Every year, we are bombarded with propaganda about player development. It is as if a huge stigma exists if there aren’t lots of players from the United States doing well in the United States Open.
Monday began with a long news conference on the subject, featuring the top two people in the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s player development program. One was Patrick McEnroe, who said he was resigning his Davis Cup captaincy to focus on player development. The other was Jose Higueras, who lives in Palm Springs, who won 15 tour tournaments in the 1970s and early ‘80s and who has been a successful coach of several past and present pro stars.
The message from the USTA was the same as it always is. We are pouring heart and soul into this. We will get back to the days of Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier; Evert, Austin and Navratilova. The implication is always the same too. We are spending lots of money to get there.
A few hours later, along came the sad juxtaposition of reality.
In the featured men’s match of the day session, Mardy Fish of the United States played Novak Djokovic of Serbia. Now, here was a chance to compare: Fish, from the tennis horn of plenty, versus Djokovic, from a place where just finding a tennis court could be tough, much less having men around with pockets full of cash to resurface it and put up lights.
“He kicked my butt,” said Fish, who was spot on in his assessment of the 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 result.
With six days to go, that left two U.S. players in the biggest U.S. tournament, Sam Querrey and Venus Williams. Querrey got help along the way from the USTA, but we all know who developed Venus. Thank you, Richard Williams.
The point is that measuring and establishing credit for player development is impossible, even silly. All the weeping and gnashing of teeth over who does what for whom, and who should get the pat on the back, is much more political and guilt-soothing than it is real. It’s as if the USTA, which backs up the Brinks’ trucks every year after the U.S. Open, needs to justify its fat bank account to the world and the gospel of player development is a politically correct way to do that.
Pumping money into grass-roots tennis is fine, commendable. But its results are way too intangible to measure, or to feel a need to take credit or blame.
The real point is that, although U.S. tennis fans like a nice homegrown face on their center court at key moments, they are fine with anybody from anywhere who is a great player, has a great personality and provides great entertainment. Will the nearly 25,000 people filing into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday for a Rafael Nadal- Roger Federer final — if that comes to pass — do so with long faces and feelings of being shortchanged, one being from Spain and the other from Switzerland?
Of course not.
If the USTA feels a need to justify its existence by perseverating on nationalism and parochialism — and newspapers and other publications act like lap dogs with stories and headlines about the current decline of U.S. tennis — so be it.
But let’s see it for what it is: overdone, unnecessary, self-perpetuation.
The morning news conference ended with former Spanish star Higueras being asked if he was a U.S. citizen. He said no, but he prefaced that with the perfect answer.
“I love tennis,” he said, “and if somebody likes tennis, then more than likely, I like him or her also … It doesn’t matter what language they speak.”
For this, the USTA deserves credit. They put a guy in charge who gets it.