black, mother of Tornado Alicia Black, the No. 3-ranked junior in the world and a player who has gone through USTA development since winning the Nationals 12s title at age 10, said the entire program needs an overhaul.

"I'm very, very happy, not because [McEnroe's out] but because a big change is coming," she said. "We need to clean house. New coaches, new everybody."

McEnroe, also an ESPN tennis analyst, said Wednesday night the decision to step down was based largely on his unwillingness to commit to being a full-time employee. And indeed one of Black's biggest problems with the program, she said, is that McEnroe has spent little time with the top young players in Florida, including her daughter.

But she also has been outspoken at the lack of adequate financial support for her daughter, which requires her at 16 to travel to tournaments around the world by herself.

"My oldest daughter [a former junior player] was 28 years old this year, and player development used to be fabulous," she said. "Tom Gullikson [head of player development from 1997-2001] gave us money, got her to tournaments, got us to camps and produced players, and they're not doing that anymore. They don't want to hear from the parents."

Black pulled her daughter out of the program because they weren't satisfied with being unable to select their own USTA coach to work one on one with her.

"They don't pay coaches enough, and good ones can coach privately and make more than from the USTA," Black said. "There are a lot of young American players out there and they're finding them. They're just not doing anything with them and most people can't afford to do it themselves."

McEnroe, who was shown these comments, politely declined to respond, as did Chris Widmaier, managing director of communications.

During his press conference, though, McEnroe explained why he was making the decision to step down now.  

"I know there have been critics about that over the years, and it certainly comes with the territory," McEnroe said. "But what I think it wasn't so much about time commitment, it was more about the location and the resources being put into what we're doing in Orlando, trying to make that really the centerpiece of player development moving forward. As you know, we have a home here that we didn't have when I first started here.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Townsend
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowTwo years ago, the USTA came to odds with one of its top prospects,Taylor Townsend, because of concerns over her fitness.

"Obviously we have a presence in Southern California that we partner with. So the job really encompasses I believe the whole country, but I believe that moving forward, not just for player development but for community tennis as well, that it's going to be moving down to Orlando. I just think it's even more important. You could certainly argue that I should have been in Florida, living there, that I didn't do the job. That's your right to do that. But I think moving forward that I felt that the position needed to be in Orlando on a full-time basis. I certainly felt that I was doing the job from here over the last six years because, you know, I was able to use my energies in a lot of different places."

It should be noted that David Haggerty, chairman, CEO and president of the USTA extolled McEnroe's efforts. 

"Patrick has done a fantastic job," Haggerty said. "He's answered everything that the board has asked. He's really taken us in that direction. That will continue. That's very important, that we continue to do what we're doing."

In an interview with espnW last month, Ola Malmqvist, the head of women's tennis for the USTA development program, said the U.S. provided fewer women's coaches than the other Grand Slam countries, some of whom offer four times as many.

"We're working with 11 or 12 full-time pros [along with amateurs] with very few resources," Malmqvist said.

Parents agree that is at the root of the problem.

"Based on conversations I've had with families who come from other countries, once they have identified those kids who were really doing well, they support them differently, they provide them what they need and not based on a system," Townsend said.

"So if that player needs a male hitting partner or multiple partners, a video, whatever, they provide that. If a family needs housing, they make it so the family can travel. So it's totally different than the USTA program we were under."

Townsend split with the USTA development program after it refused to pay for Townsend's expenses to the 2012 junior US Open after comments by McEnroe regarding the teen's fitness level. The two sides reconciled, but the Townsends assembled their own team of coaches.

"From a holistic viewpoint, it always starts at the top, so yes, the buck stopped with [McEnroe] because he was responsible for the program," Townsend said. "But so many things I experienced I thought needed improvement."

McEnroe's salary (more than $1 million in each of the last three years), among other financial revelations, was the subject of a recent New York Times story and was also the source of disgruntlement among parents.

[+] EnlargePatrick McEnroe
Michael Stewart/WireImagePatrick McEnroe felt this was the right opportunity for him to start transitioning out of his role as head of player development.

"People see the amount of money [McEnroe] and others were making and are trying to understand with all these resources, why they haven't been able to have better results," Townsend said.

"I think everyone knows it's not going to happen overnight, but it's been a long enough period of time where people need to at least see some growth. It's no secret how long we've been talking about how dismal men's tennis is."

USTA executive director and chief operating officer Gordon Smith defended the country's advancements. 

"If you look at where we are and where we have come from, I think, as I said we have a great foundation," Smith said. "Frankly, I think we are going to see results of that. We have 12 women in the top 100; 12 more in 100-200, far more than any other country. Many, many of those we have had a positive influence on. We are not as far along on the boys. Look at Wimbledon, we had seven out of the sixteen in the Round of 16, three out of four semifinalists and both finalists. So we are really gaining steam, and I'm very happy with the foundation. Make no mistake, we're going to continue the course. This is not a change in direction."

McEnroe said he has developed a newfound respect for how difficult it is to develop top-level players.

"Obviously the world has caught up to us when it comes to the highest level of tennis," he said. "I think that's a great thing. It's great for tennis. It's a global sport. We're trying to do things better, and I think that means all of us. That means we in player development. That means in the private sector, etc. We've all got to work together.

"Maybe that's one thing I wish I had grabbed on to a little bit earlier, because I do think it's really paying off for us -- not just for us, but for American tennis in general."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.