Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:52AM; Updated: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:52AM
Now comes the move to Evert's academy; for the first time the USTA will be able to house up to 20 juniors, and its 18 coaches will be able to work with players for more than the occasional week-long camp. "If I'm going to be held responsible," says Paul Roetert, the managing director of USTA player development, "I would like to have some control."
Whether that's a good thing is, in tennis circles, a matter of endless debate. The USTA's image in the game veers dangerously close to Paris Hilton territory: rich but dim. Some $10 million of the USTA's take from the '06 Open will fuel the search for the next Andre Agassi, and while it's not close to what, say, the French tennis federation spends, it's enough to cause widespread resentment among parents staring down $20,000 to $50,000 in annual expenses. The USTA backs a select group of promising juniors with $10,000 grants and wild cards, but the 19-year old Querrey broke out this summer almost entirely without USTA help. "The USTA picks its own group at 13 or 14 and sticks with them even if they fall off the charts," says Querrey, who didn't get a grant from the USTA until he was 16. "They could do a better job of spreading the money around." The current No. 1 American in the 16s, Brennan Boyajian, thus far has received no help from the USTA.
"They kind of ignore me," Boyajian said last month. "I have no idea why."
Roetert is much higher on a junior named Rhyne Williams. Yet the USTA's support only makes his uncle, Mike DePalmerJr., nervous. "I'm very worried," says DePalmer, who has coached Boris Becker and Mark Philippoussis. "He's 15, got a temper and he's playing 18s and under. The kids are a lot stronger and he's losing and it's fueling his attitude problem on court, which the USTA is doing nothing about. And my sister, because the USTA is paying for everything, wants to listen. But it's the wrong way to go."
Most tellingly, the USTA still has no mechanism for supporting the coaches who've done the most to produce talent. For example, if a 17-year old like Querrey had wanted to bring his coach, Grant Doyle, to the USTA/Evert academy, Doyle would've had to pay his way -- and lose any lucrative court time he might have with other students back home. "I've had Brian Barker with me since I was 11," Blake says. "If the USTA could have helped and maybe just dealt with some of the financial issues when you're starting out on tour, just made sure to take me to training camps with Brian there, helping us with the rigors of starting out on tour, that would really help. You got there for a reason. You usually have someone that helped you get there. It would help for the USTA to get involved with the players' specific coaches."
Now, it should be said that there's no more convenient whipping boy in tennis than the USTA. But shoved along now by the momentum of his own hype, USTA chief executive Arlen Kantarian ignores the central historic fact of American tennis: No Open era Hall of Famer arose from a centralized bureaucracy. The modern game has been built on developmental anomalies like Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters, on self-promoting zealots like Macci, and parents will continue to trust those teachers with their little stars -- and resent the USTA for not financing them. But it's almost too late for backtracking: The legends have signed on. No one from the USTA wants to walk before a roomful of reporters now and say, "It was never our job to find the next great American. We're just here to promote the game ... "
It's strange. There's a central theme the USTA -- and TV programmers, and nearly everyone else -- has taken on faith: If Americans are winning Grand Slams, then more Americans will watch, and more will play. Yet the departure of Andre Agassi points up a counterintuitive truth. Here we are, waving goodbye to the last of a great generation of American men, to an era that featured the best player ever in Sampras, one of the most charismatic ever in Agassi, plus Jim Courier, Michael Chang, the incomparable Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati and Davenport -- black, white, Asian, Grand Slam winners, Americans all. And yet their presence created no tennis boomlet in the U.S. On the contrary: Tennis has slipped even further from the American mainstream. Kids are playing golf, PlayStation, extreme sports. What's to say anything will change if another Agassi comes along tomorrow?
"To blame the USTA is too easy," Macci said. "The world's a big place; it's more of an international sport now. But there are talented kids here who are not molded and taught weapons; there's no reason we shouldn't dominate the sport still. But it's not happening. And it's going to get worse."