Zootennis: My Response to Wayne Bryan's Letter to the USTA-PT1

In case you missed it, here's a long response to the long letter. I especially like the FINAL paragraph (but that's at the end of PT2).

A couple of weeks ago, an undated letter by Wayne Bryan found its way to Facebook and then out to the Tennis-Prose website, generating a lot of attention in the junior and college tennis communities. At the time, I sent out the link via twitter, promising a response, but I needed time to think about it and then time to write about it, which I didn’t have with the Plaza Cup, Australian Open, Les Petits As and ITA Kickoff Weekend the past couple of weeks.

Because Bryan’s letter is very long and tends to go off in several directions at once (there are multiple 1)s, 2)s etc. rather than consecutively numbered items), it’s difficult to know where to begin my comments, but I’ll start at the top, after a couple of disclosures.

I know Wayne Bryan better than he knows me, having covered many of his clinics, demonstrations, and presentations at junior tournaments and conferences over the past eight years. He loves tennis and is a lot of fun to be around at these events, and his humor comes through in this letter as well. I have no knowledge of his private coaching background and whether he still is involved in developing young players.

In the past year, I’ve had assignments for usta.com, covering both the NCAA and Kalamazoo tournaments for them. That doesn’t make me an employee, but I suppose it could be seen as a conflict. More important in the context of this response is that I know many people on the current USTA Player Development staff and consider several of them friends, not just sources or contacts. Much of what Bryan advocates, especially the “Get rid of USTA Player Development altogether,” is not just unrealistic but inflammatory. It minimizes the passion, work ethic and dedication of these USTA employees, who, after all, want the same thing Wayne Bryan wants: American tennis players at the sport’s highest level. That said, the USTA is for all intents and purposes a monopoly—the equivalent of the US Postal Service before UPS and Federal Express (and email) began competing with it. Monopolies are usually big, sprawling organizations with little incentive to listen, although the volunteer nature of the USTA board of directors does add an unusual twist to this analogy. Most coaches and parents feel unable to voice their opinions to the USTA, no doubt feeling such candor may cost their child a grant, a wild card or a camp invitation. Or, they simply don't know who in the organization would be appropriate to contact with their concerns.

Wayne Bryan doesn’t have to worry about the ramifications of his opinions and by speaking his mind has given everyone who cares about American tennis a catalyst to explore ways to improve it, and the questions he poses at the end are a very good place to start.

I suggest you open the letter in a separate browser window, so my comments can be seen and followed in the context of what he’s written.

Beginning where he begins, with 10-and-under tennis, I can’t say I disagree with his objection to the unilateral, top-down, this-is-the-way-it-will-be approach. One solution I heard that I think would have been more palatable would be one, just one, national 10-and-under tournament with full court and regular balls, with the remainder the new format.

Bryan later suggests a free market approach to all the 10-and-under events, which is intriguing, if a little optimistic in its projections, but initially he goes on and on about starting kids earlier than 10, which isn’t an issue. No one is advocating having kids wait until they are 8 or 10 before they pick up a racquet, although there is almost universal agreement that other sports should be part of a child’s recreation options until they are at least 12, a balance he, more than anyone, would be expected to advocate.

As far as ad campaigns, I’m always interested in seeing the visibility of the sport increased, and if Bryan has studies and numbers showing advertising isn’t effective for sports and entertainment, tennis wouldn’t be the only entity eager to see them.

I agree it would be ideal if all the USTA Player Development coaches had children who excelled at tennis the way his sons have. But if those children have other interests, I don’t see how that makes their parents incapable of being good tennis coaches.

I’m no fan of committees, or even chain-of-command, which is why owning and operating my own website is a perfect second career for me. Craig Tiley, now tournament director of the Australian Open, didn’t take the USTA Player Development position that eventually went to Patrick McEnroe partly because he felt the USTA committee structure made decision-making too cumbersome. But what is the alternative to a committee? Is it a vote of every USTA member? The Board of Directors? Every section’s employees? A poll? A focus group? One strong voice of authority? If this is a structural problem with the USTA, how do we fix it?

I’m sorry I can’t feel Bryan’s outrage for the little boy who now can’t reach his goal of being No. 1 in the South in the 10s. I guess I’ve been brainwashed by all the coaches who have told me the goal is to keep improving, that rankings are irrelevant in the younger age divisions.

But if playing up isn’t truly viable, there’s always an alternative. Bryan mentions a new circuit for 10-and-under players with full courts and regulation balls, which, as a true believer in competition, I applaud. There is also the Little Mo circuit, which even has an 11-and-under division, and it offers the standard equipment and courts.

If I were the USTA, I would take Bryan up on his bet of 100 kids with vs. 100 kids without 10-and-under. It’s an experiment worth doing if he’s serious.