A Response To The Decline Of American And Australian Men’s Tennis - UBITENNIS
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A Response To The Decline Of American And Australian Men’s Tennis

Former national coach and tennis journalist Mark Winters addresses a recent article about the decline of men’s tennis in the two countries with the help of a long-time friend from Australia.

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I found “On The Decline Of American (And Australian) Men’s Tennis” fascinating. Both Ubaldo and Steve Flink are long-time tennis friends of mine and because they are I feel comfortable offering some interesting food for thought. 

 

The question that was posed concerning the US and Australian decline in men’s tennis is tremendously complex and there are no “set” answers as to what brought about this demise. What’s more, the numbers don’t tell the full story about what has taken place. 

I sent the article to a long-time Australian friend, who has a playing background but more important, has been involved in the game “Down Under” for ages. He understands the Tennis Australia system thoroughly. He provided some insights and I will offer mine based on my experiences with the USTA. (As background, I was a “hack” of a player; served as a Boys’ National Team Coach and as a clinician; and have been a tennis journalist for fifty years.)

In both the US and Australia, the national tennis federations have done a horrific job. They continually change course with regard to plans and direction which results in more than mixed messaging – more like a GPS offering “re-routing” or “make a U-turn”. Politics and egos regularly add to the situation’s befuddlement. While this is a conundrum seen in most sports organizations, in tennis it is worse because those in leadership roles, for the most part, share one distinction – They were players. Broadly speaking, just because an individual reached elite status on the court doesn’t mean they have the wide-ranging vision that is necessary (essential is probably a better word) to establish meaningful, building block, step by step development programs. As administrators (and often the same holds when former players try to establish new careers as coaches), it is difficult for them to move beyond the linear focus that served them so well as competitors. For them the future was…the next match, the next tournament and little beyond.

More to the point, federations “do not a player make…” They should offer opportunities to travel and most importantly, financial support, but overall these organizations have yet to take a youngster from the beginning stages of his/her career to a world ranking. This is why, and I realize this is so logical it is often ignored, local coaches, who are much more than teachers but more importantly, communicators, are so essential. If they are able to establish solid working relationships with those responsible for player oversight on the national level, a win-win result…but this rarely happens for a plethora of reasons highlighted by personality differences.

As my friend noted, “It is also amazing how gullible people can be. Coaches get a hold of a viable prospect, and many years pass, until it’s too late.” It is like a seesaw, actually a metronome, always ticking away. Some coaches receive kudos and in time develop a cult-like following. Others who are not dynamic self-promoters, receive little recognition, yet they may actually be better coaches. But, as the saying goes, “BS sells…”

My friend added, “Australia is behind the ‘eight ball’ in the global game because of distance…” There is also the fact, “…Europeans are less prone to thinking of themselves as troops of a national sporting campaign, though an exception is France.  Their country’s players see themselves as competitors, not tomorrow’s ‘our world number one’ as Ash Barty kept being referred to during all of last year. That is, until she didn’t make our (Australian Open) final as everyone had hoped.”

In the US, different words can be used but the problem is the same. Youngsters as soon as they evidence almost any repeated success are baptized “The Next”. The “blessing”, as it were, results in microscopic –  “Is he/she really…” – analysis, (in both countries), after a couple of good tournament performances. Those caught in this dance try to keep up but the music is constantly changing so their dance moves become muddled. More and more today, there is an added problem. The coach of “the phenomenon” is a parent. Having failed in some competitive sport, they try to have “a new career” as a coach but have little real tennis expertise. Further,  parenting a child doesn’t guarantee that the individual is aware of the emotional balancing act that is an intricate part of being a coach/dad or coach/mom. Nonetheless, parents/coaches regularly discuss the sensitive juggling that is required when they have, in truth, been learning tennis as a “father” or “mother” observer.

Tennis is a complex sport. Not only must an individual have some athletic ability, but the skill must be supported by someone (often the family) and bolstered by an individual’s self-confidence, along with either boldness or stubbornness (or both). Perhaps even more important is having the ability to deal with defeat and still make progress. Because of these and other requirements, tennis in the US and Australia doesn’t get extraordinary athletes. It, and I am speaking broadly, gets the “mechanics” not the “creative architects” for the most part. (Yes, I know that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are “creators” but someone like Schwartzman is, and this is not to be demeaning, a very good “mechanic”.)

Another major issue is appeal. With all the sports offerings in the US and Australia why would tennis be especially  captivating? True, it is a family game so it regularly becomes part of family members DNA. Still, there needs to be more to spur interest in the sport and as I pointed out above, both federations have failed almost completely in messaging.

Unfortunately, working with “social media attention spans”, which are notoriously short,  efforts to call attention to players have become quick to mention “blips”.  The article talked about prospects such as Brandon Nakashima and Rinky Hijikata and their position as “up and comers” yet neither governing body has made a novel effort to call attention to the game’s future. It is still selling Lleyton Hewitts …

My friend pointed out, “The European tennis ‘boom’ coincided with the lifting of the Iron Curtain that created a greater freedom for a true competitive mix…” Tennis had been viewed as a bourgeoisie activity that now was open to the “striving masses”. Cheryl Jones, my wife who was a very reputable player in her younger days, has written about the game for years (often for Ubitennis). She interviewed and wrote about Jennifer Capriati numerous times. One of Capriati’s most telling comments was about “having fire in her belly to succeed…”

With many US players this is missing. Oh, they talk about commitment, about how hard they work, but, more often than not, it is all talk. They simply don’t “burn with desire” because there is really no need or inspiration to become a forest fire. A few “ember” wins here and there is enough to maintain, so these people think, status as a tennis player. Not to go “overboard philosophically”, tennis doesn’t consume their souls. They play it, enjoy it and are rewarded by their results, but when asked to reach within and respond to what it means to be a player, it is quantified in wins and losses…not an “I can touch it, taste it” expression of feeling.

These are, in my view, the most relevant aspects of this multi-faceted problem. I thank you once more for bringing this debate to my attention, and I hope I have been able to give “some interesting food for thought” myself.

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

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James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?

Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.

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Rafael Nadal (@usopen - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.

 

The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.

It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.

However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.

Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.

The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.

However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.

“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.

“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.

“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.

“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”

Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.

Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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