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Florida “Baby Buzz” Tennis Phenoms Face WTT Challenge

July 6, 2009 07:00 AM

By Rick Vach, USTA Florida

Patrick McEnroe would like his top young tennis charges to grow up in terms of player development – and quickly.

Roughly one year since he was appointed the general manager for USTA Player Development, overseeing the growth of the next generation of American tennis pros, the younger McEnroe brother is ramping up his expectations. This month a group of Florida juniors will be put to the test as team members of the New York Buzz, competing throughout the July season of World TeamTennis.

“The USTA is now tied in more directly and owns part of World TeamTennis,” said McEnroe of the league Billie Jean King co-founded in 1974. “[CEO Ilana Kloss] said ‘We'd love to have [USTA] player development be more of a part of World TeamTennis.’ I have a lot of history with it because I played it for many years, I loved it. I said to Ilana, the only way I can really see this working for me and our program is if we basically had our own team. We were able to get some of our very, very top kids, both boys and girls, to be part of the team.”

The New York Buzz, or “Baby Buzz” as the squad has been nicknamed, is comprised of Florida natives Alex Domijan, born in Gainesville and residing in Wesley Chapel, training at Saddlebrook; Sloane Stephens, born in California and residing in Lauderhill, Fla., after some years spent in California; and Evan King of Chicago (headed to play for the University of Michigan) and Christina McHale of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., both of who train full-time in Florida.

The 17-year-old, 6-foot-7 Domijan has quickly developed into a force over the last 12 months. He was named as a practice partner for the U.S. Davis Cup team earlier this year, and last week at the Wimbledon boy’s event upset the No. 1 seed en route to the quarterfinals as an unseeded player.

“Wimbledon was great. It was quite an experience,” Domijan told the Schenectady Daily Gazette. “As far as the WTT is concerned, the competition has to help. I don’t look at these pro players any differently than I do when I play in junior competition.”

McEnroe is hoping that attitude, and the experience of World TeamTennis, playing against current pros and former stars such as John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, will help in Domijan’s eventual transition to the pro game.

“I’m really excited about Domijan’s potential,” McEnroe said. “I really like his attitude. He seems very professional and I think he’s very driven and I like the way he plays. He’s got a good solid game and moves pretty well for someone his size. He’s technically very sound and has good hands at the net. He seems to do everything well.”

And how can a team of USTA juniors fare against other teams comprised of all current or former pro players? Apparently pretty well.

Domijan, King, Stephens and McHale were still at the Wimbledon juniors when the Buzz had their season opener against the Philadelphia Freedoms on July 3rd, so some substitute “Baby Buzz” members were brought in. Florida’s own Lauren Embree of Naples and Allie Will of Boca Raton, Jarmere Jenkins of College Park, Ga., and local New York standout Matthew Kandath combined to shock the Freedoms 23-14 in the singles, doubles and mixed point-accumulation format, scoring one for the juniors.

Australian Nathan Healey of the Freedoms, a three-time ATP doubles title winner, was stunned by the juniors in the men’s doubles match.

“I’d be surprised if they make the playoffs, but it’s good experience for the juniors,” Healey offered up in some sour grapes after the loss. “They will learn a lot this year.”

Learning is the key according to the Buzz’s coach, Roger Smith of the USTA coaching staff, who expects his squad to get their share of “W”s, whether they make the playoffs or not during the regular season.

"This is all about development for them, but I would like them to understand while developing you can still win," Smith said. "Against pros you can't give them an inch. When you give them an inch, they're going to run with it."

The 16-year-old Stephens realizes that the next two years, during which she will make the decision whether to play college tennis or turn pro, are critical for her development. She is developing her all-around game, strong in singles but especially in doubles. Last year she and partner Robert Kendrick upset the No. 1 seeds in the main draw of the US Open mixed doubles as a wildcard team.

“I want to work on my game to improve,” said Stephens, who voices an urgency lacking with many U.S. juniors. “You’re getting older, so you have to make sure everything is good now. You don’t want to be 20 and realize you can’t come to the net or want to try approach-pass drills in practice. There are things you just want to work on and make sure you can do now.”

Speaking from experience, Andre Agassi sees the potential for the U.S. “Baby Buzz” team members to learn a great deal from interacting with the pros and former stars participating in World TeamTennis. Agassi, who will play select matches for the Philadelphia Freedoms, debuted on tour at the tender age of 16.

“I think to have that interaction of the generations, whether it's from the legends to the current players to the up-and-comers, they are learning in ways that they don't even realize they are learning,” Agassi said. “And so I think it's great for the youngsters to be a part of this for their own development."

The U.S. continues to take knocks for no sure-fire prospects on the horizon to replace Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters, but a surge of teen talent is waiting in the wings. As a U.S. tennis fan, in addition to keeping an eye on the all-teen Buzz this summer, scan the International Tennis Federation (ITF) World Junior Rankings and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The U.S. currently has more boys and girls in the Top 100 than any other country, with 13 boys (no other country has more than five) and 12 girls (second only to Russia’s 14). The U.S. is also the reigning world champ in the ITF’s 14-and-under and 16-and-under junior team championships.

On the one-year anniversary of his appointment to overseeing all USTA player development, McEnroe sees the USTA’s more inclusive philosophy paying off. Whereas in the past junior players would have to leave their hometowns and relocate to USTA training centers, now the USTA also provides funding for centers and individual coaches/players across the country.

“I can't believe it's been a year. It's flown by so fast,” McEnroe said. “But we've put together what we think is a very good team. We've got a strategy to try to include as many other coaches and academies and centers that are out there. That's part of what we call our Certified Regional Training Centers because we realize we can't do it alone, meaning just the USTA staff and the great coaches we have. We need to be cooperative with a lot of great coaches out there.”

While not a coach herself, New York Buzz owner Nitty Singh has nurtured a great deal of talent over the years, running events at almost every level of tennis, including the former ATP stop in Schenectady.

“This keeps with our tradition of presenting the game’s future stars such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport who also played tournaments here in the Capital Region during the early part of their careers,” said the straight-talking Singh, who adds that World TeamTennis will be a proving ground for the youngsters. "There is not too much time in this business. People get old fast in this business...If you want people to start noticing you, you have to perform."

Catch the New York Buzz and the next generation of U.S. players performing in July on the Tennis Channel, which will feature select matches from around the league. Remaining matches on the Buzz schedule are:

Wednesday, July 8 at New York Sportimes
Thursday, July 9 vs. Philadelphia Freedoms
Friday, July 10 at Kansas City Explorers
Sunday, July 12 at Washington Kastles
Tuesday, July 14 vs. Boston Lobsters
Thursday, July 16 vs. Kansas City Explorers
Friday, July 17 vs. Springfield Lasers
Saturday, July 18 at Boston Lobsters
Sunday, July 19 at New York Sportimes
Tuesday, July 21 at Washington Kastles
Wednesday, July 22 at Boston Lobsters

For more info on the Buzz players go to: www.nybuzzwtt.com

* Correction: Alex Domijan as of July had not yet decided on attending college or turning pro.






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