Youth tennis: The More Things Change …
26 years ago, Arthur Ashe wrote about what it will take to develop young players. His ideas are as important now as they were then.
In 1987, Arthur Ashe wrote an opinion column in the Washington Post titled “More Young Players, Less Early Pressure Might Cure U.S. Tennis Doldrums.” Ashe said how it was improbable that a U.S. man would win the Wimbledon title that year (Australian Pat Cash won), and how that “has spawned a number of opinions on solutions to the current mediocre state of U.S. tennis at the highest levels of the game.”
Ashe at the time was co-chair of the USTA’s “Special Committee on Player Development,” charged with recommending how to “make the United States No. 1 again.” While he acknowledged he needed to provide a fair hearing for all points of view, “I do have some ideas of my own,” he wrote.
As it turns out, many of Ashe’s ideas, particularly related to youth tennis, are as important and valid now as they were more than 25 years ago. In fact, some of his concerns, especially about young players having to “change their games” as they get older, are now addressed with 10 and Under Tennis, as kids learn the fundamentals correctly using shorter, lighter racquets, on shorter courts, with red, orange and green balls.
Here, reprinted with permission, are excerpts from his column in the June 28, 1987, edition of the Washington Post.
“The problem, I believe, is two-fold. First, we need to create a much larger group of junior players between the ages of 8 and 11. This automatically will allow for more selectivity for advanced play. Secondly, the most talented of these players need more and better coaching and support earlier in their development.
“Unfortunately, the United States simply has too few superior athletes learning tennis at an early age. Our studies show that the typical nationally ranked junior is a member of a private club … But clubs have not historically produced athletically gifted players, nor could they possibly provide a critical mass of them from which would emerge a large, permanent pool of talent.
“All 17 USTA sections have tennis introduced at selected elementary and junior high schools where a USTA/National Junior Tennis League follow-up summer program is available. These two programs will help make tennis a natural option for talented youngsters …
“Along with overtures to public schools, attention should be paid to our public parks … 90 percent of those claiming to be serious players said they played primarily on public courts. It would seem to follow that more junior events and quality instruction in public parks will result in more juniors in more events at more sites.
“Once this country’s youngest talented group emerges … the players begin a destructive chase for a high sectional or a national ranking at the expense of the long-term development of an all-around game.
“It is difficult — impossible at times — to convince parents of promising 13-year-olds that their children need to change their games … Yet we know that what wins at age 12 or 14 probably will not win at age 18 and up …
“I also believe we could provide more competition for more juniors at much less cost if we made regional or sectional events just as important as a handful of national events.
“I believe something must be done to stop juniors, parents and coaches in their ill-advised, destructive pursuit of a ranking up to age 15. Another study of past 12-and-under national rankings since 1972 showed no correlation whatsoever between a high national ranking and professional success.
“Another dilemma is the tenacity of some teaching professionals in holding onto their prized pupils. Few instructors or coaches have all the answers. So many of our best juniors are woefully deficient in the basics …
“One solution would be to have groups of coaches assume responsibility for all the talented juniors in a particular geographical area … The collective pride of the group would force constant reappraisals of their young pupils’ games.
“This collectivist approach leads me to my final recommendation. Our best juniors are singled out much too early for their own good.
“The primary unit of competitive junior programs should be a team of at least a dozen boys and girls. Team integrity should remain as long as possible to assure three desired outcomes: 1) to keep a feeling of peer pressure that forces all players to give their best efforts all the time; 2) to create an environment where improvement and a well-rounded game can be institutionalized; and 3) to create a vehicle for which fund-raising is easier. …
“There are other solutions, of course, such as more clay court play and smaller courts for beginners … I hope our present leading professionals can hang on until our fortunes are revived.”