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USTA Hints at Compromise When it Comes to Junior Tennis Changes
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Tennis Recruiting contributor Rick Limpert was granted unique access over the past few days to talk with Jon Vegosen, Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA and Kurt Kampermann, USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis, who have been front and center when it comes to the USTA's proposed changes in competitive junior tennis.

compromise - noun, verb
noun - an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions
verb - settle a dispute by mutual concession

Ask any politician, and they will tell you that the use of the word "compromise" can be a little tricky. It's a word that tends to come into play when a public official is up for reelection.

When the USTA proposed a complete overhaul of the competitive junior tennis landscape in the United States, they faced opposition and questions from many different parties. At this point, they did the right thing and hit the "pause button."

The proposed changes in junior tennis start at the top with the national tournaments, filter on down to sections who will pick up some of the slack, and finally a serious effort will be made to beef up interest and activity at the grassroots level.

"The USTA realizes that change is difficult," admits Jon Vegosen, Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA. "When you look at how our competitive system is faring, and when you look at the numbers - and the numbers don't lie - they tell an interesting story."

That story is one where tennis is often left out and forgotten.

Vegosen went on:

"In this country (we have) 40 million registered youth sports participants, and over 99% of them do not play tennis, so we have a huge market we could and should be growing if we are to fulfill our mission."

In countries like France and Spain, there is a higher percentage of kids playing competitive tennis.

Might some young American players opt to cross borders to train and play an extended circuit in Europe?

"We've heard the opposite," Vegosen states. "There are juniors that have gone abroad to train, but it is usually because they also want to play on clay or learn to speak another language.

"You think it's competitive here, it's more competitive over there."

"Exactly," says one American USPTR teaching pro who used to coach touring pros and travel across Europe. But they also do one other thing in Europe.

"They get the hell out of the way and let the kids play," says Chris Capps, Director of Tennis at the Veranda Country Club in Ft. Myers, Florida. "They get the kid's weight behind the ball, and they play a lot of sets."

Capps says that match play is really lacking here in the States.

"It's that simple," offers Capps.

It's a smaller world now, and with many of these top juniors being first and second-generation Americans, I have to think the right amount of discontent could lead to possibility of losing players.

Another one of the hot button issues being discussed is draw size at the national events.

"That's causing great concern," explains Kurt Kampermann, USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis.

Parents that have kids in the top-300 in their age groups are worried that their sons or daughters won't be able to play nationally, and that pulls them out of the equation when it comes to college scholarships for tennis. Draws would be reduced at national events like one played each year in Kalamazoo.

For years, parents cringed at the fact that NCAA and NAIA schools turn to international players to fill their rosters while many American junior players are left "at the altar."

"Our goal is not to be right, but get it right," adds Kampermann.

And get it right is what everyone wants.

When I asked him about the smaller draw size, because I worry that a late-bloomer or a "diamond in the rough" like the top American men's player in John Isner might never have a chance to be seen or develop, Vegosen says opportunities will be there for players to move up through their section.

Here is where I heard the compromise in their voices.

"This is a question we have heard," states Kampermann. "And one of the ideas we are considering is add a 64 draw qualifying to these (events), so the 'diamond in the rough' can still come through. It would emulate what happens at a Grand Slam tournament."

Ah-ha, compromise.

Another byproduct of the USTA's changes is already front and center.

You can't watch or attend a tennis tournament without seeing or getting information on 10 & Under or Quickstart Tennis.

Building on that, the USTA is partnering with organizations like TGA Premier Youth Tennis to get tennis to people who currently do not play the sport.

Joshua Jacobs, CEO of TGA, say the urgency to grow tennis has never been greater. TGA's mission to make tennis more accessible through school-based programs.

"We want to capture students, and engage and interact with the parents," explains Jacobs. "We may get their parents out playing tennis and that means there's a better chance the child will stick with the sport."

Why is there this urgency now?

Jacobs isn't sure, but he says there is an opportunity now, and they want to pounce on it.

This is just one of the moving parts among many in the USTA's plans.

Everybody agrees we need to grow the game of tennis, but the tensions start to rise when those involved discuss how to do that.

Is there really just one way to do that?

Hedge fund investor Geoff Grant, who has five tennis playing children between the ages of 11 and 22, moved to California from London eight years ago, so he has seen how the competitve junior tennis in Europe develops players.

On more than one occasion, Vegosen and Kampermann said the USTA's goal is to make tennis "more affordable and accessible."

Grant said they are overthinking this.

"The proposed changes by the USTA will create a structure that is unworkable," offers up Grant. "It will reduce travel, but having fewer national opportunities (down from 40 in 2010 to 9 in 2014) means less choice and fewer options, ultimately driving up the cost of competing."

Grant sees some talented players going to Europe to hone their games, but he also sees an opportunity for a competing junior circuit to sprout up and allow juniors to bypass the USTA altogether.

One such circuit, with deep pockets, is said to be waiting in the wings.

Another interested group of individuals when it comes to these changes are college tennis coaches.

Eric Hayes, the men's and women's tennis coach at Troy University in Alabama, a member of the Sun Belt Conference has been keeping an eye on the developments and since he coaches two teams, he has two "dogs in the fight."

"I have been keeping up with the changes, but I don't have as much time since I coach both the men's and women's teams here at Troy," explains the veteran D-I coach.

It's after that statement, that he gives an answer that might surprise many.

"I think the changes are good. I like the fact that it puts more pressure on juniors at the sectional level."

Hayes said he would welcome the chance to travel to sectional events in Atlanta, Mobile or Macon to scout players, but he still would go to national events.

One other D-I coach who didn't want to be named for this piece agrees with his peer in Hayes.

"I like what it does for the sections; it dangles a carrot in front of more players, and that is good."

He also said that juniors shouldn't worry about the national rankings. "Coaches know who the players are."

One of these town hall meetings will be at the ITA college convention for coaches in December, where they will present their proposal and hear what the college coaches have to say.

Grant, who has lived through the old system as he had three of his kids play college tennis, thinks the new ideas were hastily put together and wants a paid professional task force and possibly a consultant brought in to offer some alternatives, and quickly.

Why?

"Because the USTA's product offering is not that attractive," retorts Grant.

That's Grant's opinion, but he's not alone.

That is where the compromise has to come in.

If a public official or candidate was facing that much criticism and opposition, they would face no choice but to "reach across the aisle" and compromise.

The current listening tour has USTA officials out and about meeting with the masses.

With two town hall meetings in the books, Kampermann can offer up one observation.

"We are of course happy to answer any questions," says Kampermann. "But, through the first two, we didn't have as many questions as we had opinions.

"We want to give people the opportunity to weigh in," continues Kampermann. "We really are taking their feedback to heart."

Tennis players, fans, and parents have been "weighing in" on the internet and social media.

"It's the world we live in," sums up Hayes. "I get hundreds of emails a day from players, coaches, and parents. People involved in tennis do their homework, and it's forcing the USTA to get it right."

The USTA should be applauded for listening to its constituents on this listening tour, and I expect compromise won't please all the interested parties, but it may appease. I hope all involved recognize that the sport of tennis and youth involvement is bigger than any individual, institution, or organization.

Now, let's give a kid that may never have set foot on a tennis court, a racquet and some balls for the holidays. Let's give top junior players the right coaching to let them reach their potential. Let's make tennis fun and competitive for eveyone. Let's play some tennis.

Update from USTA Board Meeting: The USTA Board of Directors this weekend voted a "partial pause" in the changes proposed for 2013. The only change that will be implemented for 2013 will be a reduction in the size of the July L3 Regional draws from 64 to 32 participants in each event, which amounts to a total reduction of 2,048 spots in the 8 regionals.

 

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About Rick Limpert

Rick Limpert is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. He covers sports and technology for the likes of Yahoo News and Sports and has covered tennis at all levels for almost 10 years. His website is www.ricklimpert.info and you can follow him on Twitter at @RickRoswell.

 
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