By Jim Reffkin
Finally, there is today, a unanimous consensus that we must look at new programs and innovative ideas to increase the number of junior players and the quality of there play. One thing is for sure, everyone agrees that more competition, with a wider variety of opponents, is essential for increasing the performance of our juniors.
This is nothing new. In 1987 I served on the original USTA National Blue Ribbon "Player Development Committee," representing the United States Professional Tennis Association. Arthur Ashe was chairman along with many legendary figures: Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King, Bill Talbert and Cliff Drysdale, to name only a few. And thanks to Ron Woods, the first USTA director of what is now "high performance," we received an incredible amount of research on what other nations were doing with their "national" programs.
It was nothing new. After great expense and endless meetings, the consensus was unanimous - our juniors need more match play. And in order for this to happen and to create a sense of camaraderie and purpose among juniors and their coaches, the "area training centers" were developed.
And thanks to the committee's efforts, "Zonals" were created, while national rankings for twelve year olds was eliminated. And some time later, in an effort to create more match play, "consolation" draws were mandated in most tournaments. But the one thing no one considered, was the lack of time available; so without realizing what would result, this change pretty much killed junior doubles. Coaches systematically did what was necessary to earn a singles ranking and told their players to concentrate on singles and stuff doubles. To this day junior doubles is still hurting, but that's another story.
Then most recently, the National USTA Youth Competition and Training Committee, with their research and study, exhausted the issue of getting the kids to play more matches. A sub committee (Calvin Davis Chairman) was established to reduce barriers that keep our juniors from participating more often. A few of the obvious barriers were: school time lost; travel/hotel expense; poor scheduling with monotonous delays, and the real health and safety issue of injuries from marathon matches.
These barriers have kept our total number of juniors competing in ranking tournaments at a humble 160,000 players. But thanks to Nancy Alfano and her National Committee, it was obvious that changes would have to be made to eliminate these barriers; the same barriers that prevent our juniors from playing more and against a variety of opponents. It was nothing new, it was clear that the only way to successfully achieve this growth in competition is by offering time definable and appropriate formats that allow it - that means promoting innovative scoring formats.
Great start, but we need to do much more. How is the USTA going to offer practical, time definable formats of competition that will help eliminate the barriers that have prevented frequent participation?
Its nothing new, copy what all other youth sports do - enrich the competitive menu of events that are time definable and suit the needs of the players. Because if you don't, nothing new will ever work effectively. In the real world, because of the barriers we are trying to eliminate, you can't expect players to play more of the traditional three and four day events. And if it is not for ranking, don't be thinking you will be able to get the kids together on a regular basis to play serious competitive tennis. It did not work in the area training centers, it has worked with the one hundred elite players in high performance but it will not work at the sections and district with the 160,000 kids that are the blood and guts of our junior development program. In other words broaden the base of competition and let the cream rise to the top.
Has anyone compared our junior tennis with other sports: basketball; soccer; baseball; football and volleyball? All of these sports are time definable, following a logical progression of time played in their respective competition based on their age and maturation. Professional basketball for example is 48 minutes playing time, college 40, high school 32, grade school 24 etc. My question is, does anyone believe that one day events using match tiebreak or superset in singles prevents a quality competitive experience; and would it hinder a youngster from doing well in college tennis or for that matter professional tennis?
Based on every major sport played today, the answer is NO. Tennis is the only sport that uses professional rules at every level of the game. In my opinion, if we do not copy the success of other youth sports, by offering a logical progression of definable time played, we will continue our drop in popularity and once again become thought of as primarily a "country club" sport.
Its nothing new, on page 123 in the "Friend at Court" is a listing of formats that will accommodate the goals of all competition below the one hundred elite juniors in high performance. This would help guarantee the elimination of almost all of the barriers preventing our kids from playing more. The USTA National Rules and the National Youth Competition and Training committees support these formats and they are available to sections if allowed by their governing body.
Its nothing new, and of course we all know how difficult it is to change. So lets congratulate our own Southwest Section, because with their cutting edge leadership, they have allowed their tournament directors to implement these proven formats and "grow the game."