A High-Performance Network
With dozens of tennis academies participating from around the world, the Prince Plugged In program is raising the level of junior competition.
At 14 years old, Mitchell Krueger of Aledo, Texas, is already a four-year veteran of the T Bar M Tennis Academy in Dallas. While his tournament experience took him last October to the red clay courts of Spain, he recently benefited from a different type of cultural tennis exchange: a trip to Rome, where he and his academy-mates matched strokes with some of the best juniors in the world through the Prince Plugged In (PPI) program.
Established by Prince four years ago as a player-development initiative, PPI is working to revolutionize junior competition, training, education and development by connecting more than 50 of the world’s elite high-performance tennis academies into one network. Coaches and players share training tips, equipment insights and match strategies while engaging in a year-long series of round-robin team competitions called Prince Challenge Cups.
Even though the T Bar M Tennis Academy emerged as the PPI champion representing the U.S. for the 2007-08 season (more than 40 tennis academies in the U.S. participate in the PPI program), the IMG/Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy of Bradenton, Fla., paid its own way to also participate in the inaugural PPI World Championships from May 2-6 in Rome. It turned out to be a worthy investment, as the IMG/Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy swept the competition overseas to earn the title of world champion.
The other competing academies were Tenis Val of Valencia, the PPI champion of Spain; Club Sant’ Agnese of Rome, the PPI champion of Italy; Club Sochi of Sochi, the PPI champion of Russia; and Totally Tennis of Basingstoke, England, the PPI champion of the United Kingdom.
“Playing on the red clay was fun, but the best part was traveling with my friends,” says Krueger, one of 60 juniors who lived with Italian host families while competing in more than 250 singles, inter-age group doubles and mixed doubles super tie-break matches. On court at Club Sant’ Agnese, the juniors enjoyed the spectacular surroundings of a 2,100-year-old mausoleum whose ancient ruins frame the tennis courts. Off court, they benefited from guest speakers, training sessions and trips to the Vatican, Coliseum and other historic sites, and tickets to the Italian Open qualifying tournament.
“The team atmosphere is fun,” Krueger says. “Even if I lose my match, I still have the chance to cheer for my teammates and pull them through to a win. I like the format because it’s different from what we normally do.”
Sixteen-year-old Chris Camillone, who has trained for five years at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School Tennis Academy in Austin, Texas, says the high level of competition in all of the PPI Challenge Cup events is good preparation for regular junior tournaments—with the added excitement and intensity that comes from striving for a shared goal. He has also enjoyed the opportunity to meet juniors from other academies through PPI.
“From a development standpoint, it’s awesome to hit with other kids and see a different type of ball. You can watch their mannerisms and pick their brains about what they’re learning,” says Camillone. “[PPI events] have a good, neutral atmosphere where you can talk to anybody about anything.”
Ken Merritt, director of teaching programs at Prince, says the PPI program was born out of the company’s desire to help the many individual academies with a common goal: providing the level of competition and support required to enable juniors to become the best players they can be. While academies must apply to become affiliated with the PPI program, he says, participants may be sponsored by any equipment manufacturer.
“It’s amazing to think about how fast and far this program has grown in four years,” Merritt says. “While [juniors] come from different places and speak different languages, their experience with PPI has been the same. This is a chance for the players and the academies to measure themselves against players from other parts of the world.”
Dave Licker, director of junior tennis at the T Bar M Tennis Academy, agrees the competition will only get stronger as more academies sign on.
“I travel around the world to junior events with the kids I coach, and I can honestly say that the year-long PPI program and this culminating event are unlike anything else available to top juniors and their coaches,” he says. “Prince has built an incredible, inclusive format based on a team concept and on-court coaching—something most kids do not experience in top-level junior tennis, but which are crucial to their overall understanding of how to play matches and compete.”
Nick Bollettieri, founder of the IMG/Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, agrees that the PPI program is a powerful tool in teaching juniors the importance of sportsmanship and how to compete and win.
“By connecting academy students and coaches around the world,” Bollettieri says, “we are promoting the sport, facilitating the abilities of potentially great players and cultivating the next great champion in the process.”
Nick Fustar, co-founder of the Eagle/Fustar Tennis Development Academy in Santa Clara, Calif., calls his decision to apply to join PPI in early 2007 a “no-brainer.” With so many juniors ultimately pursuing college tennis, he notes, it makes sense for them to practice competing as a team.
“It’s great for the kids to get a sense of what college tennis would be like,” Fustar says. “The team bonding they go through makes them hungrier to train and practice than any other junior event out there.”
While PPI is designed around a team concept, individual results are also recognized. In fact, 35 of the best-performing boys and girls from all age groups (18s, 16s, 14s and 12s) during the 2007-08 PPI season were invited to showcase their talents to college coaches and recruiters at the first-ever PPI All-American Individual Championships, which took place during the NCAA Division I Championships in Tulsa, Okla., in May.
Courtesy of the USTA, the winners in each age division at the PPI All-American Individual Championships were awarded wildcards: for the 18s, a main-draw entry into a Futures event; for the 16s, a wildcard into the qualifiers of a Futures event; and for the 14s and 12s, main-draw entry into the prestigious Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships.
Krueger, who hopes to play college tennis someday, says he and his fellow academy juniors appreciate the exposure and opportunities that come with their participation in PPI. His main goal in the program, however, is more immediate.
“We should have won [the PPI World Championships], but we lost to a good team in Rome,” Krueger says. “We’ll be back to beat Bollettieri’s next year.”
Prince Plugged In academies are located in seven countries, with expansion planned for academies in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific Rim. For more information and a downloadable PPI application, visit princetennis.com.