Hannity fans may remember Sean's stern rebuke (read Sean's letter here) to the USTA's Tim Russell over rule changes the tennis association put in place in a failed attempt to increase "competition." The debate has escalated with both sides trading letters, emails and tweets about the subject. Over the past few weeks hundreds of coaches, parents and fans have come out in support of Sean flooding the Hannity Inbox with emails. Below is one such letter from news anchor Antonio Mora. Additionally, you can read Tom Walker, Director of Tennis for the Kalamazoo YMCA's, letter of support for Sean by clicking here.
The following is an attempt to focus on the main issues discussed in the exchange between Sean Hannity and Tim Russell. It is less than two pages long and an addresses what I see as the most substantive issues raised by the USTA’s changes in the junior competitive schedule. While I believe those changes are well-intentioned, I am afraid there are a series of unintended consequences that will do precisely the opposite of what the USTA hopes to achieve.
1) “Meaningful Competition,” Best Playing the Best,” “Earned Advancement.” These phrases are used repeatedly in Tim Russell’s response to Sean Hannity and are the main philosophical reasons for the changes. Ironically, the quota system at the heart of the USTA’s changes directly contradicts that philosophy. If you want the best to play the best, then why is the USTA allowing for a “size component” when it comes to determining a section’s quota? Size should be irrelevant, if you want to be intellectually consistent and fair. Only a section’s strength should be considered if we are being honest about only rewarding kids who have earned it with the ability to play nationally. If, as Dr. Russell repeatedly says, we want all national matches to be competitive, for the best to play the best, quality should trump size. The size of a section should be irrelevant (see point #2).
2) Section Strength. Making matters worse, the USTA is using its own rankings to determine the strength of a section. Instead, it should use a head-to-head ranking system such as Tennis Information that more fairly determines the ability of a player (a player is not penalized if injuries didn’t allow him or her to enter major tournaments and it does not reward players who have the financial wherewithal to play every national and regional tournament). Let’s use Florida as an example. The quota Florida will get for supernationals, based on the size/strength equation, is only 10 (it would have more if “size” were not considered). When I looked on July 10th, there were 13 Florida boys in the top 150 on the USTA 14s rankings and 13 in the 12s. But, if you look at the Tennisinformation rankings, there are 24 in the top 150 in the 14s (plus Stefan Kozlov, so it’s really 25) and there are 26 in the 12s, fully double the strength Florida is getting credit for in its quota by using the USTA rankings as the gauge. How can it possibly be fair to limit Florida kids to ten spots at supernationals? The injustice is such that the #61, 62, 63, 67 and 73 boys in the country on Tennis Information in the 14s (on July 10th) would not be ranked highly enough in Florida to get in under the quota. One of those boys who would miss out is part of USTA Player Development.
3) Wild Cards. Doesn’t increasing the number of wild cards also directly contradict the earned advancement that’s being preached?
4) Chasing Points. A lot of time has been wasted focusing on kids who chase points by traveling long distances as if this were an epidemic that somehow invalidates the ranking structure. That overlooks the reality that only a small number of kids do so and that none of those kids gets ranked very highly unless they win a lot of matches. The new 2012 point structure makes it even harder for “chasing points” to have any kind of significant effect because kids don’t earn many points unless they get deep into a tournament. Can anyone show me a kid in the top 50 in the country who hasn’t earned his or her way to that ranking?
5) “Increase” in Opportunities. I’m mystified by Mr. Russell’s argument here. There is no doubt that there are more opportunities for the super-elite players (top 20 in the country), but some of the added Level 1 tournaments only take between four and 16 applicants per category. The “majors,” the supernationals, will only take place twice a year instead of four. Level 2 tournaments are cut from four concurrent tournaments four times a year to only three concurrent tournaments only twice a year. Level 3 regional tournaments are slashed from eight tournaments four times a year to four tournaments three times a year. Again, I’m mystified at how that’s an “increase.”
6) Aging Up Decrease in Opportunities. An important point that is not addressed is that the new system will greatly delay the ability for even super-elite kids to play nationally in the years they age up, especially in the country’s most competitive regions. That can’t be good for their tennis.
7) Travel “Reduction.” By my count, a 14 year-old kid who plays a full national and sectional schedule currently plays 17 level 1-to-4 tournaments (four supernats, four national opens, four regionals, zonals and four sectionals). Under the new system (as I interpret the convoluted 2014 schedule), a kid who plays a full schedule (the super-elite) will play a similar number of level 1-to-4 tournaments, but they will have to play a far greater number of tournaments in their section in order to make sure to make their section’s quota. Home school anyone? The kids who are just below the super-elite will also play about the same number of level 1-to-4 tournaments they play today XXXXXXX (but they will be playing mostly level 3 and 4s)XXXXXXXX. For the super-elite and the next layer of top kids, the proposal does NOTHING to decrease travel. But the big issue is the flip side: even top kids who don’t make it into their section’s quota will have a travel elimination, with almost no opportunity to play outside their section, nationally OR regionally (see examples in #2 above).
8) Travel Costs and Distances. The truth is that the new system will not help much. It is sometimes far more time consuming and expensive to travel within a section than to go to a national open or regional elsewhere. Try to get from the Tri-Cities in Washington State to Oklahoma City (kids in region 2 will have to do that) or even from Miami to Augusta, Georgia… it’s cheaper and much quicker to fly to Dallas, Chicago or New York!
9) Missing School. I find it ironic that after years where the USTA seemed not to care about this (January regionals not scheduled over MLK Birthday weekend, February National Opens not scheduled over President’s Day weekend, the Easter Bowl scheduled when virtually nobody has spring break, May National Opens not scheduled over Memorial Day weekend; I can go on with more examples), the Russell letter argues that the new system will be better on that score. It is, slightly. But it would have been awfully easy to make the old schedule work better.
10) Playing Styles and Surfaces. The Russell letter mostly skirts the issue of how the new changes will limit exposure to different surfaces and playing styles. As he says, the new system will provide opportunities for the super-elite to have that kind of exposure, but the reality is the enormous majority of our top kids will be hurt. When will top Florida kids compete indoors? When will most top kids in the country compete on clay?
11) Birth Year. Why in the world would Dr. Russell even raise the possibility of returning to the much-discredited (by “Outliers” and other subsequent research) calendar-year system? Is he actually arguing that, somehow, two wrongs (calendar-year system and only two supernationals) would suddenly make a right? I’ve heard the ITF is considering following the much fairer rolling-birthday system we have here. The USTA should exert its efforts to change the ITF, not to go back to a silly, discriminatory system.
12) “Lower Ranked Players.” Dr. Russell jumps all over Mr. Hannity for saying that “lower-ranked players will not get to play national events,” asking why “low-ranked players should play national events.” I can’t speak for Mr. Hannity, but he said “lower” not “low.” That’s an important distinction. Very, very good kids will not be able to play national events under a whole series of circumstances. While there is a certain inertia that keeps top players near the top from the 10s on, some kids do make progress over time and manage to soar to the top. Some kids do come out of seemingly nowhere to do very well in tournaments. The next Andre Agassi could be a kid who didn’t do well in the 12s and 14s but then grows a foot in the 18s. By discouraging that player by limiting his opportunities early on, we may lose him to lacrosse or baseball.
13) Psychology. Here again, I agree with Mr. Hannity and disagree with Dr. Russell, especially when he calls Mr. Hannity’s point “preposterous.” Kids getting the chance to play nationally, even if it’s only every once in a while, is powerful validation. Few things are more inspiring to young players than playing at the highest levels with the country’s best players. Limiting those opportunities will give far fewer players the chance to get that inspiration. Traveling around the country often leads to the kinds of friendships that are catalysts that encourage a lifetime of tennis. Again, fewer kids will have that chance. They and the sport will suffer for it.
14) Kids Playing Adults. I’m not sure what it’s like where Dr. Russell lives in, but I’m with Mr. Hannity in saying that that kids playing with adults just doesn’t happen. Maybe if a new rating system gets implemented that mixes everybody into the same tournaments, but spontaneous play with adults who aren’t their parents is uncommon in today’s world. Please don’t take away opportunities for kids to play with a wide variety of good kids, no matter what form of transportation they need to get to that competition.
15) “Consultation.” Even though I wanted to keep this email focused on substance, this is one non-substantive point that needs to be addressed. Dr. Russell talks about the legions of people who were consulted, but the process was anything but transparent, open and public as he claims. When the proposed changes were unveiled at the post-Christmas meeting in Texas, people there were told NOT to disseminate the proposals. When I sent a detailed analysis of the proposals to dozens of parents of highly-competitive kids across the country two months later in early March, NONE of them were aware any of this was being considered. Tom Walker recently addressed the lack of consultation this in a letter published on Zoo Tennis. I hope the USTA accepts Mr. Hannity’s offer to poll parents. It wouldn’t have to be unwieldy: if you poll parents of the top two hundred kids in each age group, you’re talking about less than 1600 people (some will be duplicates with multiple kids). I think the USTA will be surprised at the extent of the opposition to the changes.
Finally, there are many positives in the changes approved, but there are an awful lot of negatives. I would hope the USTA could find an intelligent middle ground that would not slash the opportunities for kids to play nationally while still taking steps to help create new great tennis generations.
In the interest of full disclosure, assuming all things remain equal, my son is not likely to suffer much from the changes and is highly ranked enough that some may benefit him. Dr. Russell gave his background, so I will too. I am a Harvard Law School graduate, with a lot of training and experience analyzing complex documents (both the approved changes and Dr. Russell’s letter certainly qualify as such). After practicing law in New York, I switched careers and became a broadcast journalist, earning a dozen national and local Emmy Awards. I am also a lifelong tennis player from a tennis-playing family that includes a brother who played on the ATP tour for years and two generations of Davis Cup players.
I would urge everyone to be forthcoming with their names in whatever discussion ensues. It’s disappointing to see so many anonymous attacks from all sides in this important conversation and I would hope the USTA would not be vindictive against the children of those who express opinions the organization does not like. Sadly, many people are afraid to speak out because they believe that will happen.
Thanks for reading.