| By Gilad Bloom

When I was playing pro tennis in the 1980s and even in the early 1990s, American players were dominating the scene. In some years, there were 20 or more Americans in the top 100, including a series of top 10 players and world champs including Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

Needless to say, the situation is different today and has been the case over the past decade since the retirement of players like Sampras and Agassi. So, how did this powerhouse of a nation fall so far behind countries like Spain, France, Serbia, Croatia and Russia—all countries with less tennis tradition and history than the U.S.?

To be fair to the U.S., the rise in popularity of the game in the countries previously mentioned (and in other parts of the world) made tennis a much more global sport. In some countries, such as Spain, Croatia, Serbia and Argentina, tennis is the second or third most popular sport after soccer, which means that the most athletic and talented kids start playing the game at an early age, thus raising the odds of producing phenoms like Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

In the United States, the situation is very different. Tennis in the U.S. is not very high on the list of sports. The top athletes will most likely end up playing baseball, basketball, football, soccer and even hockey before they enroll in a tennis program. Team sports are more appealing to American youngsters, and the cost of tennis lessons and memberships to clubs do not help either. The sport of tennis, being so highly technical and mental, means that in order to produce a great player, the child and their family have to make huge sacrifices if they want their player to break through the ranks and make it on the pro tour. The financial commitment is substantial, and the time and energy needed to raise a tennis star is very high … any tennis parent can relate to that.

But the bigger problem is that top juniors in the country will face a dilemma, which I call a “Catch 22,” when they reach their teens. Ideally, a decision to turn pro should be made as early as possible. For example, I knew when I was 12 that I was going to be a pro and my coaches trained me towards that goal. That meant playing international events and turning pro at 16 years of age. By the time I was 18, I was almost a veteran.

In today’s game, the pro tour is so deep and filled with talent that the odds for an American kid to actually make it are slim. Many parents will choose to go the safe route and send their child to college without even considering turning pro. Ruling that out so early in their career means that they will have long school days accompanied with hours of homework which will prevent them from realistically competing against the best players in their age group from other countries. Many kids who might have made it on the tour will never know if they were good enough because they simply didn’t try it.

In my 12 years of teaching tennis in the New York area, I have come across many kids who had the potential to become pros, and almost every time I mentioned it to their parents, they ruled it out on the spot. Parents want what’s best (and safest) for their children, and a full scholarship to a good school and a free college degree sound like much safer and practical options than quitting school early and trying the pro tour at the age of 16.
No sane American parent will allow their kid not to finish high school and skip college. The problem is that in other parts of the world, they do make this choice, and therefore, the American kids are less experienced and not as mentally tough.

So, how do we change this? The USTA has been promoting enrolling the top talents to online home schooling programs, which allows them to train more hours each day and the opportunity to travel more, in fact, they almost make it mandatory. This is a developing trend that I believe will keep growing. However, many parents still do not want to prevent their kids from the social aspects of going to a normal school, and those kids will be at a disadvantage.

In last year’s Junior Orange Bowl, I got a little taste of the problem. One of my top students, a 12-year-old girl who is a top-ranked Eastern Section player, played a Romanian girl who destroyed her in the third round. When I asked the coach of the Romanian girl (who was hitting like a machine and never missed) how many hours each day this girl played, he said she goes to an all-day tennis academy, and she plays six hours a day. This was in comparison to my student, who plays two hours each day, four times a week, and comes to practice after a full day of school. When I told the Romanian coach that I was surprised at the amount of tennis his player was playing, he replied, “But during vacations, she plays more, eight hours a day.” And here is the problem of American tennis in a nutshell.

Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.