How bad has it gotten?
If I mention the six-letter word, will you keep reading? Is there a good enough reason in Utah or in this country to care about it? To watch it? To play it? Or to have your kids play it?
If you watch the French Open this week, one of the first things that backhands you across the mug is the lack of top American players. Look at the world rankings. Where have you gone, Andre Agassi?
He’s probably playing football or basketball or Mortal Kombat or skateboarding or texting his friends about hanging out on Friday night. All while one of the world’s great individual sports, a sport that has drawn hundreds of thousands of emerging athletes to it in other countries, lurches along here, strangely absent of promising young stars.
And as long as American athletes don’t reign over a global sport or look like Anna Kournikova — oh, wait, she was Russian, right? … Maria Sharapova? … Maria Kirilenko? … Uh, never mind — it becomes secondary in interest to American sports fans, both in the number of TV viewers and the number of aspiring players it attracts.
“We’re not even close to realizing our potential in this country — at all,” says Lindsay Rawstorne, a longtime Utah teaching pro who also is chairman of the United States Tennis Association’s Intermountain Junior Competition Committee.
How can American tennis ascend back to the place it once occupied as a dominant force on the international scene?
“If you had the answer to that question, the USTA would give you a lot of money,” says Brad Ferreira, owner of Eagleridge Tennis Club in North Salt Lake and a member of the USTA’s national Coaches Commission.
The association, no doubt, is frustrated to see countries like Spain and Serbia pumping out so many great players, while the United States, with its population and resources, languishes in the background.
“Part of the problem is there’s too many other sports in the United States,” Ferreira says. “Tennis has to compete with all of them. I grew up in South Africa. There were other sports there, too, but we played tennis outdoors year-round.”
In colder areas, places such as Utah, where the weather forces players indoors over the winter months, court costs can make pursuing the game economically prohibitive.
“It’s a big disadvantage,” Ferreira says. “It’s expensive to play inside. It’s expensive to have kids play tennis. You’ve got to learn to play the game and that costs a lot of money.”
Estimates regarding how much money it takes to bring up a national-caliber junior competitor range from $20,000 to $100,000 a year. There are some financial breaks to be found if a young athlete shows enough early potential to warrant scholarships to national training centers or academies, but taking that path requires substantial planning and sacrifices on the part of families who might not otherwise be inclined to make them.
It used to be that parents could enter their child in local, regional and national junior tournaments, sending their kid all over the country to earn points and bolster their national ranking, in essence, providing opportunity by outspending other parents.
In 2014, the USTA plans to launch a revamped junior system that will emphasize regional tournaments and limit qualifying for national events to truly superior players. It already has a couple of national training centers, in Carson, Calif., and in Boca Raton, Fla. Now it is featuring regional centers or “camps,” the closest of which to Utah is in Las Vegas.
“They’re reducing the number of tournaments, trying to get the better players to play each other more often,” Rawstorne says. “That will help the top players nationally and challenge us here locally. We try to train kids to get ready for college. With the new system, it will be harder to get players in front of coaches.”
It’s a question of intensively bettering a smaller number of players, pushing them to the top, versus less intensively improving a greater number of players and hoping a few of them continue to climb.
Utah, which has a population a little less than half of Serbia’s, has had a number of accomplished junior players in recent years, foremost among them Mary Anne Macfarlane of Ogden and Spencer Smith of Salt Lake City.
Serbia, though, has birthed bona fide international stars, such as, among others, Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic.
Ferreira says the USTA is attempting to identify potential American stars early, between the ages of 8 and 12, and give them competitive advantages that will help them develop. As one of 50 members, one from each state, of the Coaches Commission, he recommends certain players from Utah who might be invited to participate at camps and centers where they can receive free coaching and training.
The USTA has also launched a massive 10-and-under program, including in Utah, in which kids are enabled to play tennis on smaller courts with low-compression balls that are easier to hit and control, thereby helping them adapt to a difficult game at younger ages.
“The 10-and-under initiative is very good,” says Ferreira. “I just watched two little 6-year-olds playing on a 60-foot court, developing the right strokes with a ball that doesn’t jump all over the court. We used to wait until kids were 10 to teach them. Now, if they don’t pick up the sport by 10, it’s over.”
Says Rawstorne: “The main problem tennis has with kids is, it’s difficult. It takes a while to experience having fun, so we lose a lot of kids to other sports.”
Ferreira and Clark Barton, a long-time Utah tennis pro, agree that getting kids involved early and having fun is important, but, then, to reach elite levels, they must be willing to put in the work.
“For kids growing up in Europe, Russia, China, tennis can be their way out of tough circumstances,” says Barton. “That’s an issue here. Things in the United States have gotten too easy. So many interests take kids in all directions. Their attention is divided.”
Top-level tennis, he says, requires drive and dedication.
That’s why Barton is such an advocate for tennis played on clay courts, a surface that is rarely found in the Intermountain region. It’s a slower court that forces players to deal with “drawn-out, knock-down battles.”
“The rallies are longer and tougher,” he says. “It requires a more complete game. If Serena Williams had grown up on clay in Europe, she would have gone on to become the greatest player ever. The thing that missed with her, she doesn’t have a enough variety in her shots. As great as she is, she plays dumb tennis sometimes. She tries to overpower it. But the clay absorbs the pace of the ball. You can’t hit one or two good shots and have it be enough. It takes talent, toughness and strategy.”
If enough young American athletes can be introduced to what is a great individual sport, and develop those characteristics, on all surfaces, whatever systems are put in place, the United States will once again be able to not only compete with the rest of the world, but also, in the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman, show it the way we do it downtown.
And, then, Americans might even be interested enough to actually pay attention to t-e-n-n-i-s, again.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
Men’s world tennis rankings
1. Novak Djokovic, Serbia
2. Rafael Nadal, Spain
3. Roger Federer, Switzerland
4. Andy Murray, Great Britain
5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France
6. David Ferrer, Spain
7. Tomas Berdych, CZE
8. Janko Tipsarevic, Serbia
9. Juan Martin Del Potro, Argentina
10. Mardy Fish, USA
Women’s world tennis rankings
1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2. Maria Sharapova, Russia
3. Agnieszka Radwanska, Poland
4. Petra Kvitova, CZE
5. Serena Williams, USA
6. Samantha Stosur, AUS
7. Li Na, China
8. Marion Bartoli, France
9. Caroline Wozniacki, Denmark
10. Angelique Kerber, Germany
Women’s world tennis rankings
1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR.
2. Maria Sharapova, Russia.
3. Agnieszka Radwanska, Poland.
4. Petra Kvitova, CZE.
5. Serena Williams, USA.
6. Samantha Stosur, AUS.
7. Na Li, China.
8. Marion Bartoli, France.
9. Caroline Wozniacki, Denmark.
10. Angelique Kerber, Germany.