Category Archives: Futures and Challenger Events

I’ll be right back with a Davis Cup preview but let’s look at college sports for a quick moment.

My 95 year old mother is in the hospital so I’m flying home to help in any way I can and that’s why I was sitting in the airport when a woman next to me said into her phone: “So, no news on the kidney transplant yet?”

The words “human rights or somethin’” popped up in the conversation a few minutes later. I can only hope the subject was not illegally harvested organs. My week has been dominated by medical talk. It has also seeped into sports.

National Football League (NFL) player Sean Taylor died from a bullet wound to his leg fired by an intruder who broke into his home. There’s been a lot of discussion about Taylor’s past problems and his college days at Miami, a college known for recruiting rough and intimidating players. Taylor is the third Miami player to be murdered since 1996 and Miami helped start a bench clearing brawl against Florida International that was memorable by any standard.

There are rumors that Taylor’s murder might be linked to gang activity from the neighborhood he grew up in. We don’t know whether that’s accurate or not but you can be pretty sure Sean Taylor was more likely to end up with a bullet in his leg than Heisman candidate Tim Tebow who was raised by missionaries and home schooled.

I’m not espousing religion here, in fact I don’t believe there is a creator. As far as I’m concerned, the universe is continuous with no beginning and no end and therefore no need for a creator. No, I have a different take on the situation.

I believe that many football and basketball players would be better served by going to a minor league out of high school rather than a big-time college sports program. By that I mean a minor league similar to baseball minor leagues.

Or, if you will, tennis minor leagues. A young tennis player has to go through three steps to earn his or her way into an ATP tournament draw. They start by playing futures events then move on to challenger events. When they’ve earned enough points, they can enter the qualifier for an ATP tournament and win they’re way into a main draw.

If the tennis player starts losing too many matches, its back to futures and challengers again, just like a young baseball player who isn’t hitting in the bigs goes back to the minor leagues.

A college football or basketball player, instead, gets a scholarship to college and is immediately handed an easy class schedule and a tutor for every course. This was basketball star Greg Oden’s course load his first semester at Ohio State: The History of Rock’n’Roll and Sociology 101. He got two more credits for playing basketball.

Colleges not only cater to players but sometimes they contribute to their criminal behavior. Tony Taylor had a history of sexual assault when Jim Harrick gave him a basketball scholarship to the University of Georgia. When Taylor was accused of sexual assault again while he was at Georgia, Harrick denied knowledge of Taylor’s past history even though he’d been recruiting Taylor since high school.

Here is a question from Taylor’s final exam in a basketball course – yes, basketball course – he took while he was at Georgia: “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?”

If players, instead, went to a minor league, they’d be responsible for feeding and housing themselves instead of spending the night at a luxury hotel the night before the big homecoming game. If they got into legal trouble, they’d be on their own. If they didn’t play well, they’d be dropped from the team.

In short, athletes would have to mature well enough to manage their own lives. For many players that would be far better preparation for the life of hero worship they’ll find in the pros than three years of a suffocating college sports program that caters to their every whim.

They’d also avoid the misleading designation of amateur student-athlete and be what they truly are: professional athletes.

This is not a conclusive take on the subject. Professional athletes from poor neighborhoods have a difficult time divorcing themselves from childhood friends with criminal records for a number of reasons and I’ll go into that some other time. And my take would shrink the huge commercial operation known as NCAA football and basketball. Good luck with that.

But we owe it to athletes to provide them with job opportunities other than big-time college sports programs. These programs recruit problem players and make a lot of money off them without giving them the tools they need to be mature professional athletes.

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Juan Manuel Elizondo, Radu Albot, Nikita Kryvonos, Michael McClune and Stephen Amritraj all played tennis matches at the Claremont Futures tournament just outside of Los Angeles yesterday. Futures tournaments are one step below Challenger events which are one step below main draw ATP events. Futures events typically feature college and beginning professional players.

It might not look like it but only one of those tennis players has no ties to the U.S. and only one of them has ties to exclusively to the U.S.

Take Juan Manuel Elizondo. He was born and raised in Mexico but his mother was born and raised in California. There is a Mexican Tennis Federation but Juan Manuel never got much help from them and this is a recurring theme in the world of junior tennis. Players from poorer countries get little help from their national tennis associations.

The Lawn Tennis Association of Britain pays Brad Gilbert almost one million dollars a year to coach Andy Murray, for instance, but Radu Albot won’t see much if anything from his country, Moldova, a small country of four million people surrounded by Romania and Ukraine.

Radu trains in Frankfurt, Germany with his coach Djerald Oganezov, a Georgian coach he met at a junior tournament in Germany. Oganezov has helped Radu a great deal and this is important because it’s likely to take Radu at least a few years to reach the top 100 and he won’t make a living on the Futures circuit. Most Futures events have a total prize money of $10, 000.

Radu has no ties to the U.S. but he would have if his family had entered the green card lottery and received one of the 269 slots open to Moldovians. Each year the U.S. government holds a lottery for 50, 000 green cards designated for countries that are underrepresented in the U.S.

Nikita Kryvonos’s family is from Ukraine and they won their green card in the lottery when Nikita was 13 year old. After he won a few age group tournaments, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) began helping him even though he wasn’t yet a citizen.

As soon as he became a citizen, they helped him further by making him a hitting partner on last year’s Davis Cup team for the tie in Moscow. The Davis Cup team hazes new players and Nikita got his share. He had to carry a plate of tomatoes out of the US Embassy after a team dinner. I’ve no doubt that counts as a breach of Homeland Security.

Michael McClune hasn’t hit with the Davis Cup team yet but it can’t be far away. He won the most prestigious U.S. junior tournament – Kalamazoo – in July and that got him a wild card into the main draw at the U.S. Open. He lost his first round match but he did get to hit with Roger Federer for two and a half hours on his 18th birthday. I’d settle for that.

Michael is the player with the exclusive U.S. ties and he’s the only player in the group who has signed with IMG, the sports management company that also happens to represent Mr. Federer. Michael doesn’t have to worry about finding a sponsor to bankroll his next year or two in the minor leagues of tennis.

Stephen Amritraj was born to an Indian father and an American mother and raised in the U.S. with some of his youth spent in India. He is one smart and determined guy. He finished Duke University in three and a half years and played tennis through his senior year despite suffering two torn acls, one in each knee.

He suffered his first torn acl in junior tennis and re-injured his knee the following year playing on the Duke tennis team. At the end of his junior year, he tore the acl in his other knee. In Stephen’s words, “Usually when someone has one you don’t hear about it again let alone having two.” In other words, one torn acl is often the end of a successful tennis career, two is unheard of.

He plans to focus on doubles and is off to Bombay next week to play an ATP level event after which he’ll return to California to play Challenger events.

Since Stephen majored in political science at Duke, I asked his opinion about the Duke rape case. Last year three innocent Duke lacrosse players were indicted for raping a black college student who was hired to strip at a team party. The players were vilified by the national media and local population and the District Attorney brought the indictments without corroborating evidence. The District Attorney was recently disbarred for his actions.

Stephen was not lacking an opinion. While he decried the treatment of the players by the media and the judicial system, “I hate what happened to them, no one ever deserves that no matter how bad they are, ” he also said, “I just want to go on record – you can print this wherever you want – that group of guys had it coming to them.”

It’s easy to focus on the miscarriage of justice in this case and forget some of the things that actually did happen that night. As Stephen put it:

If you look at the facts of that night and what they did, they definitely hired a stripper, they definitely yelled racial epithets at her, they definitely treated her horrendously and disrespected her, and did whatever they could to berate her.

This is one of the reasons I like going to Futures and Challengers events. I know I’ll speak to someone from a small country I’ve barely ever heard of, but I also know I’ll learn more than I ever expected about the country I live in.

Go out to Claremont and watch these young men play the final rounds of the tournament. Go to Futures and Challenger events in your area. You’ll see the next generation of our top tennis players and learn something about the world.


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I love my job. Two weeks ago I went to a futures tournament in Claremont, California, and spoke to a player whose grandfather was a cricket legend in India. Last week I went to a futures tournament further south in Costa Mesa and traveled from the Israeli/Lebanon border to Ghana then on to Basel and the Philippines before ending up in New Mexico. Along the way I learned a lot more about Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis and U.S. college tennis that I ever expected.

Dudi Sela was the top ranked player in the Costa Mesa tournament. Earlier this year he was ranked number 160 but then he broke his elbow during a training accident and dropped into the 300’s. He took the title at Claremont and is ready to climb back up the rankings.

Sela’s hometown, which he stills calls home, is Kiryat Shmona, a small town in Northern Israel two miles from the border with Lebanon. As you can imagine, it’s been the target of Hezbollah rocket attacks on many occasions. Five or six years ago Sela was hiding out with his family in their basement shelter when a rocket blew out the windows and doors of the house. Sela hasn’t lost any family members but he knew people in town who died in rocket attacks.

At one point Sela lived in Paris for a year and practiced with his best friend Marcos Baghdatis. I once asked Baghdatis why he plays so well against top ten players but I didn’t get a very good answer and now I could ask his best friend. Sela’s answer: “Because he’s bored, he wants to play the big guys.” I also asked Sela why Baghdatis is so good. Sela tapped his chest and said, “Big heart, he has a big heart and he’s talented.”

Henry Adjei-Darko is from Ghana. He’s a tall player with an aggressive game and graceful, powerful strokes. When he hits a forehand he jumps into the air and his shirt goes flying as the racket wraps around his body. And this is despite injuring his foot a few days earlier. While he gets treatment for his foot after winning his match, I check into a match with a player from the Philippines, Patrick-John Tierro. I know there aren’t many players from Ghana but what about the Philippines? Their top two players, Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino, were both born in the U.S. and live in Los Angeles but play for the Filipino Davis Cup team.

That’s just the beginning of the U.S.-Filipino connection which has a long history. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a short twenty year trip to Switzerland. Tierro’s coach is Beeyong Sisson, a former ATP player who is a delightful and talkative fellow. I started out by asking my usual question – what kind of support does your country’s tennis association give young players? – and got the usual answer: not much. But then, to my utter surprise, Sisson mentioned that he coached in Basel, Switzerland for twenty years and I immediately switched the conversation to Roger Federer.

“Wow, ” I said, “that means you watched Roger Federer develop.” Yes he did and he even coached him at times because he was a Swiss National Coach assistant. The next obvious question was, “Okay then, why is Federer so good?” The first two reasons Sisson gave were expected. Federer’s game is well-rounded because he’s well-rounded as a person and also because he was a ball-boy for many years at the Basel indoor tournament so he got to see the best players such as Becker, Sampras and Agassi. But Sisson’s next statement was something different:

Agassi, in my opinion, if he had not gone to this academy early on, I think he would have gotten more grand slams than Pete.

Sisson is referring to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Andre Agassi was sent there by his father when he was fourteen years old. Sisson was making the point that players in Switzerland had an emotional connection to their community and they were allowed to develop into full human beings before they started their life on the tour. Life at tennis academies can pressure players to get immediate results and that can end up stunting their game and their emotional development.

Agassi described his life at the academy in an interview with Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated on the eve of his retirement. Agassi was a terrified and lonely teenager while he was living away from home. He turned pro partially to escape the academy atmosphere but it didn’t help. He got to number one in the world but he still wasn’t sure who he was. It took a painful tumble to a ranking of 141 and therapy to finally come to terms with his father, the same man who answered his son’s phone call telling him he’d won Wimbledon by saying, “You should have won in four.”

We don’t know what would have happened if Agassi had stayed at home, he might have gone through the same emotional turmoil, but he would have been able to work through his difficulties with his family. We also don’t know if Agassi would have won slams without going to a tennis academy, but Federer is a good example of a player who was given time to develop in a more integrated environment. As is Pete Sampras who grew up and learned to play in Southern California.

After those twenty years in Switzerland, Sisson returned to the Philippines and established a tennis center in Subic Bay which was the closing of an interesting circle. The father of Patrick-John Tierro – the young Filipino who Sisson is coaching here – was born in the U.S. and served a career in the U.S. Navy. After he retired he moved to the Philippines and lives in Olongapo City which surrounds Subic Bay. The U.S. had owned and run Subic Bay as a naval base since the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1946 the Philippines finally became an independent country and signed agreements with the U.S. to continue to maintain military bases on their soil. Three months before the last agreement was set to expire in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted and destroyed Clark Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and dumped a foot of volcanic ash onto Subic Bay.

Many Filipinos were unhappy about the U.S. presence in the Philippines and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption was a symbolic last blow. After the agreement expired, the U.S. was given three years to leave and Subic Bay is now a commercial and industrial site with resorts, shopping, and a thriving tennis center.

After talking to Sisson, I finally managed to track down Henry Adjei-Darko just as he was leaving the site. He was limping with an ice bag on his foot but was nice enough to stand and talk to me. As I suspected, Adjei-Darko did not receive much help from the Ghanaian tennis association but he did get help from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body of tennis. The ITF gives financial help to the top ranked juniors in many different countries so they can travel to junior tournaments and improve their game. For help in the pro ranks, though, Adjei-Darko gets help from a private sponsor who lives in Orlando. It’s not uncommon, Tierro also has a sponsor who is a businessman in the Philippines.

I wanted to end this trip around the world by speaking to an American player so I tried to track down Stanford player Matt Bruch, the number 10 player in the NCAA rankings, but I couldn’t find him so I asked the man standing next to me if he knew where Matt was. Pay dirt. It turns out I was speaking to Alan Dils, the tennis coach at the University of New Mexico. I’ve been asking players about foreign students taking scholarships at U.S. universities, now I could ask a coach.

Let’s start with the current NCAA rules: 1. a player must start college by the time he or she is twenty years old. The original rule required that a player must start at a U.S. college by the time they were twenty but that’s been relaxed to include any college. 2. A player cannot play in an organized tennis event between the time they are twenty and the time they start college.

How does Dils how feel about foreign students on U.S. college teams?

Personally I think it’s great that the number seventy-five team can beat the number twenty team in the nation right now.

Not only do foreign players bring depth to the college game but without the foreign players, top teams would get the best players and, as Dils said, “the rich would get richer.” Stanford is one of those rich teams and they’re one of the last teams to give a scholarship to a foreign player. They had no choice because they no longer have their pick of the top players since there are so many good tennis programs now.

But Dils isn’t totally happy. There are a lot of loopholes to the rules. Players can enter professional events before turning twenty and they can also purchase transcripts, particularly in Eastern European countries where the bureaucracy can be hard to infiltrate. With a purchased transcript, a player can play professionally while they are supposedly going to college full time then enter a U.S. college at age twenty-two with three or four years of professional tennis experience. Dils said “I know for a fact” that this has happened.

Dils would be happier if the age limit was reduced to nineteen and the twenty and under college requirement was limited to U.S. colleges. He would also like the rules enforced as they are. Andre Begemann, a player from Germany, won the deciding match that gave Pepperdine the NCAA title this spring. Begemann broke the rules by playing a professional tournament after his twentieth birthday and before starting college but the NCAA gave him a waiver because the match was within a month of his birthday and he played only one match. Begemann will be a twenty-two year old sophomore at Pepperdine this year.

I’ve written about foreign tennis players at U.S. colleges a number of times and I’ve always championed an open door policy because U.S. tennis will only get better against the best players. But now, in agreement with Dils, I’d reinstate the original rule requiring players to enter a U.S. college by age twenty else we’ll soon have twenty-five year olds winning the NCAA title.

That ends our world tour for today. There’s another futures tournament this week in Irvine. I’m getting a bit tired of traveling so I plan to speak to U.S. players this time around.

See also:
U.S. College Tennis And The Mother Of Exiles
Benjamin Becker’s Journey To The ATP
Becker And The NCAA

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I love my job. Two weeks ago I went to a futures tournament in Claremont, California, and spoke to a player whose grandfather was a cricket legend in India. Last week I went to a futures tournament further south in Costa Mesa and traveled from the Israeli/Lebanon border to Ghana then on to Basel and the Philippines before ending up in New Mexico. Along the way I learned a lot more about Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis and U.S. college tennis that I ever expected.

Dudi Sela was the top ranked player in the Costa Mesa tournament. Earlier this year he was ranked number 160 but then he broke his elbow during a training accident and dropped into the 300’s. He took the title at Claremont and is ready to climb back up the rankings.

Sela’s hometown, which he stills calls home, is Kiryat Shmona, a small town in Northern Israel two miles from the border with Lebanon. As you can imagine, it’s been the target of Hezbollah rocket attacks on many occasions. Five or six years ago Sela was hiding out with his family in their basement shelter when a rocket blew out the windows and doors of the house. Sela hasn’t lost any family members but he knew people in town who died in rocket attacks.

At one point Sela lived in Paris for a year and practiced with his best friend Marcos Baghdatis. I once asked Baghdatis why he plays so well against top ten players but I didn’t get a very good answer and now I could ask his best friend. Sela’s answer: “Because he’s bored, he wants to play the big guys.” I also asked Sela why Baghdatis is so good. Sela tapped his chest and said, “Big heart, he has a big heart and he’s talented.”

Henry Adjei-Darko is from Ghana. He’s a tall player with an aggressive game and graceful, powerful strokes. When he hits a forehand he jumps into the air and his shirt goes flying as the racket wraps around his body. And this is despite injuring his foot a few days earlier. While he gets treatment for his foot after winning his match, I check into a match with a player from the Philippines, Patrick-John Tierro. I know there aren’t many players from Ghana but what about the Philippines? Their top two players, Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino, were both born in the U.S. and live in Los Angeles but play for the Filipino Davis Cup team.

That’s just the beginning of the U.S.-Filipino connection which has a long history. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a short twenty year trip to Switzerland. Tierro’s coach is Beeyong Sisson, a former ATP player who is a delightful and talkative fellow. I started out by asking my usual question – what kind of support does your country’s tennis association give young players? – and got the usual answer: not much. But then, to my utter surprise, Sisson mentioned that he coached in Basel, Switzerland for twenty years and I immediately switched the conversation to Roger Federer.

“Wow, ” I said, “that means you watched Roger Federer develop.” Yes he did and he even coached him at times because he was a Swiss National Coach assistant. The next obvious question was, “Okay then, why is Federer so good?” The first two reasons Sisson gave were expected. Federer’s game is well-rounded because he’s well-rounded as a person and also because he was a ball-boy for many years at the Basel indoor tournament so he got to see the best players such as Becker, Sampras and Agassi. But Sisson’s next statement was something different:

Agassi, in my opinion, if he had not gone to this academy early on, I think he would have gotten more grand slams than Pete.

Sisson is referring to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Andre Agassi was sent there by his father when he was fourteen years old. Sisson was making the point that players in Switzerland had an emotional connection to their community and they were allowed to develop into full human beings before they started their life on the tour. Life at tennis academies can pressure players to get immediate results and that can end up stunting their game and their emotional development.

Agassi described his life at the academy in an interview with Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated on the eve of his retirement. Agassi was a terrified and lonely teenager while he was living away from home. He turned pro partially to escape the academy atmosphere but it didn’t help. He got to number one in the world but he still wasn’t sure who he was. It took a painful tumble to a ranking of 141 and therapy to finally come to terms with his father, the same man who answered his son’s phone call telling him he’d won Wimbledon by saying, “You should have won in four.”

We don’t know what would have happened if Agassi had stayed at home, he might have gone through the same emotional turmoil, but he would have been able to work through his difficulties with his family. We also don’t know if Agassi would have won slams without going to a tennis academy, but Federer is a good example of a player who was given time to develop in a more integrated environment. As is Pete Sampras who grew up and learned to play in Southern California.

After those twenty years in Switzerland, Sisson returned to the Philippines and established a tennis center in Subic Bay which was the closing of an interesting circle. The father of Patrick-John Tierro – the young Filipino who Sisson is coaching here – was born in the U.S. and served a career in the U.S. Navy. After he retired he moved to the Philippines and lives in Olongapo City which surrounds Subic Bay. The U.S. had owned and run Subic Bay as a naval base since the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1946 the Philippines finally became an independent country and signed agreements with the U.S. to continue to maintain military bases on their soil. Three months before the last agreement was set to expire in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted and destroyed Clark Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and dumped a foot of volcanic ash onto Subic Bay.

Many Filipinos were unhappy about the U.S. presence in the Philippines and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption was a symbolic last blow. After the agreement expired, the U.S. was given three years to leave and Subic Bay is now a commercial and industrial site with resorts, shopping, and a thriving tennis center.

After talking to Sisson, I finally managed to track down Henry Adjei-Darko just as he was leaving the site. He was limping with an ice bag on his foot but was nice enough to stand and talk to me. As I suspected, Adjei-Darko did not receive much help from the Ghanaian tennis association but he did get help from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body of tennis. The ITF gives financial help to the top ranked juniors in many different countries so they can travel to junior tournaments and improve their game. For help in the pro ranks, though, Adjei-Darko gets help from a private sponsor who lives in Orlando. It’s not uncommon, Tierro also has a sponsor who is a businessman in the Philippines.

I wanted to end this trip around the world by speaking to an American player so I tried to track down Stanford player Matt Bruch, the number 10 player in the NCAA rankings, but I couldn’t find him so I asked the man standing next to me if he knew where Matt was. Pay dirt. It turns out I was speaking to Alan Dils, the tennis coach at the University of New Mexico. I’ve been asking players about foreign students taking scholarships at U.S. universities, now I could ask a coach.

Let’s start with the current NCAA rules: 1. a player must start college by the time he or she is twenty years old. The original rule required that a player must start at a U.S. college by the time they were twenty but that’s been relaxed to include any college. 2. A player cannot play in an organized tennis event between the time they are twenty and the time they start college.

How does Dils how feel about foreign students on U.S. college teams?

Personally I think it’s great that the number seventy-five team can beat the number twenty team in the nation right now.

Not only do foreign players bring depth to the college game but without the foreign players, top teams would get the best players and, as Dils said, “the rich would get richer.” Stanford is one of those rich teams and they’re one of the last teams to give a scholarship to a foreign player. They had no choice because they no longer have their pick of the top players since there are so many good tennis programs now.

But Dils isn’t totally happy. There are a lot of loopholes to the rules. Players can enter professional events before turning twenty and they can also purchase transcripts, particularly in Eastern European countries where the bureaucracy can be hard to infiltrate. With a purchased transcript, a player can play professionally while they are supposedly going to college full time then enter a U.S. college at age twenty-two with three or four years of professional tennis experience. Dils said “I know for a fact” that this has happened.

Dils would be happier if the age limit was reduced to nineteen and the twenty and under college requirement was limited to U.S. colleges. He would also like the rules enforced as they are. Andre Begemann, a player from Germany, won the deciding match that gave Pepperdine the NCAA title this spring. Begemann broke the rules by playing a professional tournament after his twentieth birthday and before starting college but the NCAA gave him a waiver because the match was within a month of his birthday and he played only one match. Begemann will be a twenty-two year old sophomore at Pepperdine this year.

I’ve written about foreign tennis players at U.S. colleges a number of times and I’ve always championed an open door policy because U.S. tennis will only get better against the best players. But now, in agreement with Dils, I’d reinstate the original rule requiring players to enter a U.S. college by age twenty else we’ll soon have twenty-five year olds winning the NCAA title.

That ends our world tour for today. There’s another futures tournament this week in Irvine. I’m getting a bit tired of traveling so I plan to speak to U.S. players this time around.

See also:
U.S. College Tennis And The Mother Of Exiles
2006 U.S. Open: The End Of A Legend
Benjamin Becker’s Journey To The ATP
Becker And The NCAA

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I want to draw your attention to the first-rate photographs at the tournament this week in Los Angeles. Michael Ferlan is the photographer and his work is excellent. You can see more of his work at Ferlan Photography.

“What he does [Roddick] is going to pull the chain for the youth of America.”

Here at the Countrywide Classic, US players Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Robbie Ginepri, and Paul Goldstein were all out after the quarterfinals, Roddick due to injury, the others lost their matches. As Agassi makes his way through his farewell tour, let’s look at US tennis after Andre.

At the Roddick – Jimmy Connors press conference earlier this week, in case you’ve been on the International Space Station, Roddick announced Connors as his new coach, Connors was asked about the status of US tennis with Andre leaving. He said that he didn’t think there was anything better for US tennis than Roddick playing Blake, they played an exciting three set final in Indianapolis last week. Connors, of course, emphasized effort: “Both those guys were playing flat out as hard as they could and the results showed it. …That’s the kind of tennis that American tennis needs to get into the next generation because, if not, we’ll miss the next generation.” Further he said, “What he does [Roddick] is going to pull the chain for the youth of America.”

US tennis has three top twenty players – well, four with Agassi but he doesn’t count any more – and one of them, Blake, is number 5. But Roddick is still the star so let’s look at him first.

Roddick can stay in the top fifteen with his current game, he still has the best serve in the game and a forehand that is a formidable weapon. His ranking is back up to 10 on the strength of his final appearance against Blake but players seldom stay put. The players in the top three or four places in the rankings are pretty steady, but the bottom of the top ten and down into the top twenty often looks like musical chairs.

If you’re a player like Roddick and you’ve been in the top five, you’re not happy when your ranking goes down to number 15 and you push yourself until you get back where you were. In the process, you either succeed or, as Roddick said in the press conference, you push yourself too hard and your game suffers then you drop even further.

If Roddick wants to get back to the top five, he will have to change something and a new coach is a very good start. Roddick has never quite recovered from firing Brad Gilbert and though Connors is an unknown quantity as a coach, at least he’s as opinionated and knowledgable as Gilbert and just as strong a personality.

It’s easy to forget that James Blake is a late bloomer. He was out of the top one hundred at the beginning of 2005 and ended the year at number 23. He managed to come through the clay court and grass court season, his two weakest surfaces, with his highest ranking. But if he wants to go further in the rankings or hold onto it for any length of time, he has to get to a few slam semifinals. I’m tired of writing it so I know he’s tired of hearing it but you can’t do that if you can’t win five set matches. Many players have two or three five set matches on their way to a slam semifinal, Ginepri played four straight at the US Open last year, but Blake is a perfect 0-9 in five set matches. He disappeared in the fifth set against Mirnyi at the Wimbledon losing it 6-0. That is not a sign of improvement.

Robbie Ginepri’s middle name should be yo-yo. He got up to a ranking of 25 in February, 2005, then, as he admitted, took his ranking for granted, got lax about his training and fell out of the top 100 by July of 2005. He went on a tear in the second half of the year getting to the semifinals in two Masters Series events and the US Open to reach a career high ranking of 15. But somewhere in the off season he lost his momentum and had a terrible start to the 2006. He didn’t win two games in a row until May.

Evidently he is a momentum player. Some players need confidence to win a match and some players need to win a match to have confidence. Ginepri clearly appears to be in the latter camp. He’s now in an upswing with a semifinal and quarterfinal in the last two weeks and he’s still hanging in there at number 20, but he’s number 80 in the ATP race which starts each player with zero points at the beginning of the year. Unless he defends his last year results at the US Open, Cincinnati and Madrid, he’ll be somewhere between twenty and eighty.

There are two promising young players in the conversation. Donald Young just turned seventeen years old. He received nine wild cards into ATP event this year and last, including four Masters Series and one slam, and never won a match. That may have been a mistake. Hopefully he can establish himself in futures and challenger events and regain his confidence.

If Donald Young is a cautionary tale, Sam Querrey is a success story, so far. He stayed at home through Thousand Oaks High School – you can see his high school buddies dressed up in green above – and went to his high school football and volleyball games. He traveled to the junior championships at Kalamazoo and a few junior slams but but kept the semblance of a normal life. He reminds me of Lindsay Davenport who also graduated from a normal high school experience before joining the tour. Querrey won two challenger events after turning pro in June and won first round matches at Indianapolis and here in Los Angeles.

Here’s the scouting report on Querrey. Positives: good first serve, excellent forehand, good size, 6′ 6”, and good reach. Negatives: average return, can’t control the point with his backhand, questionable movement, phases out and loses focus in the middle of matches. If that sounds like Roddick, it’s accurate in two ways. At the top of the tennis world you have one Roger Federer. Two of his biggest strengths are his movement and his return of serve. Those are Roddick’s two weakest points. And they are Querrey’s weakest points. It’s silly to worry about Federer if you’re Querrey but relatively poor movement has limited Roddick’s ability to develop himself into a good volleyer because his footwork is not as good as many other players.

The conclusion: if you want to have a long and successful career, it would be smart to look at Agassi as an example. He’s a very intelligent player who worked on improving his game to the very end. He made a concerted effort to get into the top ten rankings for service returns in the middle of his career and the older he got the harder he worked. Running up hills on Christmas morning to get ready for the Australian Open, that kind of thing.

Roddick is an intelligent man with good self awareness and a strong desire to improve. The same thing can be said of Blake. Blake has more game so I expect him to stay on top but Roddick should be able to stay in the top ten or twelve and, as Connors said, that will help US tennis. Ginepri is an unknown and, I would say, an unknown to himself. Agassi may have had some identity problems early in his career but he cleared them up. If Ginepri can’t do the same thing, he’ll sink again. Querrey is just a tiny blip on the radar at this point and Young is totally off the radar.

It took Agassi a long time to become the grand man of US tennis so it’s a good idea to give current US players the same time to find their way. They’ve had an excellent role model.

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