An expert on competitive junior tennis says recent changes are putting kids, and their families, in jeopardy.
There has been a sea change in the world of competitive junior tennis over the past few years, creating a wave of problems never anticipated by the gurus who initiated the new system. This has been echoed by hundreds of parents alarmed by the adverse affect the new system has had on youngsters.
With its multi-age group format, the Easter Bowl junior event reflects how the many changes impact players and their families. The most recent changes have caused families and coaches to face an increasingly complex dilemma: If they want their kids to compete at the highest levels, they are now faced with decisions that significantly impact a family’s financial situation, and more importantly, their child’s development and education.
A recent survey conducted at the Easter Bowl shows that families of juniors playing competitive events spend an average of $30,000 a year. In addition, the kids are missing an enormous number of school days, on average 22 days a year, with many opting for home and/or online schooling. With only a minute percentage able to make it as pros, this is putting in jeopardy what are almost guaranteed college scholarships for ranked players.
This has all been exacerbated by the implementation of a new points-per-round system as well as the points-packed National Opens. In what was meant to encourage more players to compete instead has had the unanticipated effect of pressuring competitive players to chase points that have little to do with developing their game or capabilities. Today, National Opens are worth such an excessive number of points that top players who can qualify by other means are entering them just to accrue points or get immediate entry into National Championships (the top three in every National Open gain entry into National Championships). In some cases, they are depriving spots to kids for whom National Opens were initially designed to benefit.
Because the USTA has no control over the ITF, families that have the resources are now sending their children all over the world to build up their ITF points in order to qualify for the junior grand slams.
Unless something is done soon, these problems will actually discourage top juniors from competing in junior tennis in the U.S. That is why those in competitive tennis, coaches and USTA officials in charge of developing talent would like to see a system that emphasizes national competition that is based on talent and encourages head-to-head competition among their American peers.
Part of this plan is repositioning National Opens as regional championships that provide a competitive opportunity for sectional players. Tied into this would be to return to three National Championships and an Easter Bowl as a top-rated, reduced-draw, top-level national invitational, which would attract the best players to compete against each other in this country — closer, cheaper and more convenient.
The job of the USTA is to provide incentive for those who want to get involved in the game as well as develop young talented players who can possibly make it as pros. Right now the system is trying to address both issues with one broom. The result is the diminishing quality of top USTA championships, a misplaced focus on ITF and pro events, and the danger of too many turning pro. Moreover, there is a domino effect when lesser players chase USTA points in order to qualify for National Championship spots left vacant by those chasing ITF points.
This now puts a special obligation on the shoulders of the many personal and USTA coaches to provide a reality check. In speaking to more than 50 top coaches as well as former Easter Bowl champions, many question the value of competing around the world rather than going head-to-head with one’s peers. If we are to change junior tennis for the better, coaches and families have to speak out on this growing crisis.
One glaring problem in the development of competitive junior players is certainly financial. Despite some support from the USTA and sections, there is not enough financial support to meet the growing demands both for equalizing player opportunities as well as for major tournaments.
I take pride in the fact that the Easter Bowl not only has been voted the most popular tournament among players, but also is recognized, through Seena Hamilton & Associates, for pioneering the marketing of junior tennis and for being a valuable vehicle to reach a teenage market, attracting sponsors such as Gatorade, American Airlines, Völkl Tennis, LG Mobile Phones, and Fiji Water. Moreover, the event has generated more than $1 million for the community and brought national attention to the important trends and issues of the game.
There is a huge need to increase financial support both for junior players and events. Those companies who profit from the tennis business and want to see it grow might do well to rethink where they put some of their promotional dollars and enhance their image through focused sponsorship of events that not only help tournaments, but also accrue to the benefits of players.
See all articles by Seena Hamilton
About the Author
Seena Hamilton is president of Seena Hamilton & Associates, a PR event marketing consulting firm, and is a former editor, author, and broadcaster. Hamilton, who founded, owns, and manages the Easter Bowl tournament, has been called "the most dynamic and influential individual in the history of American junior tennis." Through seminars and surveys, she is credited with bringing the important issues of the game to public attention.