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Reviewing His First Months Leading USTA Player Development with Martin Blackman

Since last April, when the USTA announced his hiring as the new General Manager of Player Development, Martin Blackman has been a busy man. We spoke in June about the direction he wanted to see the department take, informed by extensive travel and countless conversations with players and coaches.

Martin Blackman, GM of USTA Player Development
© Zoo Tennis
Recently, at the ATP Delray Beach Open, we discussed where that experience had led him in his first months on the job. Just days before, he had announced an internal reorganization for Player Development, creating a Team USA Pro division, headed by Tom Gullikson and Kathy Rinaldi, and designating Andy Brandi and Richard Ashby as leaders of the junior coaching teams. Between two quarterfinal matches featuring three Americans, Blackman answered my questions about that reorganization, junior competition changes, a new player council, his social media presence, his missteps and many other player development topics.

Questions and Answers

Colette Lewis (CL): What prompted the recent Player Development reorganization?

Martin Blackman (MB): It was a change to make sure we had teams aligned with the different players we need to serve. There was a gap we saw in terms of what we were able to do for our young pros, who really struggle between 100 and 200. That's probably one of the toughest areas to navigate, that Challenger level, where everybody's fighting to get into the Top 100. You really need to have a traveling coach, you really need to do things right with your strength and conditioning, and a lot of those players can't afford that type of support.

So we said, we've got a lot of gifted men and women out there who just need a little more help, either with a training base or supplemental coaching or grant money or support at tournaments, what can we do to help those players move through a little bit quicker? If those players already have a private coach, it's supplemental, and it's based on what the players and their teams say they need.

That was the rationale for the Team USA Pro department, and Tom Gullikson and Kathy Rinaldi are the perfect people in those roles. They have a lot of credibility with the coaches and the players; they've built some great relationships and they've taken a lot of players through that process.

In terms of Andy Brandi and Richard Ashby leading those junior teams, again that was a move to create just a little bit more of a team approach. With all the coaches we have working with juniors, this is our outward face in terms of who private sector coaches are going to see at camps and national tournaments. Let's make sure we get them all working together under one roof. I think having them working as a team is going to give the private sector more consistency in building those relationships. When we get to the point where the player is 15 or 16 years old, and that relationship with those junior coaches has been built over the course of five or six years, then there's a real level of comfort working more closely with Player Development.


Blackman recently announced change
© Zoo Tennis
CL: Did those changes come from problems that you'd had?

MB: I wouldn't say it came from problems, I'd really say it came as an evolution of the Team USA initiative. We kind of saw where things were going and saw that as another opportunity to have a resource. So if you're a private sector coach and you're working with a good junior player, you know where to go.


CL: So you're not going with a coach per birth year?

MB: No. It's a much more fluid situation now.


CL: I have heard about the possibility of a players council. Is that happening or going to happen?

MB: We've established a really informal group who are going to help us field concerns and questions from all of our American pros. We're going to have our first meeting at Indian Wells, and again it's just another effort to improve the communication between Player Development and all of our pros.


CL: Are there representatives from each ranking tier?

MB: What we did is a survey, and we had the players indicate who they wanted to represent them. We want everything to be driven by the players, we're not dictating who represents them or how things are done. It's really just a forum for us to get together two or three times a year and find out hey, what can Player Development do better to serve you guys? We're going to keep the content of it pretty confidential, because we don't want the players to feel like if they criticize us, we're going to go public with it, and so far it's gone really well. Our first informal meeting with the men's council was down in Australia and we got about 20 recommendations from the men - singles players, Top 100, Top 500, doubles - and already there are four or five of them that we're going to be ready to act on.


CL: Who suggested a players council?

MB: The idea really came from two or three of our National Coaches who have a really good pulse on how the players are feeling. Early on, back in July or August, they met with me and said this would be a really good idea. The relationship is good, but players still feel they don't have that much of a voice. So I said, yeah, let's go for it.


CL: Do you do your own social media?

MB: I do some of it, not all of it. What usually happens is there's someone who will remain nameless, that when I'm looking at Resultina and I see one of our players do well, I say, hey, can you tweet this, hey, can you tweet that?

One of the things I want people to feel about Player Development, and I really want this to epitomize the way we do things, is that we really value every American player. It's very easy for players to get the perception that you only care about the young ones, or you only care about the ones that are hot, or you only care about the ones in the Top 100. It's just so important for all of them to feel a part of Team USA and that we really care, are paying attention, we're watching your results. So hopefully that's what it contributes to.


CL: In our first interview, you mentioned getting more women into coaching. How is that going?

MB: It's going really well. We're not satisfied by any means. The easiest way has been to reach out to women coming off the tour, so we got Jill Craybas involved and she helped us with our preseason. I think she'll continue to help us. We reached out to Lisa Raymond. She really helped us in the preseason with our older women, the pros, and now she's working with CiCi Bellis. We've reached out to Marianne Werdel; Marianne has helped us for five or six weeks this year. Lilia Osterloh has helped us with a few camps; Angie Haynes, who played on the tour, is going to be helping us in an upcoming camp. So we've been really proactive and intentional about going there first.

The next step in that outreach is going to be a Women's Coaches Symposium, in August, when we're going to reach out to some of the top female coaches in the country, and women who have been Top 100. Then we'll brainstorm as to ways we can develop more female coaches. I think the best sources for female coaches are women finishing their college careers as players, and women who are finishing their pro careers. Not that that's the only place, but that's where we can connect with them and say, hey, this is what the pathway looks like, and you have a great opportunity to become a really successful coach.

CL: We also talked then about getting more American champions involved.

MB: Yes, we've got Jill and Lisa, Mardy Fish, Ivan Lendl. Mardy helped us with a great preseason; Andy(Roddick) and Jim Courier are really generous with their time. We've sent boys to train with them. We just had a great champions panel discussion, with Lendl, Chris Evert and Jim Courier. We invited private sector coaches as well as our national coaches and we really drilled down into some of the developmental processes that contributed to them becoming grand slam champions. That was so valuable.

We've reconnected with about 70 former American pros, anywhere from they just really want to know what's happening and they don't want to get involved right now, to they're going to work national camps, become a part of our faculty. It's been really systematic. You have to manage the former pro's skill set and interest with our need. So every situation is unique in that way. But we have a pretty good menu of options for pros to get re-engaged.


CL: Has there been anything in the first six or eight months on the job that has surprised you?

MB: I don't know if it's a surprise, but the thing that has really stuck out for me, in terms of priorities, is the importance of communication. Just how important it is to communicate to players and their coaches in the private sector, from juniors all the way up to the pros. Because so many times there's not enough understanding of what and why we're doing it. You initiate something and you think this is great, but either it's not communicated fully or it's not understood, so it can be misconstrued. The importance of being transparent, being really equitable. What you do for one player has to be based on certain criteria and those criteria have to apply to everybody who falls into that bucket.

Once you have the communication and you build a relationship and build trust, then when you have to say no to somebody, because you do have to say no, you can say it without it defining the relationship.


CL: Do you see David Haggerty's new position as president of the International Tennis Federation having any impact on the USTA?

MB: I think that's going to be beneficial at a big picture level, in terms of channeling the learning the ITF gleans. They've got a really good handle on best practices across the board, at a USOC/Olympic sport level, so I think he's going to be a great conduit to that for us. I think it's also indicative that one of his legacies as USTA President was really pushing for more inclusiveness and collaboration and I'm sure that's something the international community recognized. Not thinking he would only represent the interests of the US, North America, Western Hemisphere or grand slam nations, but believing he'd be a great ambassador for the sport.


CL: Is the restructuring of Junior Competition at an end? At Kalamazoo there's been two different draw sizes in the past three years and another projected for 2017.

MB: I do see that the changes coming up and going into effect next year are going to hold for at least three or four years. The rationale behind the bigger draws (224) for the Nationals and the Clays is to make that aspirational goal seem a little more attainable for all our junior players in the system.


CL: Did Player Development have input into the 2017 changes?

MB: We definitely had a lot of input in this process. When it comes to our biggest national tournaments, like Kalamazoo and San Diego, our position is that the primary value of those tournaments is really the health of the game. Having a 128 or 224 draw is not going to make or break the developmental process for a Tommy Paul or Frances Tiafoe or Reilly Opelka. But what it might do, for those last 16 or 17 kids who get in, it might keep the dream alive for them, it might motivate them, it might create more of a pull in the section. It might create more college play opportunities. For us, the health of the game is going to contribute to everybody's success. We don't have enough young players playing the game. The pool of junior players is just not big enough. That's a tennis issue, not a Junior Comp or Player Development issue.


CL: Have you made any mistakes in the last eight months?

MB: I've made a lot of mistakes. Because we're trying to do a lot. I think when you're proactive, turning over every rock to see what we can do better, you're going to make mistakes. None that I'm going to own up to, but I will say my approach to making mistakes is that when you recognize you've made a mistake, or someone points it out to you, you own up to it and you pick up the phone and you call the people that are affected immediately. That mitigates the effect of whatever it is. When you don't do that, try to justify it, or make excuses for it, or scapegoat people, then it becomes a major issue.

And in that way, I'm also trying to set an example for our entire team of coaches. Because when you're in the field 40 weeks a year, you're going to make mistakes. So you say something, maybe it came out the wrong way, a private coach got upset, what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to say, hey, I'm a USTA coach, it doesn't matter what people think, or are you going to pick up the phone, or grab a cup of coffee with that coach immediately, and mend fences?


CL: What's the current outlook for the USTA's new facility at Lake Nona?

MB: Everything's going smoothly. What I always say is that the National Campus is going to give us an unbelievable opportunity to train our players the right way and be able to include all of our high performance players, from juniors to collegiate to pros. We're going to have world class facilities and we're going to be able to give them everything they need. The second thing I'll say, is that we're always going to be cognizant of the fact that the tennis world of the United States is not going to revolve around Lake Nona. We're not going to reduce the efforts in the field at all. We're engaging players and coaches and programs where they are. Those are the two things we want to hold in balance.


CL: Any other thoughts?

MB: The only thing I would add is that we've got a good group of boys and girls coming up, who we're very excited about, but sometimes we don't hold up the players that we have right now. I'm really happy with Stevie (Johnson) and Donald (Young) and obviously John Isner leading the charge. I think Sam (Querrey) is going to come back really quickly, Tim Smyczek, Austin Krajicek playing well, Jack Sock is poised for great things. I'm high on the group we have right now and I think they are going to be an important resource for the boys we have coming up. The same way Madison(Keys) and Sloane(Stephens) are really good lampposts for the girls we have coming up, and obviously Serena is the gold standard. Sometimes I feel like all the press, all the attention, goes to the upcoming girls and boys.


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About Colette Lewis

Colette Lewis has covered topflight U.S. and international junior events as a freelance journalist for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Tennis magazine, the Tennis Championships magazine and the US Open program. Lewis is active on Twitter, and she writes a weekly column right here at TennisRecruiting.net. She was named Junior Tennis Champion for 2016 by Tennis Industry Magazine.

Lewis, based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has seen every National Championship final played since 1977, and her work on the tournament's ustaboys.com website led her to establish ZooTennis, where she comments on junior and college tennis daily.

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Colette Lewis has covered topflight junior events as a freelance journalist for over a decade. Read her weekly column, follow her on Twitter, and and find more of her daily commentary at ZooTennis.

Page updated on Monday, November 04, 2019
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