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USTA FL Friday Blog: New Jr. Nats. Schedule; Playtennis.com

July 12, 2012 08:09 PM
The Friday USTA Florida blog is written by USTA Florida Communications Coordinator Rick Vach, and guest USTA Florida staff.

wimbledon_logoTennis-watching seems to be on the up-curve between the highest-rated ESPN final at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Andy Murray (beating out the 2005 Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi final), and the Williams sisters claiming the singles and doubles. Watch Serena this weekend at the WTA Stanford event.

Also of note: the Serena Williams-Aggie Radwanska Wimbledon women's final's top TV market was West Palm Beach -- near the Williams sister's home of Palm Beach Gardens. The West Palm Beach market had a 5.7 rating, beating out No. 2 New York City (5.2) and No. 3 Atlanta (4.8) in the U.S. ESPN showed more than 141 live hours of tennis from Wimbledon.

Bradenton's Jorge Andres Gonzales is a finalist in Tennis Channel's inaugural America's Hottest Coach contest. The contest is to determine the tennis coaches nationwide who are the most physically fit, promote healthy lifestyles, and motivate and inspire adult and junior players. You can vote for Jorge at www.tennischannel.com/hottest/indexa.aspx. One male and one female coach will be announced in August and will receive trips to New York and appearances in their own Tennis Channel instructional segments, as well as other prizes.

Former Grand Slam winner Ellis Ferreira, who last year advanced to nationals from the US Open Playoffs-Florida event, has moved his Eagleton-Ferreira Tennis Academy to the Serendipity Racquet Club in Sarasota, teaching a modern way of attacking the game.

Check out the new Playtennis.com, the free interactive website that allows tennis players of any skill level to find tennis programs, courts, partners, teaching professionals, retailers, and gear, as well as provides great instructional content. The site was developed through a cooperative industry effort to get more people out on the courts more frequently. Also download the app for your iPhone or iPad, or whatever iDevice or iImplant you prefer.

How to "Fix" U.S. Tennis?

That's a question Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of USTA Player Development, gets asked about 18 times a week, whether from journalists, parents, or everyday tennis fans. Everyone has an opinion, and for every 10 people in favor of a strategy moving forward, there are 10 people against it.

10 and Under Tennis has some passionate supporters ('This is the way they've been doing it successfully in other countries for years, Roger Federer did it...') and passionate detractors ('That's baby tennis, I never needed a smaller racquet to learn tennis...' etc.). The USTA Professional Development program also of course has fans, and non-fans.

Now the USTA national body will be making some sweeping changes to the national junior tennis structure in an effort to once again get juniors to earn their way up the rankings through sectional play. Over the last 10+ years the national junior tournament landscape has grown/devolved to feature massive 256-draw events, rewarding families with the financial means to "chase points" across the country, rather than working their way up the ladder at tournaments in their own USTA Section.

Mardy Fish, who grew up as a junior in the USTA Florida Section, agrees with junior players needing to win locally and at the section level before being able to make it into national draws.

"Absolutely I do, yeah," Fish told USTA Florida. "I remember playing the regular events in Florida, to try to get into the national events from there. And it's sort of the same setup in the pros that it is in the juniors. You've got to start in the little cities like where I grew up in Vero Beach, and I remember playing tournaments in Vero and in Fort Pierce and West Palm Beach to make it to the designateds in Lakeland or Tampa, to make it to the national events or just even smaller national events all the way up into Kalamazoo and things like that."

The revised national junior tennis structure aims for a more effective system reflected in the rankings, more local and sectional play, and a more affordable system, requiring less travel cost for families attending national events.

"I certainly remember playing and going through [local events], and felt like the more tournaments that I played, the more tournaments I was able to go to and to compete in was going to help my growth as a tennis player at such a young age," Fish said. "So I think that's a very good idea to go back to that, instead of just being able to get in sort of on name recognition."

McEnroe says the three primary concerns addressed were the rising costs of competing at the national level for juniors and their families, reducing the amount of time juniors would be absent from school, and creating a logical progression of earned advancement from local play to sectionals to nationals to ensure that the best players move on to nationals, not just the players from families with more economic flexibility who can chase ranking points across the country.

"Earned advancement" is the key term there. With the current system, instead of entering and winning the local/sectional tournaments they should be playing, you have players/parents entering five or more tournaments across the country, attempting to cherry-pick high-level event entry for bigger ranking points. Costs for these tournaments between hotel, airfare, food, etc., can range from $2,000-5,000, which is prohibitive for a lot of families.

Pros with Florida junior roots like Fish, Andy Roddick and Jim Courier came up through the "earned advancement" system, before the current rules for national tournaments were approved in 1999.

Changes to the schedule, most of which won't go into effect until 2014, include:

1) Converting the USTA National Winter Championships to a team event in 2014
2) Eliminating the USTA National Spring Championships in 2014 to avoid a major national championship being contested during the school year
3) Create more local player opportunities and enhance the standing of the current flagship national events -- the USTA National Clay Court and USTA National Championships
4) Change in draw size to 128 singles players (down from 256) and 64 doubles teams for the USTA National Clay Court and USTA National Championships for the 18s, 16s and 14s age groups, and to 64 singles and 32 doubles for the 12s
5) Creation of new tournaments, including the USTA National Grand Masters (a progressive event that will feature the top finishers in younger divisions advancing to compete with the best older players), the USTA National Winter Team Championships and, starting in 2013, the USTA National Doubles Championships
6) Creation of more local competitive match play opportunities while reducing the expense and time of travel through new regional events.

Detractors say that fewer national-level opportunities will hurt participation levels, and that travel costs could end up being even more with the fewer choices, placing scheduling burdens on families. USTA Florida's retired legendary junior organizer Bobby Curtis complained that this year's Bobby Curtis Junior State Championships (formerly the USTA Florida State Closed) was missing many high-ranked players who were off chasing points at other events, because the current system lets them.

It remains to be seen whether these changes will make a difference, alleviating the cost of tournament tennis on families and maintaining participation levels, or growing them, at the local level. Many coaches point to players "butting heads" time and time again in competition as the way to produce champions. In this case, we wouldn't mind more local head-butting to earn the right to advance to sectional then national play over the next fews years. Perhaps then Florida can again produce some Mardy Fishes, Andy Roddicks and Jim Couriers.

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