By Jim Reffkin
At the very end of December, for the very first time, Tucson served as the host for the "USTA Super Nationals" an event that invites the very best junior players (boys and girls) in age categories of 12, 14, 16 and 18. Tucson hosted the 12's and 14's, the very youngest categories, and it was played at multiple sites throughout the community.
After almost fifty years involved in the tennis industry, and having watched thousands of matches at every possible age and skill level, it did not surprise me to hear about the two separate embarrassing incidents during the Super National 12 and 14 year old events. But shouldn't this be expected? Tennis is the only sport that expects our fragile ten, twelve and fourteen year olds to duplicate the intensity and length of competition demanded of professional athletes. Often times twelve year olds play twice and three times as long as professional tennis players, leading to unrealistic expectations from coaches and parents. While professional players are constantly complaining about "recovery time" between matches, parents are demanding more of their offspring preparing them for the ultimate "payback" of a college scholarship and a professional career.
If you have not read or heard yet - bad news travels fast - parents on two separate occasions had physical altercations at two (Tucson Racquet Club and Sheraton El Conquistadore Resort) of the event sites. In the first episode at the Racquet Club, police arrived and one parent was cited. In the other case at the Sheraton El Conquistadore, an FBI agent who happened to be close by, separated the fathers (punches thrown) of two competing 12 year olds.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in youth sports. We all have certainly watched enough television specials on "out of control" parents and how their behavior ruins the enjoyment of sport for the participating children. As a former athletic director (in the 1960s) at a major high school, I am aware of what other youth sports have done to secure a safer and more comfortable environment for the children, they accomplish this while developing elite athletes capable of competing at the highest levels of competition. In essence, they have developed an elaborate progression (length of play) dependent on their participants age and skill level. This has accommodated a logical development of a young athletes skills based on maturation. The system has always been based on the physical progress of the child, and benefits the young athlete, not the expectation of a parent's self-interest. So what is our governing body (USTA) doing for tennis to protect our youth, and nurturing them to higher levels of play?
Point Penalty - As of January first of this year, the National Rules Committee eliminated the warning and went to a point penalty at the first infraction. This was used at the Copperbowl National Tournament, which started January first, and was received well by tournament officials.
Parent/Player - Voluntary clinics are now being offered to emphasize conduct, however, mandatory sessions may be implemented.
Tournament Opportunities - There has been a dramatic increase in national junior tournament events to allow for much needed experience.
Team Events - Because tennis has always been an "individual" sport and has not offered the benefits of "team sports" there is presently a huge push to develop the team concept at the skill levels below nationally ranked players.
Innovative Scoring - In order to increase participation in competitive events, the USTA National Youth Competition and Training Committee is supporting the ITF approved "match tiebreak in lieu of 3rd set." Less school time lost, less cost to parents, fewer injuries and equitable playing time among participants are among the benefits of its use. The National Junior Open's are using this format to help encourage our USTA sections to use it as well.
Junior Doubles - Because doubles events are not being offered and doubles skills are declining, increasing participation in junior doubles is a major USTA goal.
High Performance - Establish a National Training Center to develop a truly "elite" youth program to establish world class players.
In 1987, I served on a National USTA blue ribbon committee to completely reorganize the USTA's youth tennis program. Arthur Ashe was the Chairman of this twenty person committee that included every facet of the tennis industry, with personalities such as Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King and Cliff Drysdale. The goal was to develop a "Player Development" program that would bring United States tennis to the very highest level of global competition. One thing was unanimous from all in attendance: We must demand that our junior players compete in more actual match play against different styles of play. Our elite players must compete regularly amongst themselves and stop protecting their ranking by avoiding difficult competition.
Today, parents spend huge amounts of money on the assumption that their son or daughter will not only receive a college tennis scholarship, but possibly make a living and career by playing professional tennis. Realistically, maybe one American a year may make it to the professional level, so lets forget about a professional career. In fact, the Southwest section has produced only one player to ever play full-time professional tennis as a career - Jimmy Grabb from Tucson, Arizona.
So we hope parents stop complicating this player development equation by thinking there is going to be a return on their investment. Parents must help promote the game by "butting out" and allowing the USTA system to work. Presently there is a new National Committee in place - USTA Tennis High Performance Task Force - ready to analyze and recommend policies, and an effective delivery structure for a USA Tennis High Performance program. And guess what their two top priorities are?
TO SIMPLIFY THE CURRENT JUNIOR TENNIS STRUCTURE; TO INTEGRATE HIGH PERFORMANCE AND JUNIOR COMPETITION.
TO ENSURE THAT THE JUNIOR COMPETITIVE SYSTEM ENCOURAGES MORE PLAY, PARTICULARLY MORE HEAD-TO-HEAD PLAY, AMONG PLAYERS OF SIMILAR ABILITY LEVELS.
These priorities will definitely motivate more efficient levels of competition, but I still recommend the committee study youth sports outside of tennis. And for any of you interested in helping us grow our game, write us with your suggestions to enrich our menu of competitive events. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org