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Monson: When it comes to tennis, America languishes embarrassingly behind

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

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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.

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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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."

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"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.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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