Commentary

Treat tennis development uniformly

Originally Published: April 22, 2009
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

If any endeavor should transcend national borders, it's the development of tennis players. Maria Sharapova was born in one part of Russia, moved to another, migrated to Florida to train with children from all over the globe and refined her game in California under the tutelage of a Dutchman born in Indonesia. Andy Murray grew up in Scotland, enhanced his tennis skills in Spain and most recently spent several weeks in Miami honing his fitness. Marat Safin and his sister Dinara Safina were taught to play in Moscow and relocated to Spain in their early teens. Three prominent Serbs -- Ana Ivanovic, Novak Djokovic and Jelena Jankovic -- each left their native land to improve their tennis (Ivanovic to Switzerland, Djokovic to Germany, Jankovic to Florida).

Technology, travel and economics have allegedly made the world flat: one big bouillabaisse of ideas, with Internet for all, united under Google. Tennis players know this better than most. Traveling in excess of 150,000 air miles annually, occupying hotel rooms in every continent 300 nights a year, getting their passports stamped on a weekly basis, the contemporary tennis player is as true a citizen of the world as you'll likely ever see. "You wake up sometimes and you have no idea what country you're in," said WTA pro Rennae Stubbs, who was raised in Australia and currently lives in Florida.

[+] EnlargeJames Blake and Andy Roddick
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesAmerican players like Andy Roddick and James Blake have been predominantly groomed on hard courts.

So given all this crisscrossing across borders, it's confounding to see that when it comes to matters of player development, flags go up so fast you'd think a war was starting.

When longstanding tennis powers such as America, Australia and Great Britain find themselves less represented at the top than they once were, the hunt takes on new tones of urgency. How can the United States better understand the alleged institutional infrastructure of such current tennis-rich nations as Spain, France and Russia? Never mind that in each of these nations disparate factors related to economics, culture and sports make tennis a very different part of each country's landscape; all three of them quite different from the role tennis plays in the United States.

Herein a modest proposal: Treat player development as a global matter, as broad in scope and humanitarian in conception and execution as the World Health Organization's efforts to eradicate disease or the Geneva Convention's rules of war (more or less, right?). Take the dazzling facilities and resources of the U.S., Australia and Great Britain -- as well as the academies of Spain and the training centers of France -- and open them up to the world, in effect creating an international, cross-pollinating tennis culture. Send the American hard-courters to Spain for a couple of weeks in the summer. Fly the Europeans to California, the French to Australia, the Chinese to Florida. Let the ideas flow from one court to another. It's been happening this way spontaneously for years, so why not grab the bull by the horns?

Jose Higueras, USTA director of coaching for elite player development, was raised in Spain and relocated to the Palm Springs area in his late 20s, when he personally upgraded himself from a highly risk-averse baseliner to more of an all-court player. "I was a much better player for having learned more about hard courts," Higueras said. "The younger a player is when he or she experiences more, the better."

Even more important to Higueras than players is the need to educate coaches. Recently he took six promising American juniors and their coaches to Spain to show them the ways the game is taught there. According to Higueras, "The more ideas a coach can be exposed [to], the better he'll be at teaching a wider range of concepts."

So again, why not break down borders? Why not treat all of player development the way Nick Bollettieri did more than 30 years ago when he created the first tennis academy? Players from dozens of countries have made their way to Florida to hone their games at his academy. "We had to have success to prove our model was worth it," Bollettieri said. "But once we did, coaches and players wanted to study what we did. And so they came here." Think of it as a veritable yellow-balled Ellis Island.

But as Bollettieri also pointed out: "A lot of this boils down to egos and who's paying the money. To develop tennis in an individual country, you have to have federations and coaches." And as another ex-pro said about the idea of gutting all borders, "That's like saying we should eliminate countries."

Yet consider this notion: No nation ever produced a tennis player. Factories produce automobiles. But the only person who ever produced a tennis player was a tennis player: the person who put in all the hours and time refining a craft wherever it was necessary. Technically, everyone has to be from somewhere, but did Belgium manufacture Justine Henin the way it makes chocolates? Did Switzerland roll off Roger Federer just like a cuckoo clock? Did the same America that gave us the Ford Taurus really produce Andre Agassi, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors or Andy Roddick? Julia Cohen, a former top American junior now playing for the University of Miami, once estimated that by age 18, she'd been to 46 countries. One assumes those experiences helped shape her as a player, that she was something other than purely manufactured on American soil. Now more than ever, the tennis world should be flat.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.