- Joel Drucker
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Player development is an eternally hot tennis topic. It's particularly vexing for Americans, who figure that any nation so good at building economies should surely be able to crank out one or two Grand Slam champs every decade. Why does Russia, a nation with such a harsh climate and rocky economy, have so many fine players? How did Spain's players get so good? And what's the deal with tiny nations like Belgium and Switzerland ruling the roost?
At the same time, must player development be conducted within the borders of specific countries? According to Jose Higueras, the former pro from Spain who has been based in the Palm Springs, Calif., area for 25 years, "It wouldn't be bad if you could learn the game in different places as you grew up. Send the hard-court Californians to Spain for some time on clay, send the clay-courters out west so they can learn to attack. One big world."
It's a great idea, but so long as the Olympics and other nationalistic events command attention, it's a tough one to pull off -- even though tons of young tennis players from all countries invariably crisscross the globe to compete and train. Maria Sharapova, for example, is the result of both the impoverished Russia that compelled her parents to migrate and the noblesse oblige practiced by Nick Bollettieri when he saw she might become great enough to make millions.
At times when the American success rate slows -- no American male has won a Slam singles event in four years, no woman under 25 appears ready to reach the top 10 -- the dialogue often bears more than a hint of resemblance to the bygone, top-down models followed by East German Olympic leaders: Facilities must be built, talent must be identified, players must be taught properly.
Pretty rigid stuff for a nation built on individualism and enterprise.
Longstanding coach Vic Braden thinks much of the coaching profession is in the dark.
"We as coaches should spend a lot more listening than talking," Braden said. "Too many coaches just pass on data about how a player should hit the ball, without learning how that player would like to play, or how they learn or how they react under pressure."
Braden believes it's useful to examine the two players at the top of the mountain. Justine Henin and Roger Federer each were big fishes in small nations. More importantly, each was given the chance to conduct their own personal approach to hitting the ball, building a playing style and learning to compete effectively.
"Roger once told me something very interesting," Braden said. "He said he made a list of all the players he knew he was going to play if he was going to be a pro, what shots they owned and what shots he was going to need if he was going to beat them. I've hardly ever heard someone explain things quite that way."
As a result, Federer sought to build as diversified a game as possible.
While the result of course is brilliant, the lesson is prosaic.
"Different players like tennis for different reasons," Braden said. "You can't just create a massive, one-size-fits-all way for creating players.
"Look at Justine and how she discovered and created the shots she wanted to have."
Many an instructor, though, would have seen the diminutive Henin show up to their court and advised that she become much more of a hunkered-down baseliner -- even with a two-handed backhand -- than the all-court shot-maker she's become. Instead, Henin was encouraged to hang to her brilliant backhand and in time integrate it into a versatile, textured playing style that incorporates an exceptionally wide range of spins, paces and ways to build points.
"The coach should let the player build a playing style rather than impose one on them," Braden said.
Jean Nachand, the director of women's tennis for the USTA's High Performance program, concurs with Braden.
"Our job is to work with the player and help him or her grow," Nachand said. "We're not necessarily the primary coach. But it's the job of any coach to identify which skills make a player thrive, which players are better grinding out matches or which ones know how to move forward and [are] more comfortable with their hands and net game."
This kind of development takes time. Believe it or not, until his early teens, Pete Sampras was predominantly a baseliner, striking a two-handed backhand and playing, in his words, "A lot like [Michael] Chang -- just a rabbit who ran all over the court."
That kind of grinding playing style was quite prevalent in those days, and had Sampras stuck with it, he certainly would have been at least a fine college player. But instead, envisioning bigger rewards, he courageously opted to ditch his two-hander for a one-handed backhand, a choice that made it much more important for him to become an all-court, aggressive player.
"It cost me some in the short term," Sampras said, "but over time, it made all the difference in me becoming the player I wanted to become."
So in large part, as such structures as the USTA's new player development center with the Evert Tennis Academy gets under way, there are thousands of players, parents and instructors who would best be served by broadening their thinking.
"We're still in the stone age, still working on how to teach and coach this game effectively," Braden said.
Then again, for all the effort spent on trying to raise players through grassroots programs, nationwide teaching initiatives and institutional facilities, perhaps another premise is more applicable: The truly great players come not from the ground. They come from the sky.
"I don't know why or how," Sampras said, "but I think in some odd way it was meant for me to become a tennis player.
"Don't ask me why. It just happened."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.