The data in American tennis tell the story

In the past 30 years American tennis has seen a 73% decline in the amount of top 100 players in the ATP tour

This alarming number basically tells us that we lose every decade 25% of our players in the higher echelon of worlds’ tennis. What then will happen in the next ten years with the new massive investment by the USTA in Lake Nona and the new crop of American stars who seem to be on the rise?

Will this change the clear trend line that the sport is basically slowly dying for America at the professional level? When you talk to the people at the USTA, they will tell you that things could not be better and that the new crop of players will reverse the disappearing number of Americans. Of the current top 100 stars, we will lose the older players and replace them with the younger players. Essentially this will mean that over a 40 year period we managed to keep our declining rate at 73%.

In my opinion here is how the top 100 will look like for the next decade

We will lose the players in Yellow and replace them with the players in green. These new kids are truly remarkable as breaking the top 200 at such a young age, truly means that they are very, very talented.

However the number of players in the top 100 still remains low, for the largest and richest country on earth. This makes me want to learn further more about the way these new group of young stars came up through the system here in the US?

So, I wanted to see if there is some sort of pattern to figure out of a career path that these guys have taken, so we can try to replicate it and have instead of 8 new stars 80. The first thing that comes to mind as I read these names is how close to tennis (having a tennis family or coaches as parents, or ex. players is so significant) Escobedo, Fritz, Koslov, Tiafoe, Mmoh, Rubin (father had tennis knowledge). This in essence means that of the eight future American stars 75% have a solid tennis family tradition.

The reason this number is important is because then it stands to reason that if you as a current 18U player do not have this tradition, if you thought the odds of becoming a pro were low, I can tell you with a 75% chance of being right that in three out of four kids if your parents don’t have years of knowledge of the sport the chance for you to make it as a pro is even worse than you think.

What about the other 25% the other two players? Reilly Opelka has the physical advantage of size (like Isner) and the last kid Jared Donaldson, took 2 years of training on clay in Argentina, a surface that here in America we don’t play in.

Ok, got it so what does that mean to me as a parent? Why should I invest in this sport? The hours, the trips, the never ending tournaments, the rankings, the way the tournaments are governed and award points, the way the sport is targeted for who can afford it and not who is most likely to be a pro.

While on the surface this looks like a great reversal of fortune of American tennis. In essence I think it reveals the exact opposite, I know, I will get a lot of mail, telling me how incorrect I am. But, follow me, I may be able to present my case to you.  Who knows you may end up agreeing with me.

The data reveals three important things that are at the core of tennis in America that remain flawed and only enable the further destruction of American tennis supported by system in place and the governing body structure.

  • Tennis is simply not reaching the very people who will make it grow.
  • Coaches and academies in general must not be that good if for 75% of the future top players the coaches are the parents coaches of the stars who have years of knowledge of the sport by being regular coaches. The other 12.5% Opelka is a big guy who was coached very well, but his size is his differentiator (though he was lucky to train with a well-known coach) and Donaldson the other 12.5% trained for two years on clay. In summary, if you have a coach-parent you are most likely to be in the highway to become a pro, if you are not (which means 99.99 of the population, you are out of luck). Then your only option is to have good coaches around where you live, but who can tell if they are good or not if you don’t know tennis?
  • The tournament and competition structure does not bring up tennis stars.

Let me show you my arguments for these three key issues:

1. Tennis is not reaching the mass of people who can grow the game 

There are roughly 9.9 Million (*) core tennis participants (that play more than 10 times a year in the US that is only 3.1% of the 318.9 million population. This number is extremely low if you consider that of 75% of our next stars come from people who played, coach or had been for a lifetime in tennis in this small group.

Please realize that maybe there are 100,000 tennis coaches in the US (this number is very high only for calculation purposes). This number represents 1% of the tennis population.  This effectively means that about 99.9% of the population remain separated from tennis and with no way of connecting, much less to aspire to be a professional athlete? As the pool of players is so small, the vast majority of possible tennis people is simply not reached.

What is the USTA’s plan to reach 99.9% of the population if week in and week out, it plays under a competition system and ranking system that feeds the impossible numbers? Within the US population there are ethnic groups that are growing at a faster rate than the rest; Hispanic and Asians. Yet these ethnic groups are not known for being physically big and the same USTA states that the future of tennis is for the bigger sized players given the new equipment and speed of courts.

Another aspect is the cost of playing as a junior. We all know that tennis is an elite sport, given its costs and years of training it requires. So, from a financial point of view tennis is not only played by only 3.1% of the population, it is so expensive that it excludes the masses of people who cannot afford it. Yet, the number of the future pros and their own financial backgrounds tell us that it not need be so expensive as for 6 of the 8 new players for the next decade come from modest background and modest income. Being a coach is not a high income profession. It is about the proximity, knowledge and passion for tennis.

What is the USTA doing to address this? This clearly reveals that who tennis currently attracts and gets to travel and compete every week are the same very people that have the lowest chance of being a pro even though they may be highly ranked, or under the current system attended a high number of tournaments and therefore acquired the rankings with cash. This makes no sense, yet the sense that the USTA conveys is as if these kids were under a pro path and nothing can back that up in the last twenty years.

Finally, if we know that there is a direct correlation for 75% of the new stars of having a tennis coach and family, the key group to target then are adults ages 25 -40 who are the vehicle for growth of tennis in America.  What is the USTA doing about them? Nothing.

2. The knowledge level of the average coach in the U.S. is unable to produce pro-prospects  

If you then consider that of the next stars: Fritz, Escobedo, Koslov, (all parent coaches), Mmoh (dad a pro), Tiafoe (he lived at the facility in Maryland- 24 hr. tennis exposure) and Rubin (McEnroe Academy and dad high school player). Where does that leave the vast amount of kids that are left along the way who with the best intentions and support but who are never with the proper professionals.

Here the weakness of tennis in America is the poor level of coaching and the lack of a standard basic USTA driven certification system to validate coaches and facilities. For the 99.9% of parents who want the services, yet do not have the knowledge of who they are hiring.

So, in a marketplace where it is driven by no standards, we have the suppliers of the service with no real knowledge of what is a world class forehand is and the country’s governing body certifies no facilities or coaches so ignorant parents waste time, money and dreams.

Nothing is tied together, the coaching, the kids, the USTA, each work on their own and everyone loses. This weakness revealed and the initiatives the USTA takes show how it does not understand what are the root problems of tennis in America are and how it has no plan to address the problem.

I live in Miami, sun 80% of the time, warm weather 95% of the time. Yet the providers of tennis services is extremely weak. Imagine how it is in other parts of the country where there is not a tennis court in every neighborhood or park or condo. Unless something is done to address this, the next decade will produce the same poor results we have been for the last two decades even with all the investments, and hoopla.

3. Tournament structure does not encourage participation 

The current structure and system of competition makes the pool of participants smaller and smaller as the kids get older. All one has to do is see the pool of players from ages 8-12, 12-16, and 16+. Tennis needs to have a complete change of shape.

The way to do this is to grow the game, to create competitive environments and competitions that are “out of the box”. Not the century old tournament structure and point allocation that is giving us results that are low under any parameter and only shrink the pool of players.

  • One day Tournaments Round Robin by level.
  • USTA camps for the masses in each age group, not the top players. Good education.
  • Training for local coaches who may have great prospects but not a competitive program.
  • Some form of match play for all.
  • Promote competitive team tennis locally.
  • Allow tournaments where coaching is allowed.
  • Create a structure to increase the appeal of tennis as opposed to the current structure that only encourages individual participation (remember this individual participation is boring, has produced the best results 30 years ago, it is dead, yet the structure and results we get continue to be the same).
  • Other ideas and input from players and parents.
  • Pricing structure revisit, ex, two tournaments a month cost $100 for 4 matches. In other words to play a match in the US we need to pay $25.00. This is absurd. We need thousands of match play hours that need to be FREE, In South America and Europe kids play match play every day at no cost. Here in the richest country on earth that produces the least amount of tennis players and pays the most amount of money we have the fewest hours of match play? How does this make sense?
  • Working together is the key, we don’t as a common group work together as parents, kids and coaches. It is the failure of vision and leadership at the USTA that creates this void and poor results.

Conclusions:

The next decade of men’s pro tennis has clear data as to where the kids will come from. They will come from tennis parents and coaches with kids. So, if you are a parent whose kids love tennis and you know little about it, you are out of luck. Why do we make this so hard, so exclusive of the very people who will grow the game and so expensive that it allows the people with hunger and attitude to be excluded and the people with resources and not attitude to endure the journey and both with poor results.

We need critical analytical thinking of business people for the benefit of tennis in America. The way it is, it is announcing its death. The worst part is that it will be our fault.

I wish the USTA leadership would open its mind and hear other perspectives because from where I stand I only see what will never happen. Expecting different results from doing the same things is the definition of insanity.

I can be reached at @palenquej or jpalenque@yahoo.com

If you enjoyed this article, please don’t forget to tap ❤. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!  

Comments

The data in American tennis tell the story — 11 Comments

  1. This article is so spot on. It is what we have been watching for years! We are parents of a D1 tennis player who spent the last 15 years working hard to become a professional player. The USTA grind with its failed tournament system and player development system is just a road to failure. Save your money! Our son didn’t have parents who were players and he didn’t have good coaches early enough (it took a lot of time and money to learn how to even find the right coach) and then too much time is lost. It was nothing but sheer determination and a willingness (on our son’s part) to live away from home to get enough instruction to even become a D1 player. There is just no path to the professional level for a player if he/she isn’t part of a tennis family/coach or if he doesn’t have massive physical gifts and good early technical Instruction. I say, players and parents stay off the run-away USTA train! Make no mistake, it’s a failed system and it’s running US tennis to a grinding halt!
    Thank you for writing this article, but sadly the USTA leadership doesn’t want feedback.

    • ….,good early technical Instruction.” Excellent point and that is the key. Dave Smith, one of my tennis mentors, emphasizes correct technical emulation from the first strokes. I never teach anything that is not in alignment with the desired end result. Coaches like Oscar Wegner prove there is a way to emulate the pros even if in slower motion from their first strokes. Yet the USTA refuses to let Oscar prove it on the Tennis Channel, where he is literally banned from appearing on.

      Yesterday I watched a certified coach in Peachtree City, GA teach a ten and under class with two kid, one 7 and one 8, both at with at least average coordination. Out of fifty balls, turned sideways per the 10 and under format, they hit THREE BALLS total in the court. Susan Nardi would have had them rallying back and forth successfully in ten minutes. She should be in charge of the ten and under program in the USA.

      Those two children know they did poorly despite the coaches smiles and passions. I wanted to run my car through the fence to stop two more potential players being driven from the game eventually. They will spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome their first horrible instruction as required by the USTA. I challened the USTA years ago to let a team of modern coaches coach beginners side by side on the Tennis Channel using their 10 and under techniques. They ignored the challenge of course. I call for it again in my upcoming book. The USTA 10 and under starting technique is horrible. I now because I was a horrible coach for two decades until I quit listening to the experts.

      In 2008 I published excepts showing what Spartak Academy with one indoor court in Moscow was teaching with pictures and translations of what the coaches were emphasizing. Those excerpts from “The REal History of USA Tennis Instruction” caused a lot of coaches and parents to come forth and tell me their stories. A former USA Grand Slam player quote: “When I came up in the early 1980s, no one knew how to teach the modern forehand.” By the way, he was at Bollettieri’s first class.
      \

      • apologize for no spell check but my fingers were steaming as Javier is exactly right as are these parrents which explains why in 1984 Gallup Poll found that 1 in five men listed tennis as a favorite sport and in 2004 one in twenty men did. I must have ruined more than my fair share until 2003 when I realized that I could suddenly get ANYONE to feel like they could hit a tennis ball easily and rally back and forth.

    • I wish no one had to go through this the wrong way. Maybe Lisa we can request a conference and ask what we can do to help. Speaking to the USTA is like speaking to a postal worker. They collectively from the top down from the highest person down. Fail to understand two things that are so key to tennis: 1) time (they waste ours and our kids) 2) Who is their customer (us parents). Being these two things so elementary but what can we do other than help. I am willing to help as I love tennis for all American kids, including my own.

      • So true and There IS SO much truth to this article!!

        My rant!!! Shame on the USTA for building “Lake Nona” yet another exclusive tennis center that doesn’t reach players, just excludes, uses outdated models that are proven failures for developing players, while spending massive amounts of money that could otherwise be used to bring affordable tennis to every community in the country. If only the USTA would listen to the players, parents and coaches who have actually lived the USTA GRIND and it’s “burn out” system of player development. They/we know first hand that it just doesn’t work!!!

        And it’s so painful to watch yet another waste of massive resources on yet another failed strategy and “gamble” like “lake Nona”. Ugh.

        The Solution: The GreatBase tennis program (Tennissmith model currently being used in Memphis TN) is a model that could bring affordable, developmental tennis to every community in the country and bring tennis to the under-served and under-privileged. Just the opposite of the USTA’s strategy. AND this program has some of the most highly skilled tennis coaches in the country. (because the GreatBase programs only allow coaches who have gone through a rigorous training program). Therefore, all the players are getting consistent training and skill development with the best in the business! Check out Tennissmith.com.

        If only the USTA would get their heads out of the sand and check their egos! But no, they will just keep spending money (sadly, b/c they have so much) and will keep doing the same thing over and over to the detriment of USA tennis development. Insanity!!! 😬😬😬

  2. Javier, one of the most important articles ever written in terms of timing and it’s insightful observations. It mirrors a lot of my research the past 12 years. I’m readying an e-book “The Real History of USA Tennis Instruction: How the Eyes Couldn’t See What the Mind Didn’t Know” for US Open timeframe publication. Sent you an email so please look for it. Will publish first two chapters free next week for anyone to preview and contribute it to as it’s time this mess be offered real solutions. History is a great teacher as my book proves.

  3. Early proper instruction is key, localized competitions are key. The whole system is upside down, it basically charges for everything and delivers nothing. It is truly in need of a change of vision.

  4. Hi Javier
    I wish to command you on a great Article you put up I hope that a lot of parents and tennis coaches with dignity will read this and back you up. I’ll creat a 2 part answer to this.
    The tennis in America and Canada may I add has been in trouble for a long time, because the Education system in America is old. Not just in tennis, the only good system is when you reach your higher education levels that America is the top.
    That is why kids from other countries come here to get free education through their tennis abilities
    This is the land of honey.
    As far the USTA goes they need to become the driving force behaind our sport, the leaders in our sport education.The USPTA and the USPTR all together under one umbrella. We vote them there we can make the change if we get together with no egos. We are the facilitators let’s work together.
    Look at the top Europian tennis countries, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, etc.. they are supported by their governament.In order to become a tennis license coach , instructor, teacher you must go to school and take 2 yrs of elective courses and pass the playing test written educational exam, and they must have a vertiente amount of continual education through out the year in order to keep their teaching license.
    In France the FFT has special police checking in on the city parks and clubs for coaches without liecenses if not they fine you.
    COACHING IS AN ART. You do require some years of experience to be a coach.
    It’s years of studying the game and the people we work with and playing or have played at a good level of tennis to be able to feel and understand what it’s all about, instead of an over a weekend or 2 and you’re a tennis coach. We need to think about a good mentorship system in order to become and produce better tennis teachers/ coaches.There is more it’s a good star.
    Modern forehand
    Oh my god, I’m going to vent a little.a I’m sick and tired of hearing this Sh……T alredy about the new modern forehand, the reason we think it’s a new forehand is because thanks to the technology we have today what we did not have 20-40 years ago is high speed cameras to breakdown the stroke so well. Look at other sports baseball, football, swimming (new) underwater cameras now wow. Tennis started about 10-15 yrs only,
    look at Jimmy Aries. Little guy from Buffalo NY his father thought him to do that not N B he copied it from him. if you guys do a little recone on YouTube and check out old tennis tapes and look closely at some of that you’ll get my drift. Thank you.
    A lesson I learned a long time ago we are not all build equal, we have students with different bodies teach them from that instead off a fixed model, be flexible they will become better.
    PARENTS
    When you wish for your child to become the best that they can be find out what do they want, instead of what you want they are human beings after all, not little robots that you can program.
    As a beginner find the best tennis teacher for that age group and take them there, just remember
    They only last 10 min out 1 full hr so 1/2 hr 1×2 a week is good enough the rest is for fun with other kids or yourself but just hit no instruction. This site has some of the best article in the business
    For coaches to take their own time to write ans express their feeling is Hugggge
    Read evaluate then make the best or worst choice for you and your child.
    Don’t be afraid to make mistakes we are all humans as long s we learn from our mistakes
    Javier thank you for sharing hope to chat soon🎾🙏

    • Dear Marc
      Thank you for reading the article and for your comments. The problem if not addressed will compound as there will not be a younger generation of coaches. So then the dilemma will get only worse. I really think we need to help , if they only allowed people a forum to speak and listen. They need strong new leadership and act as a business with customers and not a utility service.

  5. Poor coaching and a lot of misinformation lead players out of the sport. make colleges abide by a 50% rule for foreign players and scholarships! Get rid of the USTA!!
    make the certification to become a teaching pro more difficult instead of it being a front for liability insurance company!!

    • Dear Darin
      Thank you for your comment. I think college scholarships to foreigners should be capped at 20% average is 30%. USTA does a lot of good, but it needs vision and plan, it has neither. New leadership is in order.