Even the youngest boys think in terms of adult rewards. Butch Buchholz, a former top player and now the chairman of the Lipton International Players tournament, says, "We had the jump back in the early '70s, but then free agency came into team sports, kids saw that they could get just as rich playing baseball or football, and tennis lost the edge we had just for a moment." Moreover, notwithstanding a lot of Fourth of July-style rhetoric, American tennis has hardly ever reached into black communities.
In a country in which tax-supported school sports are dominant, in which baseball and football are further buttressed by quasi-public Little League enterprises, a young boy or girl of modest circumstances who stumbles upon tennis ends up competing on his or her own against rich kids with private tutors. Hence, potentially superior athletes often are beaten at first by more privileged ones, and they hurry back to team sports, where they have an equal chance. "I didn't win a match that whole first summer I played," says Billie Jean King, "but immediate gratification is so important now in our society. How many kids today will hang in there?"
The wealthier survivors are then handed over to entrepreneurs who teach a franchise game. "They go to camps on a conveyor belt, where all they're taught are a forehand and backhand by some guy out to make a buck," says Navratilova. Although Navratilova didn't single him out, the best known of the tennis-camp gurus is Nick Bollettieri, who continues to turn out kids who can crush a forehand but are clueless when it comes to serving and volleying. Three years ago three Bollettieri prot�g�s, Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein and Carling Bassett, looked to be on the verge of greatness. Now, however, all three seem to be going nowhere fast because they essentially play the same way they did when they were 14—a backcourt game of attrition.
American tennis sophisticates love to chortle about how the cookie-cutter Commie Czechs and bland, lifeless Swedes are all cut from the same mold. In truth, some of the best Czech and Swedish players have been encouraged to develop very personal, even idiosyncratic, styles. Democratic, heterogenous America is where all the best young players go in numbing lockstep. All too often, the yuppie parents and the entrepreneurs-cum-coaches want instant success, and there's no USTA leadership to intercede and direct the kids for the long haul.
Says Jack Kramer, "All we develop anymore are kids good at winning the 12s and 14s [age groups] with funny grips and strokes. All our best talent gets locked into kids' games."
"They grow as better athletes in Europe," says Evert Lloyd. "You know how Jimmy and I were bad models? We never played other sports, and these kids today copy us. It worked for us, but it isn't good." Indeed, as youngsters Navratilova, Lendl and Becker all excelled at soccer, and most of the Swedes played soccer and hockey.
It costs $30,000-$40,000 a year for a kid to play the U.S. junior circuit, and often the price on precocity is even higher. Says Gladys Heldman, who was the real godmother of women's pro tennis, "The richer the junior players we get, the more they get sidetracked with all this extraneous stuff—jogging and physical fitness and special nutrition and getting it together with their guru—when the kids would be better off forgetting all that and just hitting the ball. Apart from Bill Tilden and Sidney Wood, American champions were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. They just played."