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USA's Ryan Harrison reacts as he plays France's Gilles Simon during their first round match in the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Monday, May, 28, 2012. (AP Photo/David Vincent)
Monson: When it comes to tennis, America languishes embarrassingly behind

USTA tries to rebuild once-proud tennis power by putting more kids on courts.

By Gordon Monson

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Jun 05 2012 12:34 pm • Last Updated Sep 11 2012 11:32 pm

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?

At a glance

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.

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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.

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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.

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