Tennis Coach
Author

FEBRUARY 2020

Changes to the USTA

Player Development Program

Brian Elliot

January 2020

The public analysis question is, how can the USTA Player Development change their program to enhance male tennis players success in grand slam events. As a pro tennis coach, I voice my concerns and solutions about the professional American tennis players over the last decade. Since 2003, there has not been a single American grand slam winner according to the ATP tennis site career and stats of Andy Roddick US Open and Andre Agassi Australian Open. There are 4 tennis tournaments that are played on clay, grass and two hard courts. American male tennis players are failing to meet the requirements of winning grand slam tennis tournaments in singles. I believe I have solutions to make positive changes that we must implement in the player development program for future American tennis players to succeed in national and international grand slam tournaments. Coaches heavily rely on a player’s performance on court.

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This relationship directly effects how the game of tennis is being played. Upon entering the 21st century, USTA Player Development has adopted a baseline structured tennis game. Since the advancements of technology, tennis has become a faster and more powerful sport. This result changes tennis tactics. For example, tennis has moved away from serve and volleying to baseline rallying. What has also changed dramatically is the player's grip on a racquet. The USPTA has turned away from the traditional Eastern Forehand and relied more on the Semi-Western grip to enhance more topspin. Technology has also enabled a person fewer complications in hitting a tennis ball with more power, making it harder to win grand slam singles titles. I am going to now focus on men’s tennis game only since it has been since 2003 since an American male has won a slam. Serve and Volley.

There are two things needed to improve American tennis. There are four major slam tournaments and professional male American tennis players need to find a way to win each of the slams, this leads to goal number one. The first goal is to enhance male professional American tennis players’ chances of winning a major tournament (UsOpen, Wimbledon, French, AO). To increase the player's success at a slam, the USTA must change their current professional tennis policy on what modern tennis is and how it is developed. There are all different ways to play the game of tennis but there is great commonality between the best of the best. That common item is time. The second goal is to make tennis players more adaptable to different surfaces which may include a hybrid grip that Roger Federer & Andre Agassi have adopted over the years.

The past and current modern concepts of the USPTA tennis world:  Within the USPTA organization, there is an ancient and a modern style of tennis. In the olden days, players used to serve and volley and play with a continental or eastern grip. Now a day, players are playing with a semi-western grip and attack from the baseline. According to the United States Professional Tennis Association, teachers are not supposed to teach the old ways because technology has brought about the change to the “modern” game of tennis. Players today rather not serve and volley and focus solely on what topspin can do for a player’s game. In a sense, it feels good to swing a racquet as fast as you can with a westernized grip and watch the amount of topspin a player can generate. But In reality, a person can generate just as much or more power by hitting a drive or flatter ball. Here is one idea about its power and its influence on tennis.

Data being Objective. If I am speaking about the facts, data shows that tennis from the USA last man in a final was 2009 if Wimbledon and winner was 2003, both from Andy Roddick. Roddick also was in the finals of 2006 US Open, and Wimbledon in 2005 & 2004. As for Pete Sampras who won 14 grand slam titles, he has played with an eastern grip won 14 titles, lastly was 2002. Andre Agassi lastly won in 2003 Australian Open and finals in 2005 US Open. The facts speak for themselves and the results are leaning more towards a commonality between all of those players. In other words, what did all 3 of these players have in common that they were able to stay on the top of the game for so long? We will come to the answer at the end of this segment.

Topspin and the myths: As a professional coach and a student of the game, I can understand why people like to hit with topspin because I was once a user. To be fair, western grips has its advantages but at a professional level, has many disadvantages. A big problem is that it becomes an equalizer, what happens when the opponent across from you also hits with the same topspin as you do? You now have a coin flip and the outcome become either player. The USPTA is implementing topspin, but it may not be for the better. There are many factors in tennis that create a winning game. But if a person were to look at how to play tennis from a USPTA’s point of view, it would seem a little more than biased. Western grips have claimed to be more consistent based on its ability to generate topspin which propels the balls to go over a 3-foot net and into a court within 36 feet past the net. The fact is that a western grip has more variables than an eastern which increases your probability to make an error. But that is not the answer we are looking for. The answer we seek is what do we need to do to create a winning man or woman on the professional tour on consistent bases?

Minority to Majority ways to think: If a player is trying to promote an eastern or a continental grip, he or she would definitely be the minority. Under becoming the place of change quoted, this way of looking at change is to view output rather than the process. In professional tennis or since the change to the new era, the only American male tennis player, named Andy Roddick has won a Grand Slam title (US Open 2003). The new tennis era is dominated by Roger Federer, winner of 20 grand slam titles and plays with a hybrid grip. Former American tennis player Pete Sampras held 14 grand slam titles and played with an eastern grip. Agassi, another 8 slams with a hybrid grip.

 

“Un-Slam-Worthy” in the past: There are many key elements of why American tennis players are not winning grand slam titles.  According to the ATP tennis site, Roger Federer is a 20 times grand slam winner. Federer has the ability to change grips as he quoted, if you want proof or objective point of view, look at the range of his finishes. Federer’s ability to adjust to different shots is what makes him so great. The reason that he can adjust is that he has different grips which promotes different shot selections. Federer can play the ball on the rise; he can break off incredible short angles and also play higher balls from deeper in the court. In tennis, some courts play faster than others which will make a tennis player like Federer adjust accordingly. The problem here for many topspin hitters is to drive a tennis ball or hitting the ball flat/less rpm. If that is the case, look at someone like Andre Agassi who hits with a hybrid but was slightly more semi-western than Roger Federer’s grip. A person should drive a ball for hard courts or grass while western grips are only better suited for clay tennis courts.  Since many American players play with semi-western grips in the modern era, the dominance on hard court and grass has depleted over time.

 

Therefore, coaches must teach upcoming professional players to adapt to a hybrid grip to hit both flat and topspin balls. It is much harder for a player to hit flat with a semi-western than it is for a player hit flat with a hybrid eastern grip. With simple physics at hand, it’s obvious that a tennis player would have more consistent results on a tennis court if hitting a tennis ball required less complex variables and an increase in plus-minus time. Coaches need to implement new teaching tactics to junior tennis players in order for them to succeed in singles. Strategy for teaching American amateur tennis players must change in order for the United States to once again dominate the field grand slam singles events.

 

Creating ways to enhance the player development program:  American Professional Tennis players are not even mentioned as favorites to win any of the four slams. There are four tournaments that have different surfaces, one grass, one clay, and two hard courts. A grass-court plays faster, meaning, a ball will stay low and not rise. A clay court, however, will decrease a tennis ball's velocity which will cause it to be a slower court than the rest. So what is the problem? Since clay courts play slow, more players that grow up on the dirt will develop a semi-western or a western grip. This grip allows players to hit with topspin and produce more power off the ground when the ball has no pace. The USPTA says, “The primary grip is now semi-western” (USPTCAM, 2012, p.311). Over the past decades, the game of tennis has taken a major turn due to technology. Technology allows players to hit harder and swing faster. The initial problem is that Professional American tennis players are all using a version of a western grip that rely on topspin for success. Current evidence even supports that more European players are increasingly doing well on faster surfaces. My argument indicates that since American tennis is using semi-western or western grips, the playing field is now even and clay courters have better chances at winning on hard courts, now more than ever. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are 2 players that have used Eastern grips in their careers with Agassi using a hybrid. Combined, they have 42 grand slam titles and are currently the two with the highest grand slam tournaments won.

 

The USPTA has a definition of the new game of tennis which they call modern tennis. Modern tennis leads the game of tennis away from what we need to do. Possibly, technology is the biggest reason for this problem. Because the tennis racquets are lighter, children under the age of 10 will grip a racquet as a semi-western and over time, the racquet rotates as their hand gets bigger which produces an even greater semi-western or western grip. It is to the USPTA’s understanding that the semi-western is a more consistent shot because it utilizes topspin. Topspin essentially allows a player to hit over the 3-foot net and land in the opponent's 36-foot square. An eastern grip generates more power over feet per second and the height above the net is lower as the ball travels to the other side. Does this produce more errors? No! But can a person hit flat with a semi-western on a consistent basis? Unlikely! But we need to be hitting the hard drivable ball more often than topspin. When a person has a semi-western grip, your probability of miss hitting is greater and has more complex variables than an eastern grip. The return of serve that generates more power favors the eastern grip as well. If a player could generate a hybrid grip, it would increase his game that has more potential of winning. Hybrid grips scored the highest on the matrix. With a score of 335, hybrid grips seem to be the most player-friendly because it could possibly generate more wins on the professional tour.

 

Instinctive vs. Logical (Mathematical) Tennis: In high school, college and the pros, coaches have been influencing the game of tennis. It now influenced the game of tennis in a different way with multiple philosophies and ways to approach the game of tennis. It helps players by having a professional coach tell you what you are doing wrong on the tennis court. However, some coaches’ advice is misleading because it's more subjective or what I can describe as instinctive coaching based on what they know which can again be (subjective). Subjective meaning to be based on personal opinion and not facts. Coaches can easily forget that the on-court player also has a mind of their own and that they think differently than we do. But ultimately, it comes down to finding a pathway to the pro tour. Today, I am not talking about how just to make it on the pro tour, but I also ask, why an American male tennis player has not been able to reach a grand slam final in almost 10 years. On the men’s side of pro tennis, there is no dispute that power is a big factor. By power, I mean, “TIME”. As it was the highest in the matrix, the game of tennis would change dramatically when you give your opponent less time on a tennis court to hit a ball than you are receiving. It increases your chance of winning based on your increase time with the ball vs. your opponents. Before time is given, a player must understand how to increase their stroke time and decrease their opponents.

 

Stroke “Setup” Time vs. Ball speed “Actual time”- A common myth that I hear is that a player has less time when they serve and volley. It may seem that way because a return of serve can be faster than the serve plus the angles on the ball. But one must also think that if a volley is being set up correctly that there is much less time involved from the racquet's point of view than if a player was to hit a groundstroke. A ball does lose more speed over time so a volley is more likely to hit a faster ball but with little to no movement to hit a volley. A groundstroke requires: racquet take back, racquet path forward with wrist and vertical lift. My concern here is that westernized grips may be using more court requiring too much time to set up. If ball speed continues to increase, trying to cover more court will be harder to handle. Since tennis does require angles and time variations, the game of tennis is evolving to a point where Western Grips may take too long for players to hit a clean consistent shot. Less extreme Western grips help with time and set up to hit forehands making a player hit with just as much power and control.

Criteria

 

Avoiding negative side effects:  In relevance to tennis, this would mean that we would try staying ahead of the curve and not fall behind by not being in contention at grand slam events. It is unavoidable that the game of tennis would change again. When baseline players were beating out serve and volley players, the game changed. When technology came out to decrease an opponent’s time to react, the game changed. But what has happened to American Tennis? I heard that a lot of our athletes in the United States play other sports and are not taking up tennis. Sure, we can say that, but my theory which I believe is that we are not playing the game with the best of our ability. The good part about changing the game of tennis now is that we have nowhere to go but up. Juniors would benefit the most because they have had more time to work with a hybrid or new tactical changes. Pro players that are aggressive would have an easier time than players than a player who is used to never missing a ball or playing not to lose.

 

USTA adaptability to change:  Welcome to the face that change will produce better results on the tennis court. If there is a proven way for American pros to win grand slam finals, we should support and be behind the change 100%. In sports, there is always a better way to improve the sport and changing the sport has the potential of drawing more members to the sport. Why change now? It is easier however to change a losing strategy into a winning one by simply applying a change to test the theory in gaining results. If something is not working, you need to change the system to make it work. Many results have shown that the Europeans have dominated tennis and that tennis in the United States has failed in the result department. Roddick only winning one grand slam and has struggled to beat competitors after winning the 2003 US Open Grand Slam, especially because of Roger Federer.

 

Time to expect results: With the right player, I would not need much time to change a player’s game tactically and strategically along with a one-dimensional production. but to experience winning multiple grand slams will take quite a few years. Given the fact that grand slams are months apart and there are few in quantity, currently, there being only 4 per year. The chances of an American winning one slam after my changes, I can do it within 2 years' time and within 1 year with the right player.

Technology: Racquet makes a big difference in the game of tennis. Technology is the number one influence that the game of tennis has changed. Technology has changed the feel, the stroke, and all other elements to the game of tennis. Since the racquet can swing faster and with more pace from the body. The eastern forehand now has what I called the hidden power. Since there is minimal brushing on the ball with an eastern grip, the impact with the ball creates an extra force that gives the ball an extra oomph off the forehand. Game improvement frames tend to be more powerful. They are designed to allow a player to generate more power with less effort. Fun fact, Nadal and Sampras have both been max around 5000 rpm, even though Sampras plays with an Eastern Grip.

 

Pro player satisfaction is a risk but that is reasonable considering the facts. The facts are that many pros can take a gamble when switching into winning strategy. If a player is doing well in tournaments and we do not change. But the last American final male tennis player was 2009. The pros can accept change with the droughty results. The future junior pros will be fine with the change because they will eventually understand the reason to change. I am already convinced that a winning strategy is shown by results, not just landing on the tour.

 

Coach’s satisfaction: Since coaches will also be affected by the change. Most of the influence on players will come from the coaches and the coaches may have a hard time understanding or adapt to a flatter game of tennis. These changes have a lot to do with coaches' understanding and willingness to change or adapt in order to see their players succeed on the pro tour.

 

Audience members or recreational tennis players are another biggest influence to the alternatives. If there was no audience or person’s playing the game of tennis, the sport of tennis would become extinct. Therefore, keeping the audience happy to watch tennis and playing tennis is the most important aspect of the sport. The audience can accept the new challenge within tennis because it would improve their game as well.

 

The results of the criteria say that hybrid strokes are the way to go. The audience would like to see a new tennis stroke developed into their own game like Roger Federer does to produce wins. When changing the game of tennis to improve professional tennis, tennis programs have to look at the cost. There really isn’t a big cost that stands out in the development program other than the cost of racquets. If junior tennis players are hitting flatter balls, it is more likely they will have to purchase a smaller framed racquet to gain more control when hitting a ball. Changing to the USPTA program and coaching would only be effected.

Scoring the Matrix:

  • 5- Represents highest most favorable within the category

  • 4- Favorable but with some concerns

  • 3- Good Advantages but comes with the risk of more disadvantages

  • 2- More concerns and risk than good

  • 1- Not utilized at this time

 

Matrix: What can increase male professional tennis player success in Grand Slam tournaments?

Goal: Make tennis players more adaptable to different playing surfaces

Goal: Make tennis players more adaptable to hybrid grips

Goal: Increase the chances of winning a major tournament, UsOpen, Wimbledon, French, AO

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