Tuesday, June 14, 2011

National Federation

In an earlier post I wrote that I don't think big, top-down systems will develop world-class tennis players.  They may work in smaller, homogeneous countries.  There is some evidence that such systems enhance player development in France and Spain, for instance.  I suspect those may be short-term phenomena, but time will tell.  I'm even more skeptical of a top-down, nationwide system in the USA.

The USA has over 300 million people and a tremendous variation among the people, in ethnicity, income, culture, interests, you name it.  The USA is a diverse country.  The most diverse country in the world, I bet.  So what is USTA Player Development to do?  How can they run a system that produces world-class players?  What would such a system look like?

We had a system, or at least a structure of tennis, that produced world-class players in the past.  It was an evolved structure that included country clubs, tennis clubs, public parks, high schools, colleges, and universities.   Tournaments were held in a wide variety of venues, organized by private clubs, schools, cities, and the USTA itself.  The system was diverse, like the country itself.

This structure still exists, but is deemed to be inadequate since the US has failed to dominate the world tennis scene since the retirements of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi.  Andy Roddick and James Blake held top-10 world rankings for several years in the 2000s, with Roddick winning the US Open.  Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, and John Isner have been ranked in the 10-30 range recently.  But that's not good enough, according to the USTA and the American tennis public.  We need to be number one again.  We need to win major tennis tournaments again.  We.  One of us.  An American.

Well, then.  We must do something.  Design another system.  The problem is, we didn't design the first system.  We don't know how to design a system that produces major champions and the number one tennis player in the world.  We never designed the old system.  It evolved.

Might a better system evolve?  How could the USTA enhance the chances of a better structure, or at least enhance the chances of another flowering from our current system?

I think the best way to do that is to continue to sponsor tournaments like they always have.  I think they should scrap large-scale plans and instead fund thousands of small-scale experiments.  Thousands of small-scale experiments would remain faithful to the structure of the country and to the structure of the existing tennis system. One experiment I would like to see is prize money for junior tournaments, say the 16s and 18s.  Allow juniors to play NTRP adult tennis.  Get passionate little kids playing adults as soon as they want to.  Provide seed money for a bunch of sand-filled carpet courts in California and the Southwestern US so kids can learn to slide like they'll need to on clay.  Those are just a few ideas.  We're only limited by our imaginations.

If any of the experiments prove successful, try to scale them up.  Try them in other locations.  See if they generalize.  If not, no big loss.  Spread the money among thousands of competing organizations.

Tennis is an individual game.  Great players share many qualities, of course.  But I'm skeptical of a national system for producing individual greatness in tennis or in anything else.  Especially in the USA.  I'm much more optimistic about diverse, micro-experiments in a diverse country.

No comments: