Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How Should We Define Success for Martin Blackman as USTA General Manager of Player Development?

It was recently announced that former pro, coach and tennis academy owner Martin Blackman received the coveted position of USTA General Manager of Player Development.  The USTA clearly went with someone who they believe will be truly committed to the job, as opposed to picking a celebrity name.  This was probably a wise move, and Blackman seems like a good hire.  He's also taking over at the perfect time, as there are lots of talented Americans about to break through in both the men's and women's game.  As he gets ready to begin his tenure, now is a good time to wonder what will constitute success, and what Blackman should prioritize in his position. 

Despite Serena's incredible dominance over last decade, American fans are aching for more of their own to be relevant and will only be so patient.  It would be different if the cupboard was bare when Blackman was hired, but because of all the talent he inherits it's fair to expect lots of success within the next five years.  (Fair or not, Blackman will get most of the credit or blame for how the group of players between the ages of 17 and 23 turns out).
On the men's side, if at least a couple players from the talented group of teenagers including Jared Donaldson, Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlov, Taylor Fritz, Michael Mmoh and Ernesto Escobedo don't become seriously good pros, it will be a major disappointment for American tennis.  Similarly, on the women's side, fans are expecting big things from the likes of Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Cici Bellis, Tornado Black, and a host of others.  It's probably fair to expect multiple players on both tours challenging for tennis' biggest titles within the next 5 years, and anything short of that shouldn't be deemed a success.             

To ensure this generation of Americans (and younger ones) pans out as hoped, Blackman has to ensure the USTA focuses on the right areas.  It's particularly important that the USTA prioritizes fixing the technical flaws in American players' strokes.  No matter how well someone may be doing, the USTA can't be afraid to tell them they need to fix their technique if they want to truly be great.  Different players will spend varying amounts of time with USTA coaches, but the USTA coaches have to recognize and correct serious technical problems when they see them.  This doesn't mean they have to teach everyone to play the same way (a common criticism), but they can't let talented players fail to reach their potential by letting them continue with glaring flaws. 

It's also important that Blackman focuses on developing player's point construction and fitness, which are both increasingly important in the modern game.  The plan to increase the amount of time Americans play on clay should certainly help, as will the recognition that a big serve and forehand (while certainly helpful) are no longer enough.  From a longer term perspective, it's also crucial that the USTA gets top young American athletes interested in tennis, as most of the top players in today's game are good enough athletes to play some level of professional soccer.  Without comparable athleticism to the world's top players, Americans simply won't be able to compete. 

American tennis appears to be heading in the right direction, and by all indications Martin Blackman has the tools to help it reach the next level.  Everything seems to be in place, but you'll have to forgive American fans for needing to see it to believe it. 

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