Hot Debate Continues on USTA Changes to Junior Tennis 12:00PM EDT October 20. 2012 - http://www.usatoday.com/story/sport...a-changes-junior-tennis-10-and-under/1642239/ In its earnestness to grow the game of tennis and create the next crop of great American champions, the United States Tennis Association has introduced sweeping changes designed to broaden the talent pool and generate interest in the sport from the bottom up. But several of its initiatives have drawn the ire of coaches and parents nationwide, many of whom consider its methods authoritarian, its initiatives mandates and its management style inefficient and ineffective. United by a common dissatisfaction with the current regime, and spearheaded by a new breed of tennis activists such as Fox News' Sean Hannity and celebrity coach Wayne Bryan, a wave of debate has surfaced on blogs and chat rooms and in widely distributed emails and letters. They are being heard. On Sunday in Chicago, interested parties will meet with USTA executives for a second time to air their grievances on recent changes made to junior competition schedules. "I think that the dialogue is good, and we're going to continue that," Kurt Kamperman, the USTA's Chief Executive of Community Tennis said in a phone interview. "We're just listening, and we're hearing concerns, and we're taking their viewpoints and perspectives into consideration." Viewpoints vary, and Kamperman and colleagues have faced a backlash from those affected by a variety of structural changes in junior tennis. "The easiest thing for a national governing body to do is keep the status quo," Kamperman said. "To make changes in order to get more kids involved, that's hard. We knew we were going to take some hits." The hits definitely came. "The deeper I have gotten into the tennis world over the last several years," wrote Hannity, father to two junior tennis players, on his website in June, "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." Hannity wasn't the first to speak out. In January, an undated letter by Bryan, the father of doubles champions Mike and Bob Bryan, found its way onto Facebook and went viral. Bryan, like many other coaches in the USA, was irritated that the USTA had begun to require all players age 10 and under to play with specified low-compression balls instead of giving them a choice in the matter. "The green ball mandate was their biggest botch," says Chuck Kriese, a junior tennis coach and one of the winningest coaches in college tennis history at Clemson University. "It was the wrong thing to do, to mandate that." The USTA views its program, backed by a slick advertising campaign that featured First Lady Michelle Obama and tennis icon Andre Agassi, differently. "It's interesting how critics have categorized this as a mandate," Kamperman wrote on the website Tennisinsiders.com. "It is actually a rule change that's been put in place by the ITF, the USTA and almost 200 other countries. The reason we changed the rules for 10 and under competition was simple -- we had to or TAUT (10 and Under Tennis) would fail." Critics of TAUT believe there should be room for interpretation. "A little autonomy goes a long way," Bryan wrote in his letter. "Let the marketplace decide." Many also feel that the USTA got the age wrong. They argue that 10-year-olds should have progressed beyond the softer balls and smaller courts that the initiative requires by that age. "The USTA has built a half-mile bridge over a 1-mile river," Bryan wrote. "Jump street is age 6, not 10. Ten is too late." One positive repercussion of all this heated debate is that it has given a previously marginalized stable of teaching professionals and parents a sense of empowerment. Thanks to social media, those with a passion for tennis and objections to the current policies are now finding avenues of expression. "There are more ways for people to be heard than there used to be," says Colette Lewis, who provides extensive coverage of junior tennis through her website, Zoo Tennis. "That's because of the rise of the internet and social media. Information is just much more freely available than it ever has been." But Lewis doesn't feel that the efforts of Bryan, Hannity and others have caused the USTA to change its thinking -- yet. "I haven't seen any evidence that they've changed the way they think," she said. "But I'm hopeful that they're more open to change." In her two decades of closely observing junior tennis in America, Lewis has noticed an alarming trend. "One of the difficulties that the USTA has had forever is in the way it's structured," she said. "An unpaid volunteer is the president of the USTA for two years, and then they move on. In a way it's good because you don't get entrenched incumbency and that sort of thing, but in another way there's a sense that within two years you have to make changes to make your mark." "I think that a lot of the dissatisfaction that you hear with the USTA is frustration with the fact that it's very difficult for them to stay the course on any implementation of any plan," Lewis added. Hannity's beef with the USTA centers on another hotly contested issue in junior tennis: the ceaseless quest for ranking points. In an effort to reduce the amount of travel required to sustain a high ranking, the USTA recently voted to reduce competitive opportunities for juniors on the national level by more than 80% at all age levels by 2014. By eliminating some long-standing national-level tournaments completely, and reducing draws in others, they hope to place new emphasis on regional development. "You have a lot of people playing in the NBA and the NFL, until they went to college they never left their home state," Kamperman says. "What we're trying to do," says Jose Higueras, the USTA's Director of Coaching since 2009, "is limit the amount of traveling that some of the kids do, and also upgrade the level of quality at the nationals. I think we'll save some money for a lot of people that cannot afford to travel, and the level of the nationals will be better. My feeling is that it will help everybody." Hannity, who claims his children have no interest in ever playing tennis professionally, has offered to fund an objective poll on the proposed junior competition changes. He believes that more kids will get hurt than will be helped by the changes and blames the USTA for failing in its mission of growing the game. The complexity of the issues can be overwhelming, and the USTA's dual role in growing the game among recreational-level amateurs while simultaneously trying to satisfy the public's craving for the next Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi creates an unavoidable conflict at times. Patrick McEnroe, hired in 2008 as the USTA's General Manager of Player Development, has taken criticism from all angles. Together with Higueras, McEnroe has developed a coaching philosophy that they believe will enable a return to prominence in a sport that has gone global and left the Americans without a top-10 player on the men's side. "It's going to take some time to see that what we're doing is going to work," Higueras says. "In my opinion, with the amount of people and the facilities we have, we should be pretty close to the top if not at the top." The philosophy of Higueras and McEnroe, based on a blueprint that aims to better equip young American players for the demands of modern tennis, the USTA's Player Development program has been the subject of a wave of criticism, too. "Having observed it up close and personal for the past 23 years," Bryan wrote, "I say USTA Player Development has been and continues to be the biggest impediment to the growth of tennis in this country." Tim Mayotte, who was hired to run the USTA's new regional training center in New York in 2009 -- one of three sites funded and run explicitly for the USTA's Player Development program -- experienced what he said was was a disconcerting lack of management presence during his short-lived tenure. He left the program after 18 months. "I don't understand how you could start a new facility, put millions of dollars into it, and then not bother showing up in the first nine months it is operating," he said in a phone interview. Mayotte's experience on the inside left him with the impression that organizational rigidity was hampering the growth of the group of 40 children he was hired to develop. "My experience there was a complete lack of curiosity about new ideas," he said. "My frustration was that I openly approached Jose, Patrick and a number of other coaches there -- Jay Berger (the USTA's Head of Men's Tennis) in particular -- and I said I had concerns about the philosophy that Jose had put together. There was just very little room for debate on how to implement that philosophy." Mayotte said that the New York training center left him without a mission statement and kept him in the dark when making new coaching hires. When they did send him coaches, he says they were better equipped to coach older players rather than the 8- to 12-year-olds who primarily populated his program. "You're supposed to have a grade-school teacher and they bring in a college professor," Mayotte said.