John F Murray – May 10, 2013 – Special Report – With a country the size of the United States and the many resources available, you would think that a return to the glory days of the early 90s or the tennis boom in the late 70s and early 80s would be only natural, but the process has been sadly taking a lot longer than anticipated. The truth is that USA tennis has been outfoxed for years now by players and organizations in much smaller nations.
In 2008, the futility of American tennis coupled with the reduced talent on the women’s side, prompted the United States Tennis Association to reorganize its player development system, launching new programs including regional residential training centers, new national coaches to develop and train prospects, and an increased budget (upward of $100 million over 10 years). The plan was comprehensive and ambitious, and its goals were to generate new great players for the future. While organizational changes were needed, the truth of the matter is that passionate parents still have a much greater influence on tennis player success than any political initiative.
Looking at the current WTA world ranked players in the top 60, Americans Serena Williams (1) and Venus Williams (21) are still up there, but this run will not last forever. After the Williams sisters we are left with only Sloane Stephens (17), Varvara Lepchenko (27), and Christina McHale (55). This is downright sad for a country of over 300 million and with the rich tennis history we have. By contrast, there are 7 Russian women in the top 60. On the ATP Tour, the results are even worse. In the top 60, the only Americans are Sam Querrey (18), John Isner (21), and Mardy Fish (42). By contrast, Spain has 7 players in the top 60 and France has 6.
So if the organizations are not doing it as well as they could, what can tennis parents do? Maybe they need to be a bit more passionate. Some have even called it crazy! The sports psychology implications are immense.
The story goes that Richard Williams, upon learning of the opportunity that women’s tennis offered, just decided to make his next two kids into tennis pros. He hid his wife’s birth control pills when she did not want children, taught himself the game, and taught his kids on very rough courts in the hood before sending them to a tennis academy to finish the product. His daughters succeeded beyond all possible expectations. And while they just continued to win, Richard just continued to show the eccentric behavior that led him to believe in his daughter’s chances in the first place.
Other stories are even more astounding. Tennis star Suzanne Lenglen was the product of a nutty father who withheld jam from her bread if she practiced badly. Lenglen won 31 Grand Slam titles. Jelena Dokic’s father and coach, Damir, admitted hitting Jelena (“for her sake”) and was eventually ejected from three major tournaments. Since Jelena stopped talking with her father, he has threatened to kidnap her and drop a nuclear bomb on Australia, where his daughter now lives. Maria Sharapova’s father, Yuri, is currently so hated for his coaching during matches and aggressive behavior that Anastasia Myskina refused to play in the Federation Cup if her countrywoman was named to the Russian team.
The stories go on and on. And while I would never advocate insane behavior in order to produce a champion, there is often a lot passion in that insanity, and that raw passion and desire needs to be fostered more in children at a young age. In other words, remove the abuse, but keep some of that raw passion and excitement for the game, and you will become a better and more influential parent in your kid’s lives!
Tennis, and all sports really, are sometimes not unlike combat. The late David Foster Wallace wrote that tennis “is to artillery and airstrikes what football is to infantry and attrition.” Great players learn how to remain objective and reduce their matches and their opponents to targets that must be eliminated. It is that singular focus and the intensity that accompanies it that I believe helps make these players great.
Arthur Ashe once stated that if he didn’t play tennis, he’d probably have to see a psychiatrist. After all, you have to be somewhat over the top to submit to the nomadic lifestyle and brutal realities of professional tennis. This is the type of lifestyle that presents numerous challenges from a tennis psychology perspective. “If you want to win the French Open, which is like desert warfare, you better darn well have a coach like Jim Pierce who exposes you to some of the most intense training, but I always state that it cannot be abusive in a way that he was known to be abusive. No hitting, no screaming, no slapping. For every Wimbledon champion that is punched, there are probably 1000 players who did not make it because they were abused!
The intensity and uniqueness of passionate parents carries with it a sort of genius that I believe is indeed helpful in getting players to the top. Examples include Charles Lenglen’s decision to eschew the soft playing style of women in his time in favor of training Suzanne against men, and Gloria Connors’ insistence on teaching Jimmy a two-fisted backhand in an era of one-handers. In fact, my client for many years, Vince Spadea, who made it to the top 18, was trained by a father who decided that there were no two-handed backhands on the pro tour. He decided to create one in his son after watching Chris Evert play in the 1970s, and Vince’s backhand was one of the best on the tour for years.
In addition to smart and passionate parents, the role of the mental coach or sports psychologist is crucial. By helping the parents stay sane while they develop their kids’ talents, and by helping the players themselves develop their confidence, focus and energy control, the machine becomes a controlled passion rather than a passion ran amuck with abuse. Add in solid technical coaching and a great fitness program and you have the recipe for success.
If American tennis is ever going to return to the glory days of past, and it should with the immense resources we possess, there needs to be a return to passion on the part of the parents infused with the latest tennis psychology training, coaching, and fitness available. The United States Tennis Association can only do so much. Like many areas of human development, the lessons learned in the home are the most powerful and the most lasting. School cannot even compete with what is learned at home.
Ditch the abuse, retain the passion, and invest in sports psychology to the hilt, and in 10 years this country should have 10 players in the top 40 on both the men’s and women’s tours. I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of tennis psychology.