Can the USTA fix American tennis? Or is it all talk?
Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:52AM; Updated: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:52AM
Since the USTA began devoting itself to finding the next Andre Agassi, it has been able to take partial credit for just one great singles player -- Lindsay Davenport.
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Rick Macci has himself a live one. She's 11 years old, her name is Dominique Bell and "she's the most incredible athlete I've seen since I've been doing this," the South Florida tennis coach said last month. "There's no doubt this kid can be No. 1 in the world. Can't miss."
Hype job? Maybe. Macci was the man who once trumpeted the all-world talent/sex appeal of notorious never-was Monique Viele, and his penchant for overstatement can't be overstated. But he also coached a young Jennifer Capriati and Venus and Serena Williams, and when he says his newest prodigy is "Venus and Serena combined, and throw in Kobe and Iverson," it's hard not to listen. For what it's worth, Tim Heckler, president of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, has seen Bell and is nearly as effusive. Still, since the extrapolation of any 11-year old's future is less science than crapshoot, the most instructive thing about this may be the fact that Bell has yet to hit the radar screen of the U.S. Tennis Association. Macci has received no financial help with Bell from the organization that has become the de facto fix-it shop for the American game and, he says, "they're not going to do it. I've had this discussion with them for 15 years."
In earlier, more star-spangled days, this wouldn't matter much. But after the worst U.S. performance at Wimbledon in 95 years stamped the current state of American tennis as piteously lean, the media howled and four of the nation's legends sprang into action. John McEnroe floated his proposal for an eponymous academy at the USTA's National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadow. Chris Evert agreed to make her academy in Boca Raton, Fla., the USTA's new headquarters for player development. Connors signed on to coach the flailing Andy Roddick. And Billie Jean King, the chairperson of the USTA's Player Development committee, issued the Fantastic Four's manifesto against homegrown mediocrity. "The past champions -- we are all in this together now," King said at a news conference in August. "We're not happy unless we're winning."
That kind of talk has eased at this U.S. Open, what with Roddick, James Blake and Lindsay Davenport progressing into the second week. But it doesn't change the fact that the U.S. tennis pipeline is producing less crude than ever. Or that the effect of the summer's high-profile announcements was to further cement the highly political, thickly bureaucratic, still unproven USTA as the party responsible for finding the next gusher.
"All those guys there?" said Macci of the USTA player development staff. "They say the right things. But they never deliver."
In the 18 years since the USTA began devoting itself to finding the next Andre Agassi, it has been able to take partial credit for just one great singles player -- Davenport. By design, the organization has long been a bystander in the process, applauding loudly as the best tennis talent rose through the hands of private coaches like Nick Bollettieri, Robert Lansdorp, John Wilkerson and Macci. But when the talent dried up for reasons no one can agree on, the USTA became the easiest focal point: The Open is the sport's ATM, after all, with this year's tournament alone expected to provide $110 million for the organization. Eager to show it's doing something, the USTA's ever-changing leadership has spent the last decade launching initiatives, changing strategies, making dramatic announcements like the one just four years ago that it was opening an 18-court, "high-performance" facility in Carson, Calif., as its West Coast hub for top-rated juniors. Carson has been useful but, said top American prospect Sam Querrey, "there's not a lot of action there. A lot of times I go and it's just me and another guy."