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Chris Lewis on How to Develop New American Tennis Stars

I was recently asked a question by Valery Yalouskikh of tennisconsult.com: If you were putting in place a national development program, and you had twenty-million-plus dollars available to you, how would you spend it?

Considering that no American reached the third round of the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the first time in 101 years, this is a question that needs answering, and fast.

Many believe that the appalling 15+ year decline in US tennis since the days of Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang is occurring because the sport no longer attracts the nation’s most talented athletes. Others believe that continued American dominance is unrealistic due to tennis’s globalization in the past few decades. Some point to a lack of both modern coaching methods and competent coaches, or a lack of clay courts, or an obsolete “American” style of playing, or that the USTA isn’t doing enough to help players – the list is as varied as it is long. Every passionate tennis fan has strong opinions regarding the current swamp that US tennis is mired in, including me.

Discuss Chris’s thoughts on the development of American players in the tennis discussion forum.

I’d like to address this issue at its most fundamental level; namely, the framework upon which national development systems are built. Let’s examine the typical national model. The hallmarks of all such bureaucracies include: a top-down approach, centralization, and conformity. A person (or committee) at the top determines how things are going to be done, and then everybody in the organization must conform to his decisions. Inevitably, the director of the national coaching program determines that young tennis players nation-wide must develop a certain style of playing, a blueprint is drawn up, and, in fear of losing their jobs, all of the coaches within the organization “agree” that players should play the way the director wants.

Aside from the fact that recruitment of the most talented young players in the country invariably involves severing an existing and successful coach/player relationship, this regimented approach neglects to consider that every player is an individual with particular physical and mental attributes and a unique personality. When you attempt to coach identical strokes to all the top tennis talent in a country, you deprive those players of the opportunity to learn to counteract a variety of styles. In the main, players are practicing with and competing against mirror-images of themselves — never learning to deal with the unfamiliar. By adopting uniformity, you preclude the possibility of an exceptionally talented youngster developing his or her own style, based on his or her own unique physical attributes and tendencies, and in harmony with his or her own unique personality.

Would John McEnroe have been a champion if, as a 12 year old, a Borg-like game had been imposed on him? Would it have suited his temperament to be molded into a patient, heavy-hitting baseliner? When you nationalize a particular playing style, you exclude the possibilities of innovation and creativity. By necessity, uniformity only looks backwards. It usually takes the current top player in the world as the model, and then an attempt is made to produce clones of that player, thereby excluding the possibility of the future development of playing styles as unique and radical as Connors’s, Borg’s, McEnroe’s, Lendl’s, Becker’s, and Agassi’s were in the days when national programs didn’t exist.

Would Pete Sampras have been allowed to switch to a one-handed backhand so late in his junior career? Development of unique individual tendencies cannot be planned or tracked, and is not related to previous statistical success. Because of the personal element, a national body is ill-equipped to produce champions, who, invariably, do not conform to the average of the points on a graph. Sampras’s late alteration was a bad idea in general, but a fantastic idea for him. A private coach adept in nurturing the personal traits of each player could help make such a decision, a national body could not.

A national body is not only in direct opposition to private coaching in philosophy and results, it is in direct competition to it in the real world, meaning the two options cannot co-exist peacefully. By establishing a national, centralized program, you quickly alienate the private coaching community when their best players are enticed away. This leads to an unhealthy ‘”us” versus “them” mentality, with the national organization being increasingly criticized as the nationalization of player development further expands. A further decline in playing standards accompanies this expansion as private coaches lose more of their players, and become increasingly hostile towards the organization that is meant to act in their interests, not contrary to them.

Such a bureaucracy, once established, will always expand, and always use their power to regulate, not persuade. Typically, they follow a pattern like this: Someone within the organization decides that one reason why the country isn’t producing players is because the national program is inheriting players who have already been “ruined” by incompetent coaches. Their answer, then, is to grab the players when they are even younger (more expansion). Or, a clipboard-holder in the organization then decides that every 10-and-under player in the country should conform to his desire to see them playing with shorter racquets and pressureless balls (more regulation). The consequences of this dictatorial approach are devastating to player development. Through further expansion, you deny coaches, whose players have been enticed away, any chance of actualizing their players’ potential. Consider the consequences when all the private coaches and their varied approaches to player production are deprived of the opportunity to develop their players, instead forced to watch them sacrificed to a homogenous program that demands uniformity at the expense of creativity and variety.

Would American tennis have been better off if Nick Bollettieri, Wayne Bryan, Robert Lansdorp, Gloria Connors, and every other coach who contributed to the development of a top player had lost their best students to a national program? Think of all the hours each of those coaches spent planning and managing the details of what’s involved in producing a champion. This planning process happens largely off the court, in deciding the best course of action for each student as an individual. Does the same amount of thought go into each of a national coaching program’s coach/player relationships, where, in many cases, the relationship with a coach is an involuntary one? Through further regulation, by mandating that every 10-and-under player be banned from competing with racquets and balls that a great majority of coaches think are in the best interests of a young player’s development, you preclude those coaches from acting on their own conclusions, which draw upon decades of practical observation and experience. At the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, all that expertise is rendered useless. Would Martina Hingis have won the French Open Juniors (18 & Under) as a twelve-year-old if she’d been forced to play with a toy racquet and balls until she was 11? I doubt it. What do you think?

At this stage, things usually degenerate to such an extent that it becomes obvious national programs are synonymous with failure. When it comes to producing champion individuals, centralization, standardization, uniformity, rigidity, and regulation do not work. What, then, is the antidote?

There are three essential components that need to be in place when it comes to producing champions. The first is that the player needs to have a certain amount of physical talent and mental toughness to one day be internationally competitive. The second is that there must be in place an environment that is conducive to ensuring that talented, tough players are given the best opportunity to allow their talent to reach its ceiling of potential. The third component is player choice; i.e., whether the player chooses to actualize his or her potential by doing justice to both his talent and the environment that gives him the opportunity to maximize it.

When it comes to development programs, what we are really talking about is creating an environment within which gifted players have the best opportunity to flourish. When identifying these environments, the evidence consistently points to a committed, passionate coach teaching, guiding, and mentoring a gifted player to a successful pro-career. How, then, do we best ensure that such relationships are given the best opportunity to thrive in the future? First, it’s imperative to understand that tennis is a highly individualistic sport. Aside from a shared ability to win, the only thing that many of the great champions have had in common was that they have had virtually nothing in common. Nothing better illustrates this fact than the contrasting styles and personalities of some of the game’s great rivalries, like McEnroe and Borg, Evert and Navratilova, Sampras and Agassi, and Federer and Nadal. Incidentally, it’s a useful exercise to look at who the primary coaching influences were in the development of these players: John McEnroe – Tony Palafox and Harry Hopman; Chris Evert – her father; Martina Navratilova – Billie Jean King and I also understand that Tony Roche had an influence; Pete Sampras – Peter Fischer; Andre Agassi – his father and Nick Bollettieri; Roger Federer – Peter Carter; Rafael Nadal – Toni Nadal.

Second, like players, coaches also have their own unique methods and personalities. The best ones are independent thinkers who wouldn’t survive for a second in a regimented environment, where they would be expected to ignore their own knowledge and conform to the dictates of a “one size fits all” approach. Can you imagine Wayne Bryan, Nick Bollettieri, or Toni Nadal working within the confines of a stifling bureaucracy? With such a diverse range of players and coaches out there, it’s essential that players and their parents are free to determine for themselves who is the best coach. Any wider program or system must take this into account.

So then, back to the original question: What would I do if if I had upwards of twenty million dollars to spend in order to maximize the chances of creating future champions? I would use the money to create the most competitive tennis environment for both players and coaches in the world. I would make use of the exceptional junior talent that I see everywhere, as well as the enormous coaching talent that exists throughout the country. I would create a level-as-possible playing field for both players and coaches by offering them significant incentives, available to all in order to develop players and produce results.

Instead of severing successful and existing coach-player relationships by seducing the top junior players away from the committed and passionate coaches who develop them, I would support those players and coaches.

Here’s how I would do it: I would first design a US tournament infrastructure that offered year-round competitive opportunities to as many young players as possible. This infrastructure would place an equal emphasis on entry-level professional tournaments as it would on junior tournaments. To optimize the chances of young American players transitioning from top juniors to successful pros, I would make lower-level professional tournaments and the invaluable ATP ranking points they offer as accessible as possible. This would mean putting in place a year-round circuit of events on different surfaces, and in as many locations as practical.

After establishing a comprehensive tournament infrastructure, I would design an objective and transparent player incentive scheme that directly links results and rankings to player funding. The criteria for funding would be publicized prior to the beginning of each year so that players could plan their schedules accordingly. To reward results at the junior level, I would select a number of the highest status junior events, and link performance in those tournaments to financial reimbursement for expenses incurred. For example, the winner of a high-status junior event might receive 100 percent reimbursement for all legitimate expenses (coaching, accommodation, travel, restringing, etc.) related to the event. The finalist might receive 75 percent reimbursement, the semifinalists 50 percent, and the quarterfinalists 25 percent. The total amount of reimbursement per player, per tournament, would be firmly set at a reasonable level. To further assist juniors receiving financial support based on junior tournament results, I would assist the top ten juniors in each age group, based on their national year-end junior rankings. For instance, the number one ranked junior in each age group might receive an amount equal to 80 percent of tennis-related expenses for the year, with a cap of, say, $20,000 for each number one ranked player. Percentages of expenses and capped amounts per player would be adjusted on a sliding scale downwards based on each player’s ranking.

In addition to having a financial incentive scheme for junior players, I would have an ATP and WTA ranking-related incentive scheme for players aged 19 (or younger) up to 22 attempting to break into the pros. The criteria I would use for these transitioning players would, as I stated earlier, also be objective and transparent.

Here’s how an objective incentive scheme for the transitional players would be established: I would document what each of the top 100 ATP and WTA players from the last 10 years was ranked at year’s end from the ages of 19 through 22. The results from this analysis would enable me to identify extremely reliable statistical criteria that could then be used to determine the players most likely to achieve a successful pro career. It would also be useful in determining the amount of financial assistance offered to each player who met the criteria.

To concretize the above, let’s say that after conducting such an analysis, I find that 95 percent of 19-year-old male players who eventually reached the world’s top 100 were ranked inside the world’s top 800 when they were 19, and 95 percent of 19-year-old female players who eventually reached the top 100 were ranked inside the top 650. Let’s say I also find that 95 percent of 22-year-old male players who eventually reached the world’s top 100 were ranked inside the world’s top 275 when they were 22, and 95 percent of 22-year-old female players who eventually reached the top 100 were ranked inside the top 225 when they were 22.

Using this data, linking a financial incentive scheme to a developing player’s ranking progress based on his or her age would be simple. I would opt for a three-tiered scheme that offered more assistance to higher ranked players than to mid- and lower-ranked players of the same age. In other words, a 19-year-old male player ranked 750 at the end of the year might receive an incentive payment of, say, 75 percent of annual tennis-related expenses up to a maximum of $10,000; however, a 19-year-old male player ranked 300 might be eligible for a payment of 75 percent of annual tennis-related expenses up to a maximum of $25,000. Ineligibility for the program would kick in when players either turned 23, or made it into the world’s top 100.

In addition to being objective and transparent, this system would be fluid and dynamic. Even if players qualified for financial assistance one year, then the scheme would demand from them continued progress in order to qualify the following year. Conversely, players whose rankings and results precluded them from receiving assistance one year would have as much of a chance to qualify in subsequent years as the players who qualified the previous year. Under the criteria outlined above, the scheme would offer equal opportunities to all. There would be no subjectivity, no bias, no favoritism. It would be driven exclusively by performance, results, and age. By implementing such a scheme, I would be giving players, parents, and coaches not only a powerful incentive to succeed, but also a fair way to benefit from significant financial assistance while still retaining a full range of coaching and tournament options.

Finally, it needs to be said that this is a highly complex subject. I do not attempt to address many of the issues that such a complex subject raises. What I have done is outlined, in principle, a national framework that maximizes the chances of producing champions. A framework that offers players (and their parents) the widest possible choice of coaches by offering earned financial support in a highly competitive environment supported by a national body that doesn’t play favorites.

I expect there will be many who agree and many who disagree. Let’s hear from you, as this is a discussion that needs to be had.

Comment below, or you can also discuss in detail with fellow tennis fans on the Tennis Frontier Message Board Forum


About Chris Lewis

Chris Lewis is a former top level pro and the 1983 Wimbledon runner-up. Chris was also the leading junior of his time – winning Junior Wimbledon and ranking Number One before turning pro in 1975. A native of New Zealand, Chris and family now live in California where he is involved in coaching and running Tennis-Experts and The Woodbridge Tennis Club Pro Shop which has served the Irvine community for the last 16 years.
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