Commentary

U.S. taking a more unified approach

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Having successfully navigated the perils of that nasty dumpster at his Southampton home, Patrick McEnroe is driving himself to the United States Tennis Association offices in White Plains, N.Y. After several scheduled meetings, it's into the city for a haircut and then dinner with Jim Courier, the two noshing on small plates at an organic restaurant in SoHo.

McEnroe is, as always, at a splendid ease with himself, cordial and curious to know how the summer is going in suburban Connecticut. In a wide-ranging conversation a few weeks ago, the USTA's general manager of elite player development did not come across as a man with the weight of the tennis world on his shoulders.

Even though, of course, it is.

More than any single person, as unlikely as it might have seemed 15 years ago, the future of tennis in America rests largely with McEnroe.

"I'm excited about the challenge," McEnroe said. "We've got a lot of things going on. It's all part of the grand plan."

McEnroe, who says this with a self-deprecating hint of irony in his voice, did not win seven Grand Slam singles titles like his older brother John. Still, after graduating from Stanford University with a degree in political science, he was a serviceable professional. He won one title (Sydney, 1995), reached the semifinals of the 1991 Australian Open and was once ranked No. 28 in the world. In retrospect, it is instructive that he was more effective in collaboration; McEnroe won 16 doubles titles, including the 1989 French Open with Jim Grabb. He was always, in tennis parlance, a grinder. Most athletes peak in their 20s or 30s, then fall into remission when their sporting careers are over. McEnroe, on the other hand, has taken the ball on the rise and, multitasking with deceptive grace, is hitting more forehand winners than ever at the age of 43.

He was the captain when the U.S. won the 2007 Davis Cup, the first American triumph in that competition in a dozen years. P-Mac is a broadcaster for ESPN and is married to singer and actress Melissa Errico, with whom he has three daughters: Victoria, Juliette and Diana. The only sign of stress he exhibits is in his rapidly silvering hair. The demand for his views after the past two Wimbledon finals surprised him and told him that tennis' popularity was on the rise.

"In the nine years I've been the Davis Cup captain, the overall attention has gone up considerably year to year," McEnroe said. "The buzz in the cities we play has been tremendous. The rivalries in the men's game are as good as they've ever been. Obviously, we don't have the Americans we had.

"The game has been sold as a global game, and it's been sold very well."

And now, McEnroe must sell the game to America, from the bottom up.

A unified national strategy

McEnroe has been on his newest job for only 15 months now, so it is difficult to assess his impact. Most of those interviewed for this series, however, believe he has guided the USTA toward a more coherent, professional and systematic approach to developing elite junior players into professionals. Like some of the eastern European nations, the USTA is identifying younger talent and giving it better, more unified training and coaching.

[+] EnlargeSam Querrey
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe U.S. hopes to parlay the talent of young up-and-comers into the next Sam Querrey -- if not better.

The USTA now trains top prospects at its two national training centers, in Boca Raton, Fla., and Carson, Calif. Back in December, the USTA announced that it would partner with existing facilities in Atlanta and Maryland, the first two of a dozen or so certified regional training centers planned for the next five years. The most recent addition was the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels, Texas.

Peter Bodo, of Tennis Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com, believes the USTA's "modulated" approach is a prudent one.

"Whenever people talk about big issues -- gun control, housing, social medicine -- they always say, 'Why not be like Denmark or France or Sweden?'" Bodo said. "Why not? Because we're not. To adopt a socialized system of player development doesn't fit into our national self-image.

"You can't just throw a ton of money at the problem. The USTA is taking a matched-grant sort of approach. They're saying, 'If you as parents or coaches are doing your job, we'll meet you halfway. The better job you do, the more we'll support you.'"

"From what I hear, Patrick is getting buy-in from the local coaches," said Jim Courier, who co-founded the Outback Champions Series. "So now the USTA is part of the solution, as opposed to a competitor with the tennis academies."

This is a fundamental change in approach, directed by the consensus-building McEnroe. His ultimate boss, Lucy Garvin, the USTA's chairman of the board and president, said she is pleased with the early returns.

"His commitment to the training centers has been paramount," she said. "It's critical to provide these venues for our best young players and, hopefully, creating champions of the future."

Back in June, Jose Higueras, who had worked with Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Jennifer Capriati and Roger Federer, among others, was named to oversee a staff of about 20 junior coaches.

The USTA has put its money where its aspirations are. The player development budget was increased by 50 percent this year, to $15 million from $10 million.

Technically, the USTA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organization with an annual budget that was just more than $200 million last year. How does it pay the cost of identifying and shaping future champions?

The cash cow is the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 31 at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Last year's attendance was a record 720,000 and various estimates place annual profits around $110 million. That makes it one of the most financially lucrative sporting events in the world. So when you buy that $16 shrimp salad plate or the $8.50 french fries in the coming fortnight, know that you are contributing to the effort to thrust Americans back into the forefront of tennis.

With Serena and Venus Williams and Andy Roddick -- all Wimbledon semifinalists and the only U.S. players ranked among the top 20 -- closer to 30 years old than 25, this is a delicate juncture. The USTA supports rising 21-year-old Sam Querrey, who reached three consecutive ATP finals earlier this summer, as well as 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, winner of three main-draw matches at Wimbledon, NCAA champion Devin Britton and the wave of on-the-cusp juniors.

There are currently three American junior girls listed among the International Tennis Federation's top 10: Sloane Stephens, 16; Lauren Embree, 18; and Christina McHale, 17. And the U.S. girls' team featuring Sachia Vickery, Victoria Duval and Brooke Austin recently won the 14-under world junior tennis title -- a record third straight victory for the United States. There are no American boys in the ITF junior top 10, but eight appear in the top 50. One of them, 17-year-old Jordan Cox, defeated Britton -- his doubles partner -- 16-14 in the third set of a rousing Wimbledon semifinal match.

Stacey Allaster, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO, is well acquainted with a national tennis agenda; she came to the WTA after 15 years with Tennis Canada.

"Where is the next group coming from -- that's a natural cycle in development that the USTA has faced time and time again," Allaster said. "U.S. tennis isn't just built with players, it's built with pillars like the U.S. Open, the U.S. Open series as a promotional platform and the cooperation of both tours in the marketing of USTA campaigns."

McEnroe is sanguine about these prospects, but remains a realist.

"One our coaches, Jay Berger, spent a week in California, assessing about 20 kids who were 9 and 10 years old," McEnroe said. "He called me and said he was blown away by them. He said if we can find some more of these kids we're going to have a real chance."

McEnroe told Berger: "If we've got them, they probably have them in France and Serbia, as well."

"Patrick is trying to recruit better coaching, get better facilities," said tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "He's trying to create the environment that can produce the players like Europe has produced.

"In Spain, they'll drive for half the day and play three hours in a row -- for a Coca-Cola. They play games in practice, and they'll play anybody, anywhere. In this country, they're worried about protecting their sectional ranking. They think short term -- to their detriment. American juniors need to start thinking bigger."

The local level

Three decades ago, Nick Bollettieri saw the future. In Bradenton, Fla., he created the Bollettieri Academy, a tennis experiment in social Darwinism.

"Throw all the talented kids you can find into the same pot, let them beat the s--- out of each other and see what happens," Bollettieri said, laughing. "It worked pretty good."

Indeed, he produced 10 players -- from Agassi to Courier to the Williams sisters -- who became ranked No. 1 in the world. This seems to be the rough model for the USTA's training centers, where with younger players in greater numbers, competition should increase.

"Patrick can do this," Bollettieri insisted. "He's going to have to help people develop a feeling of trust with the USTA. With everybody working together, great things can happen. It's going to take three to five years, hopefully, to build it right."

But before the USTA intervenes, of course, there has to be someone to light the fire.

"When you look at the history of great champions, families have been the driver in every single example," said Courier, a four-time Grand Slam champion. "If there were 500 guys like Richard Williams waking up and saying, 'I'm going to make my daughters champions,' we'd be having a different conversation."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Fenty
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesQuickStart tennis has been instrumental in introducing kids to tennis.

Todd Martin, a playing contemporary of Courier's, stresses the importance of support at the club level.

"You're not going to get a battalion of parents that develop the next generation of great tennis players," Martin said. "It has to happen at the local level, the local tennis proprietor. That's where I think our sport has taken a huge hit. We are serving recreational tennis players with personality and almost personality alone.

"Programming and knowledge-based instruction is what allowed the sport to grow through the '70s and '80s, and it developed great players. The only way to do is improve locally. You cannot, frankly, expect Patrick and his staff to work down to that level."

Perhaps the simplest way to grow the game is to start at the beginning.

Sixteen months ago, the USTA launched QuickStart Tennis, a new playing format designed to draw in kids by "playing to learn" rather than "learning to play." If you've ever tried to rally with a 5-year-old, you know how frustrating it can be -- for all parties concerned.

While a regular singles court is 78 feet long, by 27 feet wide, the QuickStart court runs 36 feet long (from the doubles lines) and 18 feet wide (between the back service lines and baseline). Four QuickStart courts can be laid out on a conventional court. The downsized game is designed for kids 10 and under and includes smaller rackets and foam balls.

"I think it's one of the best sports for children, now that I have two little ones," said Mary Joe Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup captain. "My kids like soccer because kicking the ball is so easy. Tee ball, it's the same thing -- instant gratification. With QuickStart, kids have success right away. And that's going to help tennis."

Accessibility, according to the USTA's Garvin, is the goal.

"Seventy percent of tennis is played in the tennis parks system," she said. "Tennis has to be for everyone. I think, going back to 2003, we've made a difference in that respect."

New Haven, Conn., is home to Yale University, one of the world's elite institutions of higher learning. The Pilot Pen tennis tournament is played annually at the Connecticut Tennis Center on the university's sprawling athletic grounds west of the city. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, New Haven has a population of 124,000, of which 37.4 percent are African-American and 21.4 percent Hispanic. The median income is $29,604 -- half the Connecticut average -- and 24 percent are listed below the poverty level.

According to Anne Worcester, the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament director, the event works hard to capture New Haven's inner-city kids. There is an annual Free Lesson -- this year hosted by Taylor Dent and attended by 500. There, children received a flyer that offered eight tennis lessons for $35, courtesy of the New Haven Parks & Recreation program with underwriting help from Pilot Pen and the USTA. Over the past seven years, nearly 4,000 kids have taken the lessons.

"The objective is to turn them onto tennis, and it's working," Worcester said. "We've added intermediate lessons and advanced lessons, too. Twelve of our kids have gone on to play USTA junior events.

"We've all started to realize the best engine to grow tennis at the community level is through professional tennis. I call it self-serving philanthropy. I mean, we're creating future tennis ticket buyers."

The public courts are used so frequently that New Haven, with support from the USTA, recently spent $155,000 for repairs. Melanie Oudin was on hand for the recent announcement at the city's Englewood Park.

"That floats my boat," Worcester said. "It's one of those joyous moments when you see something like that. More people are playing, more people are watching. I take heart in that, and feel like we're all doing something right."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.