August 27, 2021
New York, New York, USA
THE MODERATOR: Welcome, everybody. Thank you for joining us here with the USTA Player Development leadership team that we have on the dais. You'll see from your left to right we have Martin Blackman, our general manager; Ola Malmqvist, our director of coaching; Kathy Rinaldi, our head of women's tennis and as you very well know the Billie Jean Cup captain; and last, but certainly not least, Kent Kinnear, our head of men's tennis.
I will kick it over to Martin to begin with some preliminary comments, and then we'll open it up to questions.
MARTIN BLACKMAN: Thanks. Good morning, everyone. Just a couple kind of level-setting comments here. I know Pat has shared this. A lot of our comments today are going to be in the context of the last 13 years, because this project really started in '08 when the board made a decision that we were going to get into the business of developing players directly as well as supplementally.
For this year's Open, we've got 41 players in the main draw, 22 women and 19 men, and hopefully some great results today in the last round of qualifying. We'll be rushing out there after this to watch those players.
We have seven players in the last round of quallies today, four men and three women.
At the slams this year, let me put this in context, because there will be some questions about men's tennis, the standard is always going to be winning Grand Slams and having top-10 players on the men's side. So I don't ever want to kind of send a message that we're happy with the progress and we're satisfied. But I think the message, part of the message, is that we've been focused on the process for the last 13 years. Based on the process, the trends that we're seeing today are very positive. We're moving in the right direction.
At Wimbledon we set a 23-year high with 34 players in the main draws for the men and women. At Roland Garros we had the most Americans advancing to the second and third rounds since the '90s.
Lastly, in terms of top 100, we have 14 men today in the top 100, some really recent progressions in Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima, some young players I'm sure you will be following. We have 16 women in the top 100.
Just to put that in context, versus 2008 on the men's side, that's an increase of about 120% in top 100 men's players. It's an increase of over 200% on the women's side.
Again, not taking any victory laps at all because we have a long way to go, especially on the men's side, but just wanted to share that with you guys in terms of some facts and trends.
Lastly, I just thought it's important to comment on an Open without Venus and Serena this year, but also to highlight the impact they have had on the game, which really cannot be overstated.
The number of young women that they have pulled into our sport at every level, some of the new generation of young women that you guys are seeing, like Robin Montgomery, Hailey Baptiste, Katrina Scott, Ashlyn Krueger, Reese Brantmeier, we just don't think we'd be seeing these young women in the game if it weren't for the effect that Venus and Serena have had. I want to make sure I say that up front.
Lastly, so you have a feel for the type of support we provide at the US Open, it's a blend of direct coaching. We're pretty selective in the players that we work with directly because in many, many cases we're better off supporting players with their private teams. Supplemental coaching. Strength and conditioning. Mental skills. Performance analytics.
We have a team of four staff here that got here a few days before the quallies started. They're working about 16 hours a day to pump out daily scouting reports to all of the American players in the tournament when they don't play an American player.
Quick opening comments, then I think we're going to open it up.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions, please.
Q. About Reilly Opelka, his growth from a year ago, 22nd seed, what you're expecting here? How has he progressed in your eyes?
MARTIN BLACKMAN: I'll tag team that, a couple comments and hand it over to Kent.
It's been great to see Reilly continue to progress. Obviously the finals in Canada was a huge breakthrough for him. He played a solid match against Medvedev. He retained his composure and really made Medvedev work for it. I think we're really optimistic about his development.
One of the really encouraging things about Reilly's setup is how strong his team is. He's coached by Jay Berger, former head of men's tennis, a former top-10 player, great coach. He has a great traveling coach in JY Aubone. He's got a great physio. He's made the investments necessary to really maximize his potential.
I'll let Kent piggyback on that.
KENT KINNEAR: Those are all great points. Super excited for Reilly, his continued development. The interesting thing about Reilly, he continues to climb. A big thing for him is staying healthy, fighting injuries. Obviously he's a very big guy that's worked hard on his fitness and his overall staying healthy and injury-free.
As Martin said, he's got a great team around him. It's been really, really exciting to see him step by step continue to climb, climb, climb. Obviously Toronto was super exciting, seeing him break through there and follow with a solid week in Cincinnati.
Really happy for Reilly. Great team around him. We'll continue to look for him to climb.
Q. You mentioned a couple of guys who broke into the top 100, seems like a nice group in their early 20s now. What do you see in that group that makes you believe they could get to success in the Grand Slams?
MARTIN BLACKMAN: I think we can all think back to the late '80s and early '90s when we had an amazing cohort of Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. What ignited those guys I think was when Chang won the French Open in '87. Those guys say, We think we're better than him, we can do that. That kind of healthy peer pressure developed and created a great dynamic.
We've had four young men who are a little bit older now in Reilly, Taylor, Frances and Tommy who have been close to the top. Now we have Sebi and Brandon and Jenson, Macky McDonald playing great tennis, and a J.J. Wolf who will be back in shape soon. I think the dynamic of all of those guys wanting to be the top American, all of those guys wanting to play Davis Cup I think it's going to create a very healthy competitive dynamic. We like that.
OLA MALMQVIST: I think what Martin said, it's right on. I think they all have good teams and work really, really hard. At the end of the day, I think that's the secret stuff.
I think they're pushing the little bit older guys a lot, too. You don't want to have younger people doing better than you. We're in a pretty good place there. Again, I'm very, very optimistic.
KENT KINNEAR: I would just add, Martin mentioned J.J. Wolf who is a great player, has had a tough year coming over some injuries. He's back now. Just seeing them bring the energy to the whole group is exciting, pushing each other. I know they like watching each other play, some of the older guys watching the younger guys coming on and seeing them compete. I think there's a healthy dynamic there which is raising everybody up, which is exciting.
Q. What is the process? What is the new secret sauce that you feel you're doing differently in getting more top 100 players?
MARTIN BLACKMAN: Nothing new. But being really consistent, trying not to make short-term decisions based on outcomes. We're really trying to optimize the support and the resources that we can provide.
Just a few things in terms of a structure. It started with the philosophy. My predecessor, Patrick McEnroe, hired Jose Higueras. Jose brought some basic but important principles to player development that we socialize with the entire coaching community, which became a philosophy.
We created a really extensive camp progression in partnership with the private sector to bring players all the way through from 10 to 15 years old. Then just really trying to be systematic and objective about the players we supported in that 15 to 20 age range, making sure we customize that support.
Those are kind of some of the tenets we followed consistently for 13 years. We made a lot of mistakes, there's a lot of things we have to improve and evolve along the way. But I think that's coming to fruition now. We just have to keep pushing.
Like Ola said, it's about hard work. There's no magic to us. It's about hard work, it's about professionalism, it's about players having a growth mindset, wanting to turn over every stone to find out how they can get better.
Q. A question on analytics. A lot of good information out there. From your end, could you share some of the ways analytics informs your training sessions and the players?
MARTIN BLACKMAN: I'll make a quick comment, hand it over to Kathy. Kathy really took the lead in this area in bringing performance analytics into what she did to lead her then Fed Cup, now Billie Jean King Cup team. Basically we have three uses for analytics. One of them is around technique, that's in the junior space. It's very simple, it's video of strokes. Then it's disseminated in a media book so coaches can look at technique and break it down.
The next is around tactical decision-making, what plays, what patterns are working. The most sophisticated is around complex scouting reports, reverse scouting match reports, mostly using Hawk-Eye data and bringing those in to look at different KPIs so that players can see how other players are playing against them, but also see maybe where they're below a benchmark in a certain area, second-serve return points won, whatever it is.
I think with just two full-time people for this week, but really just two, we're maximizing what we can do by using different platforms and third parties. It's a big part of helping players to get better. But as Kathy will speak to, it's all predicated on the quality of the relationship. You have to have great relationships with the coaches of the players you're trying to support so that they trust the information and it's a dialog.
KATHY RINALDI: Sure. As Martin said, and as I was named Fed Cup captain, now Billie Jean King Cup captain, that was something we've really tapped into was the analytics, our analytic department, seeing what kind of information we could get to help the players, help our entire staff have the success.
One of the greatest experiences really with the Fed Cup was having the coaches, the private coaches of the players come as well. We had a roundtable discussion, of course. A lot of brainpower there, a lot of experience in the room. We talked about game plans.
Then we added the analytics. As Martin just talked about, the reverse game plans, seeing different matchups, really taking a deep dive into the stats, seeing if there's anything we could pick up, tendencies, whether it was serve location or whatever patterns that we could pick up that could be very helpful.
We found that very useful. It got to the point where the players really enjoyed it, as well. We would come up with little game plans, but we'd also be able to put little snippets of video together to support what we were finding. So then we did that with some players at some of the events as well. That was really helpful because we find that players are very visual, athletes in general are very visual learners. That was something that has really helped us a lot and continues.
It's evolving, analytics. It's getting better and better. It's quite amazing how you can use it daily and with video. We have a lab room on national campus that really our coaches spend a lot of time in, and we all do, and spending more and more time in there because you can really pick up all different things for these young players as well.
Yeah, I think that's the way sports has gone, more to stats. Of course, you have to use the coach's eye as well, which we do. But it's been very helpful for us.
Q. Why is it important for the national governing body in tennis to put all this effort and all this money into player development? It's not something you see with USA Basketball or even golf. There's some effort but not these major academies. What is it that makes tennis different that requires this kind of investment? Why are you so confident that it really can make a difference after all the troubles that have happened over the last 13 years?
MARTIN BLACKMAN: Great question. I think we can all kind of give some insight on this. I'll be brief. I think there are a few pieces to it. One is it's not a big percentage of our national budget. We went through a restructure about a year and a half ago, and we really reallocated a lot of the USTA's resources towards the base of growing the game and driving the mission. So that would be one point.
I think the other would be in '08 when we started, we were about 10 years behind other federations. It's something that other European and South American federations have been doing since the late '90s. So that's part of the reality.
But I think the biggest thing is just when a player gets to the top of the juniors, 14, 15 years old, the expense of pursuing a professional career and the expertise that it takes and the costs associated with it really disqualify all but the wealthiest kids in the country.
I don't think we want to be a part of a sport that deselects kids who have the ability and the inclination and the commitment or the desire because we can't fund their development and be a part of creating champions.
I think that's really the driver for all of us. We wake up every morning, we're thinking about the next generation of American champions.
Last point I would make I think as it relates to the connection between performance and participation is you look at the effect that Serena and Venus have had on participation. You look at the effect that Becker and Steffi Graf had in tennis in Germany. You look at the Tiger Woods effect in golf. There's a really strong argument to be made that if you have a healthy professional sport where a country's dominating or close to dominating, it strengthens the entire ecosystem. It's aspirational, it's motivational, and it's a big part of why people pick up a racquet.
I started playing tennis in 1975 when I was five years old after I listened to a radio broadcast of Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon against Jimmy Connors. Don't know if that's the case for everybody, but definitely inspires a lot of people.
OLA MALMQVIST: I can build a little bit on that.
If you look at our numbers from '08 till now, the impact that we've had, it's pretty obvious. We've been very involved with not everyone but close to everyone. That part I think is pretty obvious.
For me, I'm going to add one thing to what you said. Tiger Woods, the impact on golf, unbelievable. Serena, Venus. Like you said, Steffi Graf. I was born in Sweden, what Borg had was huge impact on it.
Not only participation, because I think that takes a little bit longer, the parents are interested, maybe they play, then maybe they have their kid play. Also the interest to watch. TV viewing, coming to tournaments and stuff like that, I think having really good role models that are doing really well in a country is really, really important for the game.
KATHY RINALDI: My turn (smiling).
I'll piggyback on what Ola was saying. I think when I started back in 2008, we didn't have that many players in the top 100. We've seen that grow. We've seen a really healthy competition between our young players. The inspiration of Venus and Serena. Then we see, gosh, so many in the top 100 right now, but they're pushing each other, they're inspiring one another.
I think also just in the time that we've been with the USTA, it's just been such an honor, just been an incredible experience for me on every level, at every level, the junior, the transitional, the professional level, the relationships, really working together. I've never felt like the country has come so close together for our sport, the growth of our sport.
For me that's just something that I'm always going to look back on and cherish, are the relationships that I've been able to build, not just within the USTA but outside of the USTA for the better of our sport and for the growth of our sport.
I hope that that will be the legacy that our team leaves, and that we have really raised the bar, continue to raise the bar, continue to inspire not only the players but coaches and more female coaches, that we leave our sport in such a better place. I really believe, as someone within player development, that that's our goal and that's what we're doing.
So thank you.
Q. Kathy, the ITF announced today that the Billie Jean King Cup Finals are going to be played in Prague in November. Team USA qualified for that about 18 months ago. Your thoughts on that event and that it will hopefully be played?
KATHY RINALDI: Thank you for that question. Super excited. Before I walked in here, I was text messaging every single player and doubles players that, We're on. I think all the players and everybody involved is super excited to get back.
Of course, being named the Billie Jean King Cup, now being able to play that final, is going to be very exciting. We all love Prague, it's a beautiful city. We're really thrilled that we're able -- I should say thrilled but also grateful to have them step up and be able to play this in November.
I can't be more excited. I know the players, the responses, they're really excited, as well.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, everyone.
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