Hi Markus, please give details of your tennis career and what you are currently doing in tennis?
Before we begin let me apologize by saying I’m not a short answer kinda guy, lol. So that being said: I started in Florida where I grew up as a fairly decent juniors player after my Grandmother had me take up tennis and Grandfather had me take up golf, but loved all sports. Playing was fun, easy and I had a blast but around early 1980’s came along NBTA (Bolletieri Academy) and I learned how good I was (well was not) as I went from the from the big fish to a yuppie compared to any of the gang from there. I got my butt handed to me often by them. Even had my Grandmother haul me down to play any courts they were on to learn from them. Tough players but great group!
So I played for a small new high school in Countryside and as we were a small school pretty much all athletes played multiple sports. I had offers for several sports from colleges, many of course for tennis but did not choose to play tennis in college. I even later played golf as a professional doing my best to qualify here and there. But I always found a little time to play tennis even as I had golf schools and businesses…….. I just loved to play!
Now skip forward a number of years to wife, kids, and business man rather than athlete anymore. My wife calls while I was out in California on business and tells me she is taking our daughter to buy a tennis racquet (think it was a Dora the Explorer one, lol) and then over to Dana Loconto tennis center to go to a clinic for tennis she was begging to go to. I said she may be too young at four, but she was already sporty as she could be. My wife calls me from the complex and tells me the pro told our daughter she was too young, but she used her pouty face on him (like still uses on me, and everyone else and one of the reasons her nick name is “Face”, lol). It worked and he then told her if she could hit a forehand, backhand, and could serve from the baseline (all over the net) she could stay. Well while on that call with my wife giving me play by play reporting she did it! She got to stay and Frank Smith became her teacher for tennis.
(going to give you a little story with-in a story here, lol) Frank was old then and knew Arthur Ashe. Still to this day in his 80’s he still works helping kids! He still puts on a free clinic and match play evening for kids every Monday. That man has my respect and admiration! Has a ton of knowledge and probably forgotten more about tennis than I could ever learn. After lessons he makes sure parents work with their kids even if you do not play tennis they can still hand feed balls until next time he works with the player (as you can not get better from just training/lessons if you do no practice what you were taught before next time). Well as I knew some and figured out much of what I knew was old school (some of which still works great today!) I listened and learned. Alana came home from training one day and told her Mom that all she wanted to do was tennis from now on, and maybe a little golf, lol. We were involved with so many sports, and so much money in all of them, so we told her we would wait and see. I coached just about everything for her and teams as being a business owner had a bit more time than other parents. She and her teams were undefeated in basketball, school team champs in soccer, and independently a great golfer and still to this day plays number one on High School golf team, but tennis was the passion. So she stuck to her guns for a month or two about tennis being it for her and her Mom (as any husband will tell you we are not really in charge even in sports stuff, lol) said okay tennis it is! (sadly this broke her Mom’s heart as it included no more ballet either, which was Mom’s social group to and favorite thing she did, lol) But we moved on to tennis competitively watching her at age 8 (before quick start) out there playing eleven year olds with yellow full court play and winning!
Well as Alana got better, Frank said time to compete and time to hit some camps and better training. So we started looking for tennis pros and found out what we had been told was really correct and many did not even know what I knew about tennis, lol. So we did camps and worked with some greats in teaching with, me volunteering at them for free to be learning more while she did. I found I had a hunger to learn more and more as a coach, and I got good as a tennis coach. One day while I was at men’s league she was doing a kids clinic in Birmingham and when I was done some parents were waiting and asked if there was any way she could play JR Team Tennis with their kid’s team. She begged (the face thing again, lol) and I said okay since practice would be on same night as mens league play. When we showed up for first practice the coach did not and kids just goofed around, second time same thing. So I grab our gear, gave up my league spot and started working with the kids that night. By the end of the practice I some how got nominated to be coach, lol.
Well that team went from the bottom of rankings (kinda bad news bears of tennis) to winning that spring session championships, summer session championships and state championships. So began the growth of the teams, kids showed up from four to 18’s players at all levels over the years to be part of what became the program to try to beat in our state! Skip forward a few years to 11 state championships and 9 times finalist. We had as many 147 kids in program in one session. Heck I even coached a High School team that my daughter was not on, but the kids played JTT for me (and all it took was a tear from one of the girls telling me please coach help, no one else will coach our team.. for me to say yes, lol!) and well I got to watch a year later that team head to high school state championships, good times. Then I even began helping kids get to colleges and learned the ins and outs of ITA and volunteered in my very little spare time, lol.
It was good times, but there were some hard ones too. To many crazy parents, and a few hard kids to deal with. My family was now on the road to Birmingham pretty much every day for practices and matches (often for teams my kids were not on because coaches could not show up and other parents could not step up). My family was even spending about $15,000.00 a year to sponsor all this for free. Eventually I got tired and just burnt out, I was ready to retire, and my kids were kids were tired of driving so much. So a few years back, after a rather dramatic state championship of winning, but still complaining parents and the insanity of it all my daughter sat me down after state championships and said she wanted me to just go to working with her and her brother. She wanted to spend more time on grades and less in the car every day to Birmingham. So I handed the group off to another tennis coach and the parents. I focused on my kids and even my daughters school team. My kids play JTT to this day and love it. I help out but keep to letting someone else take the flack in charge of their teams, lol. I usually mainly coach for Championship matches.
So skip forward, I learn more each day. It gave me time to focus on my volunteer endeavors as well. I began to help more players, parents, coaches, colleges in the pursuit to get as many kids into college tennis as I could help. I learned more and found that that time a professional athlete and my connections helped with more people helping along the way. Even people my wife knew from her modeling and acting days all helped. I went forward with doing all I could to promote junior tennis and college. And I have never looked back! Sorry long story but hope you liked it, lol!
Wow, good stuff! so what about your kids these days?
Well as I said they both still play JTT. Alana even went as far as finishing with her team 11th at National Championships this last summer for 18’s advance. Alana has serious plans to play in college and become a doctor (hopefully) one day. She is talking to several colleges and praying on them for the right place that she fits. Her and her brother both play tournaments a bunch. We are even on our way over the Thanksgiving holiday for the USTA National Selection Tournament. Grayson (my son) plays and enjoys it, but I think he prefers golf more and I never make sport decisions for them, so we shall see where he goes in it. Who knows, in a handful of years I may be kind of out of tennis and handing off the torch to get kids into college tennis to someone younger when Alana is finished with her college tennis career.
Well let’s hope that is not the case and you stick around longer! Okay let’s get down to some questions on your thoughts on tennis these days:
What is your opinion on the quality of tennis in Colleges and Academies in America?
Clearly we have something going right as so many kids want to come here to large academies. Also groups copying the format for academies overseas and even building programs in U.S. just for trying here. And for sure this is the route you see internationals wanting to take to play for colleges and universities! The quality is good. But it could be much better. Unfortunately, many academies are more about business these days than about quality. They need just as many average kids who have parents that can afford to pay the often high price. I get it as a business man for sure. But we still need to help the those, often time, amazing players who can not afford it!
When it comes to college tennis it really comes down to the support of that coaches/programs university and funding for the program as to it’s level of play. But trust me I know many a college coach working their butts off for little pay and making as much happen in tennis as they can. Amazing coaches putting their own money into programs not fully funded. Coaches working tails off being fund raisers as much as coaches these days to do their best for their players. These are amazing coaches who dedicate themselves to making college level tennis great! And that is the reason college tennis is getting better each year!!
So tell us why/what you think tennis in America is booming at the moment?
Junior tennis is gaining ground every year for sure! We see more sales, revenue, junior memberships every year. This is compared to say 10-20 years back when tennis was about to end up like shuffle board! It sadly had an old guard of main players and not enough younger people to make it have a future and the USTA has done a ton to make sure these days that there is young groups of players. Even any club can tell you with out younger kids and younger couples coming in a club will literally die off down the road. Trust me I have seen it happen! So everyone has to keep up the hard work to make sure generations after we are all gone are still playing and I believe that is happening here in the U.S. more than anywhere else when it come to youth gaining ground at clubs around the world!
Is there anything that US tennis can learn from European tennis to make US even better?
It depends on what you mean, if you mean the over process for tennis and players not so much. But as in players that are more committed and dedicated for sure we can learn from them. We as a society in U.S. have become people who feel like they are entitled rather than should work harder for things! As much as we could learn this from internationals, they can also learn some things from us too. Like for instance they need more Universities over there to have athletic teams under a format to play each other as team do here or/and to even travel to play our U.S. colleges! Everyone in just about any country around the world can learn something from each other. Hence why we have symposiums in so many things to learn from each others and we need more of that in tennis to!
So what is your opinion on how tennis is run and taught in European countries such as Spain, France and UK?
Well to be honest it is not like anyone is reinventing the wheel here. Tennis is still tennis. We still teach things from the old days and occasionally someone comes up with much needed stuff to make tennis better, faster, more fun and exciting and I love that! You want me to make it simple? I have had many an exchange student (top level players from countries) come here to work with me/us. Sometimes just to learn how to play hard courts, but they also help my American kids learn from them too. I will tell you this they NEVER complain, they just do the work. Why, because that was how they were trained from day one to work harder than everyone else! Sadly here in the U.S. players are not that way and often times parents want their kids babied and in truth that is stupid and sad to watch and deal with! Here in the U.S. we have gotten to the insane thinking that everyone gets a trophy just for showing up! I have seen so many players and parents treat tennis like it is audio visual club!! BUT boy watch them when it is football and see how they are okay with a coach pushing player harder or chewing them out for losing they love that! (there is a difference between losing and being beaten! Either win or be beaten, never lose, is my motto I learned from my grandfather!) And another thing I can say is if we would have been so lazy in my grandfathers day, we would all be speaking German right now, lol!!!
So what do you think can be improved in American tennis?
Well that would take me forever to answer with how much I can say. But let me give you a few of my main ones:
- We should improve the training level of tennis teaching professionals. We should take a page out of golf’s PGA school in Florida and make it take a year/years to get certified. They need to be learning everything from business, how college placements work, real true long training of pros, to really know what they are doing and how to identify what is not correct (I know pros right now that failed the test (as easy as it is) many times! And told what they did wrong each time and finally passed it after like 7 tries, If there is only a few versions trust me they will pass eventually, lol. Now would you really send anyone to them?), and need to learn how to bring and design growth of players and the sport. It should be a FULL training of a tennis coach/teacher just like anyone else teaching anything!
- More money for players from player development for kids not at campus and for kids at smaller academies from USTA. It is sad how little is given to a kid to help with training and tournament costs. We need that help for those amazing players that often times get left behind because they can not afford to play more than a few tournaments a year compared to kids spending a fortune to build more points than them! I personally felt Player Development should have separated in to multiple centers rather than put 100 courts in one place in Florida. But it is done, so now they should move on to working first with getting P.D. centers in each section, then each state. Even balance them in to make it closer for each area. Like say one state put one in the south next state over put to it one in the north. Trust me people would drive to take their kids there. Or/and partner with good quality tennis clubs/centers to become certified USTA Player Development centers. (once again making sure the teachers are certified correctly for that training). Also backing kids financially at those centers! another thing make sure they put good people in talent identification in each state for USTA to get those kids there!
- NCAA and colleges across the country MUST start to support other sports than just say football financially. We need an end to title nine as a start to make things fair. We need schools to back their college tennis teams by percentages in funding. And yes we may need some type of cap on international players to U.S. players on teams to make it fair. Maybe a percentage based on how many paying tuition internationals at schools to fund those players. Maybe a larger cost to tuitions for international players per the scholarships. Maybe even a change to how the divisions work in sports with certain schools/conferences matched evenly per player levels. All of these are ideals I have heard and I do agree there needs to be some changes. BUT there needs to be changes that can help and even be changed back or again if need quickly to ways that work for everyone. Not ones that can kill the sport!
- Make it fair! Change the ranking system to be fair. I love what UTR (universaltennis.com) has done for players. They are now even adding doubles, But still needs to add more. We need for players to have JTT and High School results added. (can be by level, trust me in 7A tennis you will see some amazing kids playing that can not afford to play tournaments enough!) It is not a fair system at all. The tennis powers that be, do not help those who can not afford it! We need regulation amounts in levels, leagues, sections, states, ect..… Take for instance like when people as adult play players that say they are 2.5, but kill everyone not fair at all, but the do not get forced to move up fast enough. Same thing goes for juniors. Kids go play in states they know they can rack up points from weaker levels of trained players. Not a fair system and same thing for ITF with kids running to like Guam and places to play for same points kids get playing in say Spain and Germany, come’on! It needs some type of adjustment across the board!
- And it needs far more regulation then it has for juniors playing. Sadly the kids playing national level USTA are mostly home schooled or academy trained. Well those home schoolers and some academies that only have kids going to classes for like 2 hours a day, but yet those kids all seem to end up with 3.99 GPA’s hmmm…. But in the end crash on SAT and ACT testing and never make it to college level of play. Even the internationals that will bomb those and then run out of country to take the TOEFL in hopes that in that language they can do enough to play in college. Trust me it happens every year!!!! Just ask all those JUCO coaches who are very happy these days with those players with 9-14 UTR scores that even beat division 1 team’s players at fun tournaments and ITA rankings tournaments, LOL. Well they got them because they crashed on those placement tests!! We need it all regulated. And as I said some education for teaching pros working with kids and maybe some for parents about the system (and some simple financial lessons too, lol). Always makes me laugh when I see some parents at national level tournaments telling about the cost of the Winnebago, flights, entrance fees, academy fees, tutors, travel coach, rooms and board for everyone, ect… (kind of a $250-500,000 plus cost all to land a $100-225,000 scholarship at college hmm… someone forgot to do the math!). Then makes me sad if they do not make it due to testing scores, or even if they do make it by skin of teeth but crash as students and gone in a year from that college programs team!
Finally, are there any American players out there that can challenge the top 4 in the world in the coming years?
Honestly not really my field to say. Do not get me wrong I love watching professional tennis as much as anyone. As far as U.S. players well like the song goes “there is a time and a season for everyone and everything” and right now we are out of season, lol! But I am sure we will be back again. I hear people constantly blame this or that on the reason especially with mens side of American tennis is not there these days. Now that said please everyone stop blaming USTA and Player Development for it. They try for sure, but often times end up with players like I have said about in this interview already, that feel they are entitled or want to be babied (like ummm say Donald Young for example) and they know how hard it is. Want a simple fact about most of those famous names of past American players we all love? Well other than a handful of players like Venus and Serena that came from Compton, California and got lucky for Rick Macci to pick them up and sponsor them at his private academy from public courts …most came from private clubs, training, wealth, academies. (even they and others ended up at private academies based on their talent).
They did not come from USTA or it’s training centers. So stop blaming the USTA and Player Development and maybe blame those academies instead?? Not sure?? BUT I will make this challenge today to all private academies and tennis centers to help the future of Americas professional tennis talents. I challenge each of you to go out and find at least two (more if you can, but not too many as you can ask anyone like Nick Bollettieri you can not fund everyone and not end up struggling financially for a bit). Go find two at a tournament, at some courts kicking butt, down working with a volunteer who is not as knowledgable as you. Then commit yourself, your schools resources, funds, and even skills fund raising for them to those two players. (even check out the parents make sure they really can not afford the help, please do make sure they are not driving luxury cars and living larger than they should while the kid does not get the commitment from them). Then make sure they understand the commitment needed, the level it will take from them and the player understanding and respecting/appreciating it too! Chronicle the process, progress and results and share them with the world! Especially the powers that be in tennis that can provide even more funding for them. And lets just see if they turn out to be the players in the top 20 in the world or better in the end?????? Just a thought!!!!!
Thanks very much Markus for your insights on American tennis. I certainly learnt a lot from todays interview and hope you did too.