Is Tennis in the US on Life Support?
On the WTA, I don’t think this is the case even if Serena Williams is not considered due to being over 30. A group of young and talented US citizens play on the WTA Tour. Odds are that someone of this group will emerge as a top flight player. On the ATP Tour, things are much more grim. Consider that Tim Mayotte lost 7 times in Grand Slam quarterfinals. US #1 John Isner has reached 1 Grand Slam quarterfinal. Tim Mayotte also reached the 1982 Wimbledon semifinal round, and in 1983 he reached the Australian Open semifinal round. Tim Mayotte was 2-7 in Grand Slam quarterfinal matches. The entire men’s roster excluding Robby Ginepri is 0-3 in Grand Slam quarterfinal matches (Isner 0-1, Fish 0-2). Is Tim Mayotte considered to be an all-time US great? Mayotte’s results in this era would be viewed like an oasis.
Mark Cuban’s NBDL Plan for Tennis
Roberto Bautista-Agut of Spain has entered the top 50 this year by playing very solid and dogged tennis. He also is 25 years old. He did not breakthrough as a teen. No teen has really done that since Rafa did it in 2005. To break through in tennis players seem to need more physical maturity than in previous eras. The US keeps waiting for Jack Sock or Ryan Harrison or Donald Young or …. to break through. The landscape has changed.
Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks makes the argument that top basketball prospects should play, and be paid to play, in the NBDL with the NBA providing funds to help players pursue their education at local college as well.
“We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” Cuban said. “If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.
“You don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to pretend. A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete, and it’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie. At least at most schools, not all. … But we can put more of an emphasis on their education. We can plan it out, have tutors. We can do all kinds of things that the NCAA doesn’t allow schools to do that would really put the individual first.”
Couldn’t the USTA do what Cuban Advocates?
The USTA could select 5 male and 5 female players per year to receive a 5-6 year contract. The USTA could then contract with a college or university near their training facility. Players would train and practice together. They would take some number of courses year-round so as to be pursuing a degree. The USTA could supply tutors and help students take on-line or hybrid courses when traveling to play challengers or futures events. This would allow promising talent to mature as bodies mature. Between 18-23 a promising talent would have financial security, coaching, training and education. This security would allow for growth. A player could receive a 6th year of funding if progress is apparent and if the player wants 1 more year of work. Players could travel to minor league events in the US, Mexico, and Canada. By traveling and training as a group, some degree of teamwork could also help each player progress. Because this is a much better deal than what NCAA tennis can offer to most players, talent would also accumulate. A critical mass of talent will likely help champions emerge. Finally, if a player is ready to move on to the main tour, that slot and funding would freely open up to draw in yet another promising talent.
If Players Bloom Later, Doesn’t Development have to Last Longer?
I think if the USTA uses junior tennis to identify great talents and to work on these talents in their late teens and early 20s, something akin to Bautista-Agut’s success might become common place for US citizens trying to make it in tennis. One thing is for sure, US born players routinely crashing out prior to the round of 16 at Grand Slams is eventually going to hurt the profile of a sport we live within the US. The USTA should take the money it makes at the US Open and find a way to create a critical mass of talent rather than to simply hope for another Chang, Courier, Sampras or Agassi to breakthrough at a young age.