A Red-Faced Moment for American Tennis (Or are They Green-Faced Moments in U.S.?)

Andrea Collarini

Start with an image: Teenager Andrea Collarini, the Argentine-turned-American claycourt specialist, walks onto a clay court in the U.S. with his coach, Diego Moyano. The United States Tennis Association hired Moyano away from Argentina, too, to work with Collarini and teach Americans about clay court tennis.

So he and Collarini walk onto the court together for maybe the first time in the U.S., and their arms are out as if they are tightrope walkers. They are walking carefully, afraid they’ll fall.

OK? I’ll get back to that. Now this:

One thing is bugging me. And I think it’s another example of why the USTA isn’t having success developing top players. We’re in the red clay season on tour, which is the red-faced season for American tennis. We can’t play on the stuff, but it’s now generally accepted as the ideal learning ground.

Well, the news Monday was that for the first time in the 38 years since they’ve had computer rankings, no American player, man or woman, is in the top 10. It might be the first time ever, even before computers.

The USTA, led by player development chief Patrick McEnroe, is trying everything from putting all top juniors together at a central training facility to letting them stay near home in regional ones. Also, the USTA has put in clay courts, protected struggling low-level pro events that are on clay, and moved a top junior tourney to clay.

It is either a calculated, precise effort to develop American tennis, or they’re just throwing everything at the wall and hoping something will stick.

To me, the USTA effort is a mess. 1) It can’t even get along with the guy who was considered for years to be its top prodigy, Donald Young, who recently wrote on Twitter: “Fu—USTA!!’’ 2) It was so desperate that it bought another top prospect, Collarini, who was born in the U.S., but grew up in Argentina and learned all his tennis there. 3) The top of the game lacks Americans. 4) The up-and-comers are hitting a ceiling. 5) No one is about to emerge. 6) There is an incredible shortage of good coaches.

I keep telling myself that maybe that’s a little unfair. Maybe a governing body can’t build a champion. Maybe it will come together somehow, someway, some time.

Then we get to the efforts to get U.S. juniors learning on clay.

“Developmentally,’’ McEnroe said when announcing that the Orange Bowl junior tournament would be moved to clay, “you learn how to use the court a lot better, you learn to hit more balls and construct points (if you learn on clay).’’

One problem: The U.S. isn’t teaching how to play on red clay. It’s using green clay, called Har-Tru. I’m not even sure if, technically, that stuff is clay. It might be, but it plays like gravel. The ball doesn’t bounce the same on green clay as it does on red. You don’t slide into a shot on green clay the same as you do on red. There is nothing wrong with Har-Tru; it’s just not close to the red clay they use anywhere in Europe.

Whatever you learn on red clay, you cannot learn on green.

When Collarini first came to the U.S., having grown up on red clay, the USTA wanted to see if he could be great, but also if he could help Americans figure out clay. So one of the first times he walked out onto a U.S. green clay court, he. . .

Fell down and hurt his arm. Remember the image about Collarini and Moyano walking like tightrope walkers? That’s what Collarini told me, and it was because they were afraid of whatever that green clay was.

I mean, Collarini was a finalist at the junior French Open, but couldn’t stand up on the stuff the USTA uses to teach American kids the benefits of learning on clay.

“Yes, there is a difference,’’ McEnroe said. “But I think if you maintain the court, meaning you keep them relatively damp with a lot of clay on them, it does slow things down and it does get kids sliding and get used to shot selection.

“In an ideal world, I’d love to have a whole bunch of red clay courts, that’s true. But the bottom line is that economically, that’s not feasible. I think green clay, it can do a very good job.’’

What? The USTA is working on a $300 million plan to renovate stadiums at the site of the U.S. Open. And it can’t afford four red clay courts at each of its training centers?

I asked a USTA official what it estimated the cost difference to be. He said he’d look into it, but never called back.

Meanwhile, the argument, too, is that tennis is the No. 2 sport across most of Europe, but just a niche in the U.S. So top American juniors go to other sports. Maybe so, but industry numbers show that junior racquet sales in the U.S. have been skyrocketing.

“Look, obviously we’d love to get the pick of the litter, but I’m telling you there are plenty of kids out there playing right now who are damn good athletes,” McEnroe told The New York Times. “Our job is to do a better job of coaching them and mentoring them, and I think, quite frankly, we fell behind in that department as a country overall in developing players from a technical standpoint and a strategic standpoint.”

McEnroe has only been head of development for a few years, and seems to remove himself from blame. Judge him in a few years, he says.

We’ll see if this works. Some of it is luck, some of it just goes in cycles. But this red-faced moment for U.S. tennis will last years.

Or in the U.S., are they green-faced moments?

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

2 responses to “A Red-Faced Moment for American Tennis (Or are They Green-Faced Moments in U.S.?)

  • Steve

    The “not economically feasible option” is some kind of joke.

    I was in Croatia last month and every court I saw was red clay. Croatia is hardly an economic powerhouse.

    Clay courts don’t require much maintenance once whoever uses the court sweeps it afterwards.

    It’s CLAY for fuck sake, MUD.

  • Gus Fernandes

    One think that USTA can do is invest more on high performance coaches. Coaches that have played the game at a high level, have exposure to high level tennis and make the profession of high performance coaching realistic. The US is a huge country, unrealistic to have a center training and developing facility. Good coaches (not the guy who once play in high school and works at a country club part-time) are essential to the game and developing talent in a regional level. Ask my fellow Argentinian Diego moyano (I think we go way back playing itf tournaments since we were 13). I bet he would agree with me

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