Sports: Critics See Drop In Talent As U.S.T.A. Grapples With Player

CRITICS SEE DROP IN TALENT AS U.S.T.A. GRAPPLES WITH PLAYER DEVELOPMENT
By Sam Tanenhaus

The New York Times
September 12, 2011 Monday

A deluge forced the United States Open junior tournament to be moved
Thursday from Flushing Meadows to indoor courts in Port Chester, N.Y.

To the young players, it was a reminder of how far they have to go
in tennis, a sport to which many have dedicated much of their lives.

Only the best juniors — 64 boys and 64 girls — compete in the
junior Open. And they come from all over the world. Most are full-time
players, and a fair number have met in other high-profile tournaments.

Their struggle to reach the professional ranks reflects the
gladiatorial nature of tennis, its head-to-head matchups and its
unforgiving rankings. At the junior level, the players scramble
not for glory or riches, but for training and attention, and in the
case of the Americans, the limited subsidies dispensed by the player
development program of the United States Tennis Association.

A large number of the most promising youngsters, starting at 11
or 12, are being groomed at the U.S.T.A.’s 19 regional centers,
all established since 2008. The elite — like Christina McHale and
Sloane Stephens, who made a splash in the first week of this year’s
Open — are recruited for one of the three main centers in Boca Raton,
Fla., and Carson, Calif., and at the Billie Jean King National Tennis
Center in Queens. Grace Min, who trains at Boca Raton, won the girls
tournament at the Open on Sunday, beating top-seeded Caroline Garcia
of France.

“We started working with 16-year-old kids three years ago,” said
Martin Blackman, who heads talent identification and development for
the U.S.T.A., a program created to help American players catch up
with those in other countries.

For decades, American fans were used to waves of fresh-faced stars,
many of them teenagers: Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert in the 1970s;
John McEnroe in the ’80s; Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier,
Michael Chang and Jennifer Capriati in the ’90s; Andy Roddick and
the Williams sisters in the 2000s. Most were taught by private coaches.

But that approach no longer seems to be working, especially now that
other nations have developed comprehensive programs.

“Without a system, you’re at the mercy of prodigies and private
programs,” Blackman said. “The expense of developing a world-class
player from age 10 to 20 is astronomical — training, traveling,
equipment.”

Some question the U.S.T.A.’s results. Three years into the program,
only four American men and three women are ranked among the world’s
top 50, and none are younger than 25.

“American tennis is in the sorriest state it has ever been,” said
Tim Mayotte, a former top-10 player.

Mayotte resigned as the head of a program in Flushing over what
he called “very openly spoken reservations” about the U.S.T.A.’s
approach. In a recent interview, he criticized “antiquated coaching
methods” that emphasize long hours swatting balls rather than learning
technique and movement.

Mayotte also said the U.S.T.A. was too insular, opportunistically
luring talented players and putting them under the tutelage of
inexperienced staff. He favors the approach of the French tennis
federation, which identifies and supports independent coaches who do
good work.

The U.S.T.A. will earn an estimated $200 million from the Open this
year, and a good deal of it will go into player development, as it
has since 2008.

“I can’t tell you the overall figure,” Blackman said. “Our regional
training centers receive anywhere from $8,000 to $100,000 a year
depending on the program and players. I don’t know how that compares
to programs overseas.”

For the juniors, first-round play began Sept. 4 on the outer courts at
the National Tennis Center. A handful of spectators were sprinkled in
the bleachers, including coaches, parents and other players. Yet the
excitement was palpable. A good showing could lead to an invitation
to a summer camp or a training session or even result in a wild-card
spot in the qualifying tournament for next year’s main draw.

Jack Sock, 18, who won last year’s junior Open and the national
junior tournament in July in Kalamazoo, Mich., earned a wild card
to this year’s Open draw. He reached the second round, losing to
Andy Roddick, and won the mixed doubles title with another American
teenager, 19-year-old Melanie Oudin.

Another American, Bjorn Fratangelo, 18, won the junior French Open
in May, the first American to capture the title since John McEnroe
in 1977. Fratangelo also played in the qualifying tournament for the
United States Open’s main draw but was dismissed in the first round
by a brawny journeyman, Fritz Wolmarans of South Africa.

“There was no way he had a chance against that guy,” said Mario
Fratangelo, Bjorn’s father, who named him for his idol Bjorn Borg.

“He was 6-3, big shoulders, just too strong.”

That match, played on the outer courts at the National Tennis Center,
possibly fed Fratangelo’s doubts about turning professional.

“I’ll take the next year to turn to think it over,” he said.

Yet Fratangelo receives considerable money and encouragement from the
U.S.T.A. With his father as his main coach, he trains intermittently
in Boca Raton.

“I like playing the kids there,” said Fratangelo, who added that the
coaches “put me in practices and drills.”

He also does “whatever they think I should do: running, sprinting,
not a lot of weights. ”

Fratangelo may need to rethink weight training. A shade under 6
feet, with a wiry build, he could have trouble holding his own in an
increasingly physical game.

On the men’s circuit, players like the 6-9 John Isner and the 6-7 Kevin
Anderson are no longer exceptions, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, at 6-2 and
200 pounds, covers the court with catlike grace. Even the women are
taller. Compared with the 6-2 Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki,
at 5-10, seems merely average .

“Being tall is one big component,” said Mark Kovacs, a sports
scientist in charge of fitness at the Boca Raton facility. “Also
being extremely fast.”

This makes it hard to assess players ages 11 to 14, Kovacs said,
when their bodies are still forming. Clues can be found in a player’s
lineage — the height of parents, grandparents, even uncles and aunts.

Then the monitoring begins.

“Monthly height measurements are important,” Kovacs said.

“Seated-height measurements are important.”

Players who enter the U.S.T.A. program are also screened for muscle
imbalances and weaknesses that could hamper their progress. High-tech
rackets and strings enable players to hit the ball harder and with
more spin while keeping it in play.

“Tennis is now all about defense,” Kovacs said. “It’s about lateral
movement. And this in turn requires foot speed, along with power in
the hips and core.”

The dominant players of the moment are not creative shot makers like
McEnroe and Roger Federer, who end points quickly, but counterpunchers
like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, highly athletic versions of the
“grinders” from the past. They hit with power from all angles and
wear down opponents through superior strength and speed.

These attributes mattered less when Boris Becker and Chang won Grand
Slam titles at 17. Today, success at such an early age is unheard of.

Players peak later, sometimes in their mid-20s.

This means longer, and costlier, apprenticeships. And if they top
off physically, they can go the way of Oudin, a sensation at 17 at
the 2009 Open who has since attained middling results in singles,
or Donald Young, a prodigy at 15 who lacks the size of many other pros.

Young, now 22, finally made a strong run at the United States Open,
reaching the fourth round.

In perhaps the most exciting first-round junior match, Alexios
Halebian, a 17-year-old from Glendale, Calif., pulled out a three-set
victory over fourth-seeded Thiago Moura Monteiro of Brazil.

Halebian’s mother, Asmik, and his brother Edmund were among the small
gathering in the bleachers, quietly applauding.

“We give him all the support we can,” Asmik Halebian said. “Many years,
many thousands of dollars. More than I can count.”

She is a cake designer, and her husband is a baker. The couple
emigrated from Armenia more than 20 years ago. She enrolled her sons
in tennis lessons. Alexios’s talent soon emerged.

“The teacher said one day he will be playing here,” she said, gesturing
toward the court. When Alexios was 13, the Halebians entrusted him
to the U.S.T.A.

Now 17, he has been living at the Boca Raton center for four years,
executing on-court drills, building strength through the fitness
regimens devised by Kovacs and playing tournaments. He also attends
school there.

“We see him sometimes,”Asmik Halebian said. “At Thanksgiving and
Christmas. All the time he travels. The U.S.T.A. covers his expenses.

We cover ours,” including airfare to the Open.

Jay Berger, the U.S.T.A.’s head men’s coach, who watched the third set,
assessed Halebian’s tools.

“Good serve, moves well, good intangibles,” he said. “He needs to
solidify the rest of his game — his ground strokes.”

A college scholarship could someday come, but Halebian chose another
route: the lower rungs of the pro tour.

It was clear he had developed the demeanor of a pro. After defeating
Monteiro, Halebian peeled off his sweaty shirt, autographed tennis
balls for a couple of fans and accepted the good-natured teasing from
some star-struck teenage boys.

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