I want to warn you that this month’s article is not about fitness (and may actually anger you), but it is very important nonetheless. I wanted to share some experiences and thoughts from my personal athletic career (something I rarely do) as well as my own two cents on why America is struggling to develop great tennis players at the junior level, which in turn causes college coaches to recruit outside of the U.S.
For those of you that do not know, I actually grew up as a swimmer. I swam during college at South Carolina and competed in the Southeastern Conference. I had the opportunity to practice with Olympians and National Champions on my own team, and during conference dual meets, we competed against the likes of Ryan Lochte, Eric Shanteau, Kara Lynn Joyce and a host of others on a weekly basis. Take a moment to Google those three; look at their world rankings and compare that to tennis. It would be the equivalent of competing against Roger Federer or Nadal on a weekly basis – at the college level!
Over six years ago, I made the switch to solely focusing on training tennis players. Yet, I have become increasingly concerned with the question of why the US is failing at developing World Champions consistently. This problem seems so obvious to me but not to the rest of the tennis industry. By the way, the last American man to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick in 2001. The last American female to win a Grand Slam (aside from the Williams sisters) was Jennifer Capriati in 2002.
I have heard the excuse that tennis is now a world-wide sport, but this is not a legitimate excuse. Look at swimming: The U.S. has led the Olympic medal count in swimming over the past 50 years. The U.S. has won 520 total swimming medals (220 are Gold). The next closest country is Australia with 171 total medals.
Here’s another popular excuse: “All the good athletes are playing sports like football, basketball and baseball.” This, again, is nothing but a cop-out. U.S. Swimming is so deep with athletes (and we swept the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals so often) that we are only allowed to send two swimmers per individual event; the rest of the world gets to send three. Just imagine: you are the third-fastest swimmer in the U.S. (which means you are probably third or fourth in the world), yet you cannot represent your country at the Olympics.
When comparing the success of U.S. Swimming (that gets virtually no media coverage aside from the Olympics) to the lack of success in U.S. Tennis, I have come up with two main conclusions:
Swimmers, from top to bottom, are flat-out more committed than American tennis players. How many tennis players, honestly, would wake up at least three mornings a week and go to a 5 am practice for two hours and then go to another 2.5 – 3 hour practice every evening? What about another 3-4 hour practice on Saturday morning? Most swimmers that are Sectional-level and above practice at least 24 hours per week. Most tennis players could not be bothered to play more than six hours per week. I cannot tell you how many times juniors complain of having an 8 am match during tournament days – even at the Sectional level.
American tennis juniors also have a lack of commitment with their program. (I will go into more detail on the power of a consistent message and training in a student’s program below.) Oftentimes, when a tennis junior encounters a struggle that is a natural part of development in sport, they jump ship and head to another program. In contrast, swimmers stay on their club team for years, through good times and bad.
One of the most clear-cut reasons that the U.S. is not developing great tennis players is the fact that it is extremely uncommon for a tennis player to be in one program for their entire development. Typically, a tennis player will hit in multiple programs each week with different coaches who have different methodologies. In my experience thus far, I would wager to say the vast majority of tennis players go to a minimum of six different programs during their junior careers. In swimming, however, it is very uncommon for a swimmer to transfer to another club team. The only way that this might happen is if a family is forced to move to a different part of the country or state.
The two swimmers listed below were both developed through my club team from the very beginning, and I had the opportunity to train with them daily for multiple years (both of these girls were Top 50 in the World in their respective events by the end of their careers):
- In high school, Liz was the #1 recruit (both male and female) in the country, 2x Missouri Swimmer of the Year, 2005 ESPY Athlete of the Year, and a 16x HS All-American
- In college, Liz swam at Stanford University and was a 12x All-American and PAC 12 Individual Champion (among many other awards)
- At the end of her high school career, Jessi was a Top 10 recruit nationally, placed 3rd in the 50 Free at the US Open and was a 3x HS All-American
- Jessi was a member of the 2005 National Championship team at Georgia, team captain her senior year, an 11x All-American, a National Champion on a relay, and an American Record holder
I could list many more accomplished swimmers that came out of this same club team, but I am doing my best to keep this article brief.
One thing that I did not mention about the two girls above is that they are world-class swimmers in completely different events. Not only did they swim for the same club team for 10+ years, they developed in different ways. Liz could not be touched in the breaststroke or IM, while Jessi could burn everyone in freestyle events 200 yards or less. Did Jessi get to train against the two girls that beat her in the U.S. Open on a daily basis? No. Did Liz have any girls during practice that could consistently help her raise her level in her events? No.
How is this possible? How did Liz and Jessi develop into world-class swimmers without getting to train daily alongside other swimmers who were faster than them?
Take another look at the honors listed above for the two girls. Both are world-class swimmers and both got full scholarships to their respective colleges. But did they get a scholarship during their high school years to continue swimming for the club team that they were developed through? Absolutely not.
If they were tennis players, what would have happened when they achieved such enormous success during high school? They would have been offered full scholarships to different academies and programs around the country that want to use them as marketing material to bring in lower-level players to fill slots. These academies and programs did not develop them and likely would not further their game. The academy or program giving them a scholarship would simply hope to keep the girls close to their current level so that, down the road, they could say that they developed the girls.
This is one of the biggest issues that tennis faces today. Everyone wants to go hit with the best people without doing any research regarding who truly developed those top players.
The simple fact is that most tennis players across the U.S. do not find a program that is effectively developing players and stick with it for years. They tend to do little to no research, take the professionals at their word, and jump from program to program – following the “best” players and hoping that something will rub off. This short-term thinking has not produced great American talent in some time. And, if a change is not made, it will continue to be a struggle for the U.S. to develop top talent consistently.
So, how did Liz and Jessi continue to raise their level on a daily basis and eventually become world-class despite having no other world-class people training alongside? The answer is simple: they had a great coaching staff who knew what they were doing (and had a proven track record of success); they had the support of their teammates; and, they focused on competing against themselves and getting better little by little each practice…..and they stuck with this program for their entire junior development. They truly had commitment and consistency with their development.
This article is not meant to be depressing. Rather, this is a HUGE opportunity for tennis players in the U.S. to change their future and the future of U.S. tennis. But, they have to be willing to be the exception to the norm and do things differently. It is a scary thing to truly go after your goals and hold nothing back. After all, what happens if you give it everything you have and it is still not good enough? A tennis player that finds the correct program (one that is actually developing players), believes in it and sticks to that program for years, and is willing to put in the hours and focus on improving every day, will play high-level college tennis. No question about it.
The only question is: how many American tennis players are willing to be different? How many are truly willing to sacrifice over the course of many years and put themselves through the long hours and the many ups and downs that are required to succeed at the highest levels?
From my personal experience, the sacrifice is well worth it. And I would do it all again without a moment’s hesitation.
By: Michael Farrington
Director of Fitness| Manager of Operations
Grand Slam Level Director of Fitness and Injury Prevention