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Sean's analysis on USTA

As many people know, my main passion in life is politics. I basically eat, breathe and sleep politics. In my private life, one of my main passions is sports. As a kid, I played ice hockey and roller hockey. I was a pitcher in baseball. I played basketball and stickball, both for endless hours. I also developed a love for tennis, which I have to this day.

After a stint as a hockey and snow-skiing dad, I have now become a full-time tennis dad. I have two junior tennis players and I, like so many other sports parents, spend all of my free time watching practices, matches, and driving around to different tournaments.

Tennis mirrors life in so many ways. I love the lessons in sportsmanship that tennis teaches my kids every day. They learn about winning and losing. They learn that the harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed. They learn to play fair. They also learn that sometimes life is not fair and there are those who do not "play by the rules." They are put in situations like being down 2-5, 15-40 in the 3rd set and then find out they can fight their way back. You can’t get that kind of education in a classroom. All of these are GREAT lessons for life.

I am intrigued with every aspect of the game, whether it involves tactics, strategy, conditioning, or technique. My great escape in life is entering the "tennis world” on weekends. My wife and children and I have developed great friendships. We have also had to deal with those few “insane” tennis parents we come across, which, frankly, is rather amusing.

With all of this as backdrop, let me now state up front that my reason for writing this letter is NOT about me or my kids. My top priority for my children is their education. They will not likely be professional tennis players. Our main goal is to keep them busy with tennis (by competing, exercising and having fun) as they develop. If they work hard enough, they will be able to choose whether they want to play tennis in college.

In fact, my reason for writing this letter is as follows: The deeper I have gotten into the tennis world over the last several years, I have come to see that there appears to be a destructive bureaucratic/political elite within the USTA that, frankly, is in the process of hurting junior tennis and, consequently, the future of American tennis.

As a parent of two junior players, I had been hearing rumors for months that the USTA was planning changes in its National Junior Competitive Schedule. Because the USTA had already reduced national opens by 50 percent and eliminated some of the Level 3 events in 2011, I couldn't imagine it would ever reduce opportunities to play national level events even more. But how wrong I was!

As you may or may not know, the USTA Board of Directors approved a proposal at its annual meeting in March to radically change the competitive structure for American junior players, beginning in 2014. Compared to the 2011 schedule, this new structure will reduce the total number of competitive opportunities for junior players at the national level by about 50 percent. The reduction in opportunities for national play outside of one’s region will be over 75 percent. These changes will most radically adversely affect those players ranked below the top 30 or so nationally.

If you are as frustrated as I am that American tennis has been on a steady decline, both professionally and at the college level, with more and more colleges giving scholarships to foreign students because American players are falling behind, as well as, the loss of college teams, the loss of high school teams, and the significant loss of tennis courts in major metropolitan areas, then I hope you will join me in urging the immediate reversal of the USTA’s "new rules" for juniors competition.

Time is short. These “new rules” have been approved by the USTA but not yet implemented. Therefore, this letter is a direct appeal to the members of all USTA sections to work to reverse these changes before it is too late. Using the specifics of the USTA’s own proposal I would now like to discuss how these changes will negatively affect junior tennis.

First off, I believe we can all agree that it is very important that juniors to be exposed to as many different opponents as possible. However, the new national junior schedule will limit players in the 14-18 age groups to a total of 512 opportunities to play outside their region. These 512 opportunities are spread across seven Level 1, Level 1A, and Level 2 event dates. That is an average of about 73 opportunities per event date.

In the existing schedule, there are between 2,304 and 2,432 opportunities for players to compete against opponents from outside their region. These 2,300+ opportunities are spread across twelve Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 event dates. That is an average of at least 192 opportunities per event date.

In the 2014 schedule, however, only two events have as many as 128 opportunities, and they are concentrated in July and August. In the current schedule, the four National Level 1 and four National Level 2 events each have at least 128 opportunities. Three National Level 3 events each have 256 opportunities, and the summer National Level 3 event has 512.

Click here to read the new USTA competition structure

The following is an outline of the USTA’s own rationale for proposing these changes, all of which – and more – can be found on its website.

The USTA’s stated goal is to “prepare an appropriate national tournament structure and rating/ranking system for the future which:

is affordable and will ensure that competitive tennis opportunities are available for all American juniors regardless of their economic circumstances and where they reside.

supports the importance of a traditional American education and does not require students to short-change their academic careers.

creates an environment to generate a base of more and better American junior players to fill the ranks of collegiate programs and, for the most outstanding of these, become potential future American professional champions.”

USTA’s 2010 schedule allowed juniors the opportunity to play against a wider variety of playing styles and gave players greater flexibility in scheduling their national play. In the new schedule, however, if a player misses the July-August competitive period, he or she is basically going to be eliminated from national ranking contention for that year.

This slashing of the number of competitive opportunities is troubling. But there is more: The USTA will be re-instituting the “Good Birthday/Bad Birthday” dilemma for national level juniors. A player born in July will always be the youngest player in the national rankings and national tournaments. Without full-sized national championships at times other than the July-August window, the USTA is retreating to the problems associated with “birth year” age control dates. Beginning in 2014, a September birthday will be treasured, while players born in July and August will pick another sport. Has anybody at the USTA ever read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?

It is difficult to justify corralling all players within their regions – and then only allowing the very best players in the nation the opportunity to compete against out-of-region opponents. Reducing out-of-region playing opportunities by at least 75 percent makes no sense from a developmental standpoint, to say nothing of how it will affect the players motivationally. All players should have the chance to be exposed to as many different opponents as possible within a framework that meets their personal schedule, and not be limited to the very rigid July-August time frame.

There is no justification to reduce the number of competitive opportunities or to require regionalized play just to reduce travel for players and avoid missing school. Because of the reduction in the number of event dates, players will have FEWER choices to make about having to travel and when to play, regardless of how it affects their personal schedules. In fact, reducing the number of national event dates and sites will force players to travel to wherever the tournament is being held! Believing that it will be cheaper for a player to travel to one of four tournament sites across the U.S. would somehow be cheaper than traveling to one of eight sites defies all logic. While some players will by necessity be forced to stay close to home in regional play, those who are admitted to the reduced number of national events being offered will by necessity have to travel farther!

When you have an expanded menu of tournament choices, those choices allow certain events to work into your personal world very well. More tournaments mean – more chances that you have cheaper airfares to a particular city, more drives instead of flies, more chances to stay at a friend's house, more chances to combine a tennis trip with a vacation, etc. When you don’t have these choices, you are left to do the best you can with what is offered.

The result is this: Strong players will have to travel farther at greater costs. Good players will be restricted to play the same players over and over again in their regionally mandated events. Lower ranked players will not get to play national events at all and, in all likelihood, will understandably lose interest in pursuing the game.

This is basic economics. When products are in short supply, one of two things must happen: The price will increase, or the demand will drop. In the case of junior tennis, because of the USTA’s proposals for 2014, both will happen. Some players will have to spend more; others will simply drop out.

It is nearly impossible, especially when you consider their rationale in light of the proposed changes, to reconcile how the USTA’s “ends” justifies its “means.” In fact, retaining the current level of national competitive opportunities will hurt no one. Restricting opportunities, whether in numbers of players admitted, or by geographical location, or calendar date, will hurt every player, and specifically:

Those players who are marginally ranked because of birth date or the radical skewing of the new point tables.

Those players who are members of smaller sections and have to play the same opponents tournament after tournament.

Players whose development is stunted by a lack of exposure to a variety of playing experiences, styles and weather conditions.

Players who will never reap the benefits of being exposed to the top players in the U.S.

Players who get hurt and miss the national tournament season, which is in July and August.

Players who are motivated by the invisible badge they get for playing in a "national" event.

Therefore, the USTA’s newly adopted and now pending changes for 2013-2014 are short-sighted at best and, at worse, could be the death knell for junior tennis in the U.S. Reducing the opportunities to compete in new environments against new and different players will hinder development and hasten a child's boredom with the sport. This will also result in reducing the possibilities of finding and developing future stars, both for college and the professional levels.

It should also be noted that where tennis competition in the U.S. is concerned, the USTA operates as a monopoly. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is basically the United Nations of tennis. The ITF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have declared the USTA the governing body of tennis for the United States

Because the USTA owns the U.S. Open, which purportedly generates over $250 million gross revenue annually, it does not have to share its authority over youth competition as does Little League Baseball or Pop Warner Football within their sports. Ideally, I would prefer free market competition, but with a $100 million dollar net annual advantage, the likelihood of this is remote. Therefore, since the USTA occupies this unique "bureaucratic" position in the sport, changes must come from within.

Fortunately, the USTA is governed by its 17 volunteer sections. It is through these sections that meaningful changes must take place in regard to the direction of youth tennis, specifically with this issue of the reduction of national level competition for players ranked below the top 30 or so in the U.S.

In fact, the largest sectional association, USTA Southern, voted against the proposal. This section's officials painstakingly analyzed it and were unwaveringly against it. They came to understand how detrimental this really is to junior tennis. Southern section officials voted against it, despite the possible political consequences from USTA higher-ups

Speaking of organizational politics, I would urge each of you, especially those who are now working in or with the USTA, to look at this issue ONLY through the eyes of someone who desperately wants what is best for the long-term health of the sport and its players, present and future. It is admirable to work for or serve the USTA, whether as an official employee or as a volunteer. But this is NOT a reason to support a proposal you know will be detrimental to the sport of tennis – and this proposal certainly will be that.

As I have noted, the USTA is basically a monopoly and in-house changes, once they’ve been adopted, are difficult to come by. When the USTA eliminated national play for 12 and under players in 1989, it took 10 years to undo this mistake! If this newly adopted schedule is not changed before it is officially implemented, it could affect a whole generation of U.S. tennis players. At first glance, the goals in the proposal may seem admirable. But a closer look will prove that these reductions in opportunities for all but the top players are not only unfair, they will ultimately kill the future strength of the sport.

As parents, coaches, players, and friends of tennis, we must now all speak up and demand that our sections INDIVIDUALLY re-examine the 2013-2014 proposal, using all available expertise at our disposal. I urge you and those in your section to look at the USTA’s goals in this proposal and its implementation factors. Contact your section president, let him or her know you oppose these changes for all the reasons I have stated.

As well, go onto the USTA website and read its own documents on this matter for yourselves, especially the position statement titled “A USTA Junior Competition FAQ: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Proposed Changes to the USTA National Junior Competition Schedule.” Think about the questions, and the USTA’s answers to their own questions. You will see, as I have, that final adoption of this proposal will not only severely limit our kids today but will do long-term damage to junior development and all kids’ affinity for the game.

After reading the Q&A, it will become clear that ostensibly the USTA’s proposal basically amounts to taking opportunities from everyone because some may be more challenged (whether by financial means, where they live, or when they were born) by the national schedule than others. This is wrongheaded. In a country as great as ours, the USTA can and should find other, more creative ways to help those who have challenges, including, in the case of financial concerns, even assessing a fee from all players at tournament registration that would go into a scholarship fund for those players who do need assistance. But to restrict opportunities for all based on an arbitrary analysis aimed at helping what amounts to be a few, is backward-thinking. In fact, as you will see after reading the proposal, the entire idea is flawed at the outset.

When you talk to juniors, coaches, tournament directors, umpires, and parents at junior tournaments, which I do almost every weekend, almost all are against these changes. It is clear that if any junior tennis players, coaches, tournament directors, and parents were consulted, the sample must have been very small.

In closing I want you to think back to the old USTA Level 3 National events that were steeped with tradition – Copper Bowl, Gator Bowl, Peach State, St. Louis Gateway, etc. Many players were introduced to the national competitive scene though these great events – but this is no longer the case since these were swallowed up by the present USTA Level 3 Regionals held on only four weekends a year. With their loss, the only national exposure a player can get is through the USTA Nationals, which are now being drastically reduced. I cannot believe this is what the USTA intended with their adopted proposal, and I urge you to join with me in reversing this action.