The New York metro tennis community has some of the sport’s best facilities, both indoor and outdoor, and best coaches in the world. With this wealth of talent available right in our own backyard, New York Tennis Magazine recently took the opportunity to pick the brains of some of these top coaches. What you will find below are some of the sport’s top instructors sharing their ideas and strategies from coaching those new to the game to skilled juniors, the state of tennis in the metro New York area, the role of the parent in a player’s development, and much more. Even the best coach can always learn an extra tip or two, and the following article will provide all players and coaches with a chance to learn from the cream of the area’s crop.
Meet the participants …
Gilad Bloom ♦ The Club of Riverdale
Gilad Bloom is a former ATP touring professional who, at his peak, was ranked 61st in singles and 62nd in doubles in the world. Five times Israel's Men's Champion, three times in singles and twice in doubles, Gilad is currently the director of tennis at The Club of Riverdale. He was the director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years, and before that, ran Gilad Bloom Tennis for nine years.
Weylu Chang ♦ IMG Academy
Weylu Chang is one of IMG Academy’s senior coaches and has been coaching at IMG since 2011. He was also a former student of IMG Academy who played on the ATP Tour for three years.
Eric Faro ♦ Stadium Tennis Center at Mill Pond Park
Eric Faro grew up in Riverdale and attended Horace Mann, where he played number one singles for all four years and subsequently at Ohio State University. Eric is excited about his new role as a director at Gotham Tennis Academy and this new phase of his tennis career in New York City and the Hamptons. Eric has an engaging personality that kids enjoy, and he brings a wealth of coaching experience from his extensive background at Stadium Tennis and Central Park Tennis Center.
George Garland ♦ Go! Tennis Programs at North Shore Tennis and Racquets Club
George Garland is director of tennis and president of Go! Tennis Programs at North Shore Tennis and Racquets Club in Bayside, N.Y. A former coordinator of adult tennis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Garland played on the collegiate, satellite and senior levels. George, a national teaching clinician for the USTA, has been a personal coach to numerous sectionally- and nationally-ranked juniors, as well as many television, music and movie personalities.
Gordon Kent ♦ Advantage Tennis Clubs' Roosevelt Island Racquet Club
Gordon Kent is general manager of Advantage Tennis Clubs' Roosevelt Island Racquet Club (RIRC) and was the tennis director of Stadium Tennis Center from 1979-97. He was also the owner and director of the New England Tennis Camp from 1991-2010. Gordon brings more than 25 years of teaching experience with every level of junior–from beginner through tournament competitor. Gordon was named “Pro of the Year” for the USPTR, Eastern Division (1989). In 1992, he received the same award from the USPTA, Eastern Division. In 1986, he received the USTA/USPTR “Public Service Award” for outstanding contributions to tennis development. He is a past chairman of the Junior Competition Committee for the Eastern Tennis Association.
Lawrence Kleger ♦ Sportime/John McEnroe Tennis Academy
A native New Yorker, Lawrence Kleger is recognized as one of the top developmental coaches in the U.S. He has trained more ranked juniors than anyone in the history of the USTA/Eastern Section. Lawrence is also the personal coach of Noah Rubin, who trains at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy and who has been Lawrence's student since the age of seven. Noah is a top American tennis prospect and reached a career-best number six ITF junior world ranking at the age of 16. He has won two Level 1 ITF singles titles and reached the quarter finals of the 2012 Junior French Open. Lawrence’s students have won countless National and Regional Championships and 18 USTA Eastern Year-End Sportsmanship awards.
Whitney Kraft ♦ USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
Since 2007, Whitney Kraft has been the director of tennis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. and director of player operations for the U.S. Open. Previously, he was director of tennis for the City of Fort Lauderdale Park & Recreation Department (1998-2007). He was a 1983 Singles All-American for Florida Atlantic University, and inducted into their inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2006. He is a National 10 & Under Trainer, a USPPTA Platform Tennis instructor, member of the Beach Tennis USA Board of Advisors, as well as a member of the National Cardio Tennis Speakers Team. A USPTA member since 1983, Whitney served as district director for Broward County, Florida and as president of the local CTA, Broward Tennis Association. Whitney has been the tournament director for many prestigious events, including the National Public Parks Tennis Championships (2007), ITF World Championships (2002), the inaugural U.S. Open National Sectional Playoffs (2010), USTA Boys 14 National Clay Court Championships (2000-2007) and the USTA National Open Clay Court and Indoor Championships (1998-present).
Xavier Luna ♦ Advantage All-City Junior Programs (Roosevelt Island Racquet Club, Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club and New York Tennis Club)
Xavier Luna is director of Advantage All-City Junior Programs (Roosevelt Island Racquet Club, Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club and New York Tennis Club). Xavier has more than 30 years of experience in tennis, commencing as a ranked junior. He was the director of Junior Programs at Stadium Racquet Club, the owner and founder of Metro Tennis Academy, and has held many other positions in the tennis industry. Xavier inspires players with his love of tennis and possesses the professional skills to keep campers returning year after year to the All-City Junior Tennis Camp.
Lauren Rothstein ♦ Centercourt Athletic Club of Chatham
Lauren Rothstein is a tennis professional at Centercourt Athletic Club of Chatham. Lauren has played tennis her entire life and attended Indiana University where she was captain of club tennis team, increasing team participation by more than 350 percent. Lauren led her Indiana University team to national tournaments in North Carolina and Arizona.
Jason Spiers ♦ Advantage Tennis Clubs’ Roosevelt Island Racquet Club (RIRC)
Jason Spiers is the tennis director at Roosevelt Island Racquet Club (RIRC) and teaches full-time in the Junior Program. Playing tennis for Assumption College, he became a doubles player at the national level, attaining a ranking of 24 for Division II, and number three in the Northeast Region. His tennis background includes tournament director for the Rochester Junior Grand Prix, teaching at The Harley School, New England Tennis Camp, and prestigious clubs such as the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Jason has worked at RIRC since 2004 and is a USPTA-Certified Teaching Professional.
Richard Thater ♦ West Side Tennis Club
Richard Thater is a long-time teacher and player on New York City courts. He is PTR-certified in both Junior and Adult Development, and has played in senior tournaments in the Greater New York area. Richard currently teaches at the West Side Tennis Club.
The roundtable …
Question: What role should a parent play in their child’s tennis development?
George Garland: My short answer is to find a coach/director/program that you believe in, sign them up, drop them off and pick them up. After being in tennis for 40 years, I would say that the primary responsibilities of parents are to expose their kids to different opportunities, then support them once they have chosen something that they would like to further pursue. It is essential that the child, the parents, and the coach and/or director are on the same page in terms of goals, expectations, etc. Any problems that arise will almost certainly be a result of that not being the case. However, once a path has been mutually established, I would recommend that the professionals are left to do their job.
Gordon Kent: A parent should facilitate their child's development in any way they can—financially, with transportation, moral support, structure, etc. Where parents get into trouble is when they put too much pressure on their children. Sometimes it works for parents to coach their children, but most often it does not. The best thing a parent can tell their child about tennis is, "Have fun!” We lose too many talented players when tennis ceases to be fun for them. This doesn't mean they shouldn't work hard and be dedicated to improving.
Jason Spiers: Parents should play a big role when it comes to their children. Parents often get too involved and micromanage their kids which is usually bad for both the child and the coach. Creating a better tennis player is the job of the pro. Parents should be instilling a positive attitude and teaching their kids how to deal with situations.
Richard Thater: Parents should establish a dependable foundation for their young players. Proper equipment should be supplied, regardless of match results. For example, do not bargain and do not promise a child two new rackets if they make the semis at an event. Listen to your child. If the young player does not like the coach, no matter how great their reputation is, you will not get much value for the money you spend. Do not pick up balls during your child’s lessons. You maximize the number of balls hit during the hour, but you deny your child the opportunity to learn other skills, such as responsibility.
I was on a court once with Mats Wilander helping him conduct a corporate clinic. When my portion was finished, I told Mats that I would pick up all the balls on the court (he is a seven-time Grand Slam champion). Mats gently chided me and said that he always picks up his own balls when he is teaching Run from coaches who have a very rigid catechism. Leave some room for fiddling. Martina Navratilova has admitted that even into her 40s she was still making adjustments in her search for the perfect grips.
Question: What are the biggest positives and negatives about the current state of tennis in New York?
Eric Faro: QuickStart programs are bringing a lot of new players to our sport in the New York area. Stadium Tennis Center has blended lines on all 16 of our courts. Our weekend QuickStart programs with kids as young as four-years-old are some of our most popular! A negative of being in New York would be that there isn’t a tennis court on every street corner.
Lawrence Kleger: The positives … there are a lot of places to play tennis in New York, especially during a relatively long outdoor season. And that includes indoor tennis for year-round play. In New York, we have many people who can afford to pay for tennis year-round. On the competitive side, many families have the financial capabilities to support the development and training of junior players. This goes a long way to support our public and private tennis facilities and clubs as junior development is usually the biggest revenue producing program at these sites.
New Yorkers are a tough breed and we have a rich tennis tradition. John & Patrick McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Gene & Sandy Mayer, Dick Stockton, and James Blake are some of the more famous names in tennis from New York. The U.S. Open is played here and that makes New York the tennis mecca of the U.S.
The negatives … cold weather makes it difficult to play tennis outdoors year-round, so being forced to go indoors is a given in New York. While we have many people who can afford indoor tennis, most cannot. From a competitive standpoint, having limited access to precious indoor court time, puts New Yorkers at a disadvantage. And playing indoors makes it difficult for players to develop well-rounded games. Since most competition takes place outdoors, it becomes a difficult transition from indoor to outdoor tennis.
Richard Thater: The best thing about tennis in New York is the U.S. Open. It brings huge sums of money into the City, creates a sense of excitement about the sport, and helps portray tennis fans and spectators as a somewhat civilized bunch of folks. Playing year-round on the same courts as the pros use at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is also very motivating.
The worst thing about tennis in New York is the U.S. Open because it overshadows everything else. The event is so big, and so focused on the present moment that past memories and moments can lose their impact. When I am at the Open, I enjoy watching tennis celebrities like Stan Smith and Donald Dell pass by on the way to their seats. I remember watching them play when the event was held on the grass courts in Forest Hills. How many new fans of the Open would recognize either of these men?
Question: What does American tennis need to do to develop top professional players?
Gilad Bloom: American tennis needs the U.S. economy to fall apart and for millions of kids to have a harder childhood. The good life that the U.S. youth is used to makes it hard for them to compete against working class kids who grow up in poorer countries and are much hungrier for success and are mentally tougher.
Another problem is that the top athletic talents in the U.S. go to the more popular sports, such as baseball, football and basketball, while tennis basically gets passed over. U.S. tennis needs to figure out a way to attract the hardcore talents and athletic bodies to the sport. It is an uphill battle since tennis is expensive and therefore out of reach for many in low-income populations.
It is also hard to change a tradition, and traditionally, minorities choose team sports. Once tennis became a global sport, the U.S. started its slump … it is no longer an Anglo-oriented sport as countries like Spain, Serbia, Russia, even the Swiss and Belgium are producing world-class players. The U.S. fell behind because of an outdated system that was stagnant and based on the "old world.”
In order to catch up with the rest of the world, we need to learn from countries like Spain which has a great coaching tradition which basically teaches generation after generation the same principles of the game and literally passes on the information from generation to generation, creating dynasties of good players for decades. I believe that the USTA is actually trying to do something similar with Jose Higueras, director of coaching, running it with all the regional tennis centers working under the same guidelines and transferring as many of the facilities to clay courts … a big change from the past in this country. I'm not sure if the U.S. will ever be as dominant as it was in the past, but if they do make a comeback, it will take some years because it's hard to change the DNA of a nation.
Weylu Chang: I think American tennis has lost its hunger. Tennis is a rigorous game and you have to be very strong physically and mentally. I think the younger generation of Americans feel more entitled these days. You see the kids from other countries, some of them come from less and they work incredibly hard for everything. That work ethic translates to their on-court lifestyle, too. They never quit and never stop reaching for the next goal, because the goal they're reaching for comes with their lifestyle. So what young American players need in their development is greater motivation. Through all levels, as coaches, we need to keep then motivated. We need to help them strive for more and teach them that this race is a marathon; not a sprint. The work, struggle and obstacles are great, but so is the reward.
Lawrence Kleger: First, we have to figure out how to attract elite athletes to our sport. Tennis is way too low on the pecking order of desirable sport careers in the U.S. As far as a recreational activities are concerned, tennis usually rates just below camping and canoeing at number 36! In most other countries, tennis is much higher in status than it is here. Why that is has to be addressed. At the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, we are reaching out to the inner city community leaders to help us identify young talented athletes that might not think that they have the financial resources to pay for tennis instruction. We have established a charitable foundation, the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, which is dedicated to providing training and financial aid to these deserving young athletes.
Second, I believe part of the answer lies in the fact that our sport is poorly managed from the top down. Our top 20 ranked stars obviously do very well. But the income of tennis players drops off dramatically as you go down the ranking list. How attractive can it be to be a touring tennis professional if the 750th ranked player in the world is struggling to make a living? There are 750 Major League Baseball (MLB) players who make a minimum salary of nearly $500,000 and an average salary of $3.2 million-plus. The NBA and NFL minimums are about the same. And that 750th ranked tennis player is one heck of a player!
Third, we need to do a better job of training our top developmental coaches. The educational requirements to become a “certified tennis professional” in most other countries are way more advanced than they are in the U.S. In some countries, to become a real tennis professional, you need to go to school for 18 months or two years where you learn everything from the importance of being on time, to advanced biomechanics. In the U.S., you need a pulse and a racquet. Many times, it appears that the pulse is optional.
Fourth, we have to come up with a better competition system for junior tennis. We seem to redo the system every few years and every time we change it, most are unhappy. Just when everyone finally understands the system, it’s changed. This is very difficult for participants, parents and coaches. The USTA is the governing body of junior tennis in the United States, and based on the size and diversity of our country, their task of creating a system that will produce American champions is a daunting one to say the least. Having said that, I still believe we have to do better.
Eric Faro: In order to develop top professional tennis players, we need to get the best athletes playing tennis. We need to attract the young kids who are on the basketball courts and football fields. We need parents and coaches encouraging and recruiting in order for this to happen.
Question: Is it easier to teach a highly-ranked player or a beginner/lower-end player?
Gilad Bloom: As in anything, there are pros and cons to both working with a beginner or an advanced player. Obviously, it is more challenging to work with a high performance type of student, the level of the sessions and the frequency allow for better results and a long-term career. The downsides are that at some point, the advanced players need a lot more personal attention, are more demanding, the parents are more involved and there is more pressure to produce results. When working with beginner type players, it can get a bit boring and frustrating because they might not commit to the game or play that much. On the other hand, there is a challenge in taking a low level player and turning them into a good player. I am often surprised at how good some of my "low level" players became. When working with both types of kids, the main reward is the lifetime connection you get with the kids.
Whitney Kraft: Both provide exciting challenges. A particular coach’s skill set may best answer this question. A High Performance-certified coach would feel more adept with an advanced player, but may feel ill-equipped with a beginner if they haven’t worked recently with this demographic. The toughest lesson is the player with entrenched muscle memory of poor technique that has to be re-tooled. Conveying the fact to this student that they must first get worse to get better and not worry about short-term results will aid in the process of their improvement.
Lawrence Kleger: I think for most teaching professionals, it is easier to teach “less accomplished” and recreational players than highly-ranked players, but I personally love the challenge of developing competitive players. While I believe that teaching recreational players requires knowledge of all aspects of the game and many important teaching skills, developing highly-ranked players requires all of those, plus it taps into one’s competitive nature. When you take on a student who is, or one that has the skill set to be, a ranked player, you take on the responsibility and pressure to make this player successful. Teaching a player to have fun is a noble undertaking. Teaching a ranked player to meet and surpass his or her own goals (or that of the parents) is a deeper and more stressful proposition!
Lauren Rothstein: Above all, the easiest player to teach is one who has a real desire to listen, learn and improve. However, strong points can be presented for both answers. The benefit of teaching a beginner is that the student’s game is completely raw, so teaching proper technique and fundamentals can be easier. The benefit of teaching a highly ranked player is that a coach is usually just refining skills that have already been successfully developed. The rate of success when teaching new skills is also quicker for the more advanced player.
Question: Who are the greatest players of all-time on each surface (clay, hard, and grass courts)?
George Garland: This is a bit of a loaded question in two ways. First, the surfaces have been homogenized in the recent past to the point that their individual inherent differences have been reduced. And second, like most sports, the game has evolved in terms of power and speed so much so that great champions of the past simply could not compete against the modern player. That doesn't mean they weren't great in the context of their era. It's just a different game now in so many ways. Given all that, I have a hard time picturing anybody from any time being better than Rafael Nadal on clay. I would say the same thing on hard and modern grass as well, with an additional nod to Roger Federer. The distinction I would make would be in terms of grass. If Wimbledon was played the way it used to be played when the courts were deader and softer, give me Roger or Pete Sampras.
Whitney Kraft: On clay, Bjorn Borg was the best, with his simple seldom miss strategy of hitting heavy topspin balls cross-court and then occasionally hitting down the “middle” and Chris Evert with pin-point accuracy and immense patience and mental focus. On hard courts, I would have to say Andre Agassi with his directional patterns and clean ball striking and Steffi Graf with her super slice backhand, big forehand and competitive spirit. On grass, I give it to Pete Sampras with his great serve and running forehand combined with impeccable volleys and Martina Navratilova with the “automatic” lefty add point and her ahead of her time physicality.
Jason Spiers: In my opinion, Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player ever. His titles speak for themselves. However, the greatest hard court and grass court players are really tough to determine because they could be one of two guys … Pete Sampras or Roger Federer. I’m going with Sampras as the greatest hard court player because some of his greatest wins were on a hard court. Which leaves Federer as the greatest of all-time on grass. With a total of seven Wimbledon Championships, five of which were in consecutive years, it’s fair to say he’s the greatest.
Question: What traits must a top player possess, mentally and physically, to set them apart?
Weylu Chang: I have been fortunate enough to have grown up and work near players that have made it to the top. Of course, there are a multitude of characteristics that contribute to why someone reaches the highest level. Those characteristics include a strong work ethic, positive attitude, responding positively to adversity, great physical gifts, strength, speed and power. A player doesn't have to possess all of those attributes, however they need to have more than one of them to succeed. But the one universal quality that I see all successful professionals possess is a sense of priority. A true professional has one priority; being a professional. For the successful pro, all of their decision-making relative to tennis revolves around not jeopardizing their immediate or long-term goals. It’s more than just showing up to train each day, it’s a lifestyle that influences their decision making on and off the court.
Eric Faro: Mentally, top players must be strong enough to not worry exclusively about wins and losses. They must play with a purpose and be able to bounce back to a good practice after each tournament. They need to focus on the process, rather than on each and every result. Physically, top players need to be able to play long matches over several hours, and sometimes twice a day. Once players are doing well, they need to play matches for many days in a row in order to win a tournament, so they need to be in shape to keep their performance level up. It is important to dedicate time off the court to their physical training schedule as well.
Lauren Rothstein: Top tennis players must be willing to make sacrifices. They need to be focused and commit to a long journey of highs and lows. Great players must constantly strive for success but be able to accept losses. They must thrive on a challenge. Successful players understand the importance of mental strength. They know that the difference in winning and losing may be in their head, and that they must always stay positive and mentally tough. Top players focus on their effort, not their outcome because they know that they will be successful in the long run with that attitude. They have developed a high level of self-confidence that sets them apart from their less successful peers.
Richard Thater: Stories about high performers have stuck with me over the years. In one of his books, sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr has stated that the lifestyle of winners is not normal. In that vein, I remember years ago watching a Robin Roberts interview with soccer player Mia Hamm and one of her teammates. The soccer stars had just spent the whole day giving a clinic for young players, so Roberts asked if they wanted a ride back to their motel. Hamm and her teammate looked at each other, then said that since it was only 5:30 p.m., and only five miles back to the motel, they would rather run. If this strikes you as not normal, you can begin to understand the mindset of world-class athletes.
Question: What parts of the game have evolved and what parts have grown worse or have disappeared entirely over the past decade?
Gordon Kent: Certainly tennis has evolved into a power baseline game over the past decade. With improved equipment and bigger, stronger players, the game has gotten much faster. The groundstrokes have gotten so powerful and accurate that serve and volley players have all but disappeared from the game. Players now approach the net almost exclusively to finish a point when they have their opponent way out of position. Players now lack the finesse and skills around the net that previous generations possessed. Young players do not focus nearly as much on learning volleys as they could.
Whitney Kraft: Aggressive baseline groundstrokes and return of serves have evolved, while serve and volley singles tennis has virtually disappeared. As well, overall volley skills (particularly touch and angle) have regressed.
Xavier Luna: As racquets and strings have allowed for an increasingly greater emphasis on spin and power, players are now glued to the baseline. Serve and volley has been nearly extinct in the singles game for the past decade. This has taken away finesse and touch shots from many players' repertoires. As a result, there is a greater divide between singles and doubles play. As power and spin have dominated the sport, there is a greater need for conditioning and athleticism. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for players like John McEnroe and Martina Hingis, both of whom employ finesse, skill and guile, to compete in the modern game. Furthermore, the game has become one-dimensional. In the 1990s, there was a wide variety of playing styles: Serve and volley, baseline grinding, counter-punching. There was also a greater range of grips, ranging from continental to western. Today, almost everyone is coerced into the semi-western grip. The one-handed backhand also enjoyed great popularity by players like McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Pat Rafter. Lastly, the court surfaces allowed for unique specialties and strengths to be highlighted.
Question: How prevalent do you think performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are in professional tennis and what do you feel should be done about them?
Gilad Bloom: I have been off the Pro Tour for almost 20 years and from what I hear, the problem still exists. There are always rumors about certain players, and I want to believe that in tennis, the situation is not as bad as it is in other sports. I know the ATP is conducting random testing on every player multiple times a year. It is a cat and mouse game, and the punishment should be severe for players who get caught to make it not worth doing it and send a message. It is simply not fair for the ones who don't cheat if the punishment of those who violate is not severe.
George Garland: I honestly have no idea. I am constantly amazed at the physicality of today's game. I guess I shouldn't be shocked if players have found ways to help themselves, especially when it comes to the aspect of recovery. Trying to police it or control it would be no different than in any other sport … just up the ante when it comes to testing. You will, however, encounter resistance from the player's union. And at the end of the day, have to decide how much of a problem it has become, and to what length you're willing to go to change it.
Lauren Rothstein: With scheduled and random drug tests on the professional tour, tennis fans are lead to believe that PEDs are not very relevant. However, there has been a lot of criticism about the loopholes and transparency in the minimal testing for a physically demanding 11-month sport. Multiple top players have publically voiced their support for increased testing. It is very conceivable to believe that players have been working with doctors to pass drug tests while still injecting their bodies with strength enhancement and recovery drugs. More drug tests and stricter rules would help prevent players from getting away with what could be going on behind the scenes of every tournament now. If drug tests were a higher priority in the sport, this could solve the potential loopholes and transparency of testing to maximize the fairness and integrity of tennis.
Jason Spiers: I don’t think PEDs are prevalent in tennis. It’s certainly there, but not prevalent. Some of the recent cases haven’t been able to prove much, but have really questioned the drug screening process.
Question: What are some of the positives and negatives of 10 & Under Tennis?
Gordon Kent: Right now, there are really only positives. It remains to be seen if young players will achieve higher levels of play as a result of the 10 & Under program. Certainly, participation has increased at the younger ages. Everything makes sense … shorter racquets, appropriate balls, shorter courts. We'll see what the results are in a few years.
Xavier Luna: The benefits of 10 & Under Tennis are plenty. The lighter balls allow young players to form a proper technique. The lower bounce of the balls enables the children to play relative to their own height, thereby preventing the reliance on extreme western grips. Most importantly, juniors are encouraged to hit with spin, as the courts are smaller. As the progression balls are lightweight and travel slower, hitting winners are less frequent. This enables the players to develop more tactical point construction and consistency before relying on their power. The only downside of 10 & Under Tennis is the perception that exists in the mind of parents. Those who are not active in the sport may not understand the development regimen required in tennis. They may be the most difficult barriers to a child's development in 10 & Under Tennis.