The Russians are coming...
By Jim Reffkin

September 2004

Almost twenty years ago, I was doing some presentations at the USTA Tennis Teachers Conference in New York. The big buzz was the strong representation from Russia. We kept saying, where in the heck did all these "Ruskies" come from, and are these guys for real.

The big joke among the locals, was how they would approach you with a strong Eastern Europe accent, and with the standard line, "who are you?" And then, without skipping a beat, and making sure it was worthwhile for them, followed this brief introduction with a one liner, "you want come Russia." At the end of the day, drinking beer not vodka, we had a ball comparing unbelievable stories and promises made by these guys.

As much as they sounded like an old World War II movie, and stretched the imagination, the approach obviously got everyone's attention and it worked; because the introduction was followed by an intense "interrogation" on the most recent American High Performance programs. It was amazing, they would wring every bit of information out of us to help them do what the Russian government asked them to do - develop Russian world champions. Today, the Russians are relentlessly achieving the goals of the Russian government - winning. This season Russian women won three of the four majors - all by different women - and are dominating the world rankings.

The Russians most certainly have the last laugh. They not only absorbed the most current American coaching techniques, but also added the most important element to this very difficult objective of developing world champions.

Does anyone remember Al McGuire, successful Marquette University basketball coach? Well, Marquette won the NCAA Championship and when asked how he did it he replied, "I don't coach any better than anyone else, but I recruit better!"

The Russians may not ever coach better than Americans, but they most definitely do a better job of recruiting. At a very early age, children are given physical aptitude tests describing potential traits that would justify a particular sport. Obviously, during these years, the Russian government was giving tennis a priority in the Russian system. When you think about it, its simple, it's a numbers game. If there are more talented children playing tennis at an early age, the opportunity for a potential US Open champion goes up.

The American system of developing champions may not be able to implement a governmental intrusion in choosing tennis athletes, but it most certainly could promote and develop a much more comprehensive grassroots program that could attract and retain more gifted children.

As much as we are taking positive steps with our High Performance programming, our "competitive path" from section level down is a "hit and miss" at best. Compare it to traditional American Youth Sports, and its obvious, tennis is woefully behind in developing a solid, logical progression of competitive tennis programming for our children. As recently as ten years ago, the USTA actually discouraged organized competitive play among the very young; defaulting to soccer, softball and the other major youth sports to capture the ankle biters. I believe we are now confronted with a sense of urgency - we must copy other American sports and develop an enriched competitive path, a challenging path that will increase and retain participation.

In 2000, the USTA had a National Plan for Growth that said, "we need to re-evaluate our programs and have the courage to try new approaches."

In 2002, Lee Hamilton, our new USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, evaluated Community Tennis Development and reported, our 2002 performance in increasing tennis player participation at best was "described as mediocre."

In 2004-2006, the USTA Strategic Plan lists as a level one priority: "New Programs targeted at retaining new and frequent players!"

In 2005 we have USTA Welcome Centers, but where are the programs? Have we re-evaluated our programs and have we had the courage to try new approaches?

Here in the Southwest Section, our new President, Tim Russell is answering the challenge by feverishly fanning the flames of innovation. He is supporting new Southwest programming, a progressive "Junior Competitive Path" that should serve as a precedent for other sections to follow. However, this is no small task, as we all know change is difficult, so we hope Tim will have both staff and volunteer support and the relentless persistence to implement the new programming. I think he does!