'Creating a competitive pit' goal of Evert academy

7/1/2007 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- As a group, American players have had Open-era-worst showings at both Wimbledon and the French Open this year, raising the volume on the discussion of the best way to develop the next generation.

It can be a complicated discussion, but for the lone U.S. man who made it into the second week here, part of the solution is very simple.

"It's not rocket science," No. 3 Andy Roddick said after beating Spain's Fernando Verdasco to reach the round of 16. "You go to [Nick Bollettieri's academy] in the '80s, you get 10 talented guys together, kicking each other's asses on a daily basis, three or four are going to come out."

Roddick had the benefit of that during his high school years, when he and five other gifted young players wound up in the same place -- Boca Raton, Fla. -- at the same time, taking instruction from the same private coach, Stan Boster. It was a sort of ad-hoc academy where the natural dynamics of adolescent ego and combativeness provided core courses.

"We had six guys trying to beat on each other every day," Roddick said. "Two of us came out … competition's healthy, especially in those years."

In other words, repeatedly hitting the heavy bag builds muscle.

"Character was an issue and these kids put in tremendous hours, always pushing themselves," Boster told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 2004 just before Roddick and Mardy Fish, who lived with the Roddick family for a year, played on the same Davis Cup team for the first time.

Fish and Roddick became accomplished professionals. Several of their sparring partners, including University of Georgia All-American Bo Hodge, had solid college careers.

Hodge told the Miami Herald he shared vicariously and happily in his friends' achievements. "I feel like the hard work we all put in those years helped Andy and Mardy, so we had some part in their success," Hodge said in 2004.

Roddick said the rough-and-tumble of those years sharpened his ability and instincts.

"Maybe it's some new thing, you don't know how to handle it," Roddick said last week. "If you're seeing it in practice every day, you don't want to go on a losing streak for two weeks in practice, I promise you. It's contagious. If you're around people who are competitive and working hard, you don't want to be the guy who's not working hard. That's just the way it is. It's just easier to do it that way."

On the same day Roddick spoke, Chicago native Laura Granville, who advanced to the fourth round by upsetting Martina Hingis, said much the same thing.

"I think it's just huge to get the American juniors playing against each other, training against each other," she said. "For me in juniors, I was always playing tournaments. … I feel like a lot of times now the American juniors are afraid to play some tournaments. They don't want to play that much and hurt their ranking.

"I just think playing a ton of matches, getting that experience, competing at an early age is huge. I think training and working with each other is also big. The U.S. is so spread out, it's hard to get American players together practicing."

U.S. Tennis Association managing director of player development Paul Roetert is acutely aware of that challenge, and he said gathering a critical mass of players more often can't be left to chance or market whim anymore.

"We need to make opportunities for kids to train together -- whether we're creating a facility to house players or finding ways to have kids at academies or with private coaches play each other more," he said.

The USTA's joint venture with the Evert Academy in Boca Raton will begin this fall. Some players will live there full time and others will come for training visits.

Academy founder John Evert has some specific goals, like getting more American juniors on clay earlier. But, he said, "the most important component is creating a competitive pit where everybody's going at it."

"If you have a couple of flaws and you're in that competitive pit, you've got some good direction and the competition feeds itself, they're going to learn how to clean up a stroke here or there or get in better position," Evert said. "Getting a bunch of guys or girls together banging it out is the most important thing."

Too many young players are training in isolation, Evert said, resulting in what he calls "segregated" development, inflated expectations and an inhibiting fear of failure. He and his celebrated sister Chris grew up wrestling with their peers at Holiday Park, a municipal facility in Ft. Lauderdale where their father Jimmy kept the emphasis on daily improvement rather than scores.

That approach is harder to find these days, John Evert said.

If your result outcome is higher than your development outcome, you're not going to develop that player's mind and create that competitive dynamic where they're going to be able to perform under pressure and enjoy the pressure situations in a match.

John Evert

"With the money and the fame and status, it becomes a culture of who's doing what and rankings," he said. "Parents are a little bit too protective. They chase results. If your result outcome is higher than your development outcome, you're not going to develop that player's mind and create that competitive dynamic where they're going to be able to perform under pressure and enjoy the pressure situations in a match.

"If a parent knows every other kid's result and ranking, there's a big problem. Ultimately they're going to talk about it with their wife or their husband and the kid's going to start listening."

Roetert said the comforts of American life have produced "a generation of kids who have it pretty easy -- they've been given a lot. They feel at a very young age that they've achieved a lot already, and that can be very detrimental to their development."

He said the USTA is trying to address that issue in several ways. In one recent experiment, the organization sent half a dozen 16-year-old players for a week-long stint in Marine boot camp at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.

John Evert said coaches in the U.S. have to share the responsibility too. "Are we working as hard as we need to work?" he said. "Sometimes it's not only intrinsic from the player, it's someone who's helping them create that inner drive.

"The drive's got to start with the coaching staff and the parents. We have to be committed to getting that culture back if we want to compete at a global level, if we want to dominate again. We have to point the fingers at ourselves too."

Colette Lewis, who covers junior tennis for a number of publications and her own Web site, zootennis.com, said parents and young players are confronted by a confusing and sometimes wrenching set of decisions when deciding how to try to reach the elite level.

The USTA and the International Tennis Federation each have their own set of rankings criteria that enable players to get into top competitions; climbing those ladders can be productive in some ways and unhelpful in others, Lewis said. Academies develop for the long haul but frequently require disrupting family life.

"The options and the choices have expanded and each have their pros and cons," Lewis said. "Often, the final consideration is financial. Johnny gets a scholarship to an academy. We'll take that, and the displacement of the family, because we can't afford a private coach on our own.

"If a parent can relocate their livelihood, it's an option, but what about the siblings who don't play tennis? Is the family now revolving around Johnny? Does he feel the pressure of that? [Do they] stay put, and devote all disposable income to indoor court time in Ohio? None of these decisions is easy or taken lightly by any parents I know."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.