The USTA thinks Ten And Under Tennis is the answer to increasing participation in junior tennis.
It's no secret American tennis has a problem--and has for years. A drought atop the world rankings, dwindling participation at the junior entry level. Our sport is retracting.
The numbers don't lie. Participation in the lower age group tournaments has been dropping steadily for years now. Entry numbers, particularly in the ten and under divisions, are drastically down.
Is the lack of a marquee box office player killing the interest of potential young players? Are the dwindling numbers of younger players shrinking the pool of potential pro talent to the point that we don't have the same stable of athletes to draw from any longer? Good questions.
As to possible answers, a rift has emerged in our sport between the centralized authority of the USTA and certain segments of the private sector, including media figures who assert they speak for the tennis community and know better.
This faction took their grievances about the decline in US tennis public two years ago. What has transpired has been a multi-front assault on the USTA.
The USTA has devised a new learning system named TAUT (Ten and Under Tennis) that they hope will reverse the dwindling participation numbers. Smaller court dimensions, lower nets, lower compression balls--serious changes.
More importantly, the new system is mandated. The reason for the mandate is simple. Anything less would be complete chaos.
All I remember thinking upon hearing the news was Hallelujah. As a lifetime player and coach, the lack of graduated learning tools for young tennis kids always puzzled me.
A lot of controversy about the new balls that are slower and lower bouncing.
I picked up the game as an 8 year old back in the early 1970's. All those cute junior rackets, we didn't have those. We learned with dad's extra racket. A Slazenger 4 5/8 Heavy--a 14 ounce slab of laminated wood that required a giant wooden press just to keep it from warping.
Throw in the standard ball that routinely bounced well above your head, it was a wonder anyone stuck with tennis in those early years. Speaking personally, I would have quit in an instant if I wasn't threatened a good spanking with that same God forsaken racket. (For more on the strange tale of tennis life in the Buss family, Click Here.)
Every other sport known to man has graduated learning. Baseball has t-ball, then little league with no mounds and only 45 feet to throw home. Basketball has 8 foot rims with smaller balls, junior golfers use knock off clubs.
Competitions themselves are shorter, with 6 inning games, 8 minute quarters for basketball and football, running time for ice hockey. This list could go on for pages.
Yes, in tennis rackets became much lighter, evolving to aluminum and then to graphite. But still, from the time I was 8 years old, tennis was played with adult rackets on courts with the exact same dimensions as the professionals on television.
The USTA changes to junior tennis are not solitary or new. Europe has been using a similar system for a couple years already, with their entry numbers to the sport building nicely. Red balls, orange balls, green dot balls, new court dimensions, new net dimensions.
Sean Hannity, right wing bull dog, USTA critic, frustrated junior coach.
Some pros here in the states who wanted to get involved were confused at first. But really in a couple hours of study they found they knew what they needed to know.
In my opinion, after a month of using the system, any pro with an open mind will see how effective TAUT was in growing the game at the entry level.
However, not everyone shares my opinion, including many visible and influential personalities, among them former Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewit, celebrity tennis dad and coach Wayne Bryan, and bizarrely, Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, among others.
If you aren't a Fox News fan and you've never heard of Sean Hannity. He is a vicious right wing polemicist, an avid recreational player, and a tennis parent who thinks he should be allowed to coach his son on court during junior tournaments.
The opposition took to the internet to attack. There were multiple wide ranging essays, all with numerous follow ups and rebuttals. Here are a few quotes:
From Wayne Bryan; "I say burn it down and start over again. Carthage must be destroyed."
From Chris Lewis: "The consequences of this dictatorial approach are devastating to player development."
From Sean Hannity: "A typical bedrock position of liberal thinking, and a mindset against which I have railed my entire career in broadcasting."
The opposition has now moved on to petitions and social media pages. Doomsday language filled with pitchforks and insurrection about the imminent death to our sport at the hands of the evil incarnate USTA.
It's a tennis tea party calling for a revolution. The USTA tried to appease these patriots with nationwide listening parties, hoping the movement would lose some steam. Instead they were further empowered.
From personal history I learned Coach Bryan does not always respond well to confrontation.
To me it was crazy and scary. And ok, yes, with some of the protagonists, Coach Bryan in particular, I do have personal history, if I may digress, with a point.
More than a decade ago I played one of his kids in singles, the left handed one. He was 18 and cocky, I was 32 and grumpy. His son started quick serving me and if you have read any of my other pieces on Tennisplayer you can probably guess I didn't respond warmly to that.
When I challenged him, despite the fact that he won the southern California sportsmanship award later that same year, he responded with a stream of profane epithets.
But there was more. Bizarrely, the late Wilt Chamberlin was sitting in the front row. To this day I am not sure what his connection was to the Bryan family, but I did note he was rooting loudly and avidly for my opponent. This was around the time he published a memoir claiming to have slept with 10,000 women.
And ok, yes, he did get on my nerves, so I asked him quite loudly "Shouldn't you be getting laid right about now?"
That worked, as he got up and walked to the back of the crowd. That's when Father Bryan jumped in, yelling at me:
"Stop your complaining and get to playing!"
To which I elegantly responded: "Who the fuck are you and why are you screaming at me?"
Remember I did say going into the match I was a little grumpy. But to this day Wayne Bryan the only tennis parent I've ever had yell at me at a tennis match.
Legend Wilt Chamberlain: the 100 on the card refers to his NBA single game scoring record. In his memoir he added a couple more zeros to a different numerical claim.
A couple of tough sets later, experience triumphed over youth. Winning is always the best attitude adjuster, and suddenly I felt badly for yelling at the famed Coach Bryan.
So I called out to him as he was leaving the premises--twice. But there was no response. Mr. Bryan was not interested in dialogue with someone who challenged him.
And you know what? That experience sheds a lot of light on how Coach Bryan approaches the TAUT mandate. Nobody in tennis tells him what to do. And that's the same attitude shared for the most part by his current compatriots.
Remember now. We are talking strictly about ten and under competition. Really good arguments can be formulated that healthy 8 and 9 year old children should be spending their weekends riding bikes, building tree forts, maybe making up secret passwords.
They can still play lots of tennis in those developmental years. But if we must lug little Johnny off to the tournament sites a few times a year, let's analyze what that is about.
For starters, if you really have a child prodigy, he or she will never play their actual age group. Never have. Never will.
Anyone who wants to debate what ball average 6 and 7 year old kids should be competing with in tournaments should receive a visit from social services.
What about kids a little closer to the cut off age of ten? A super-talented 8 or 9 can play up an age group in the 12's and do battle there. If you are truly made of champion stock, the jump up should be no problem. It's been this way in junior tennis my whole 40 years of involvement. It's not going to be any different today.
Barry Buss, 1-0 lifetime with the left handed Bryan.
The argument being put forth by the tennis tea party is that somehow, if your child does play a couple dozen matches in the ten and unders with green dot balls, their long term development would be irreversibly damaged.
That is a ridiculous argument. The reality is that a young player's future will be determined by their ability to deal with heavy topspin forehands that jump over their heads, biting slices mere inches off the ground, and 125 mph serves to the body.
Remember now, we are talking strictly about ten and under tennis tournaments. The level of outrage by the tennis community can't be about the teaching system; it actually works quite well for those of us who have taken the trouble to apply it on the courts.
This is all about the mandate and the USTA telling these lifetime elite coaches how to do their jobs. They would rather be rolled over by a ball sweeper than have to submit to a higher authority.
And I get their outrage. To a point. Nobody wants to be told what to do when you've spent your whole career doing your own thing and being personally successful at it.
But the point to heed here is that autonomy is not sovereignty. The public temper tantrum by the tennis tea party is all about being told what to do in one small area, an area that happens to be critical for the survival of tennis. These guys are having nothing of that and damaging the sport by their opposition.
Want to read more of what Barry has to say? Check out his blog!