Chase Buchanan didn’t want to leave home. His mother knew that. Since he was a kid, Chase has always tried to prove that he could do what they all said he couldn’t: make it as a top pro, and do it coming from a gloomy, chilly sprawltopia like Columbus, Ohio. He never wanted to become, his mother says, “one of those academy kids,” the ones with rich daddies and Florida condos and perma sock tans. Chase was cocky and stubborn, and he could get away with it while he was winning. But now he was 16, the competition was older, the serves were faster and tougher to return, and he was losing.
He lost in El Paso. He lost in College Station. He lost in Philly. He had, his coach from childhood said, “a stall-out moment.” To help, the coach bought him a medallion and had it mounted on a silver chain so Chase could wear it around his neck. The medallion had an inscription. It read, WHO DO I WANT TO BE IN THIS EXACT MOMENT? Then the answer: IN THIS MOMENT LIES MY ATTITUDE.
Chase wore the medallion. He still lost.
Then he got hurt. He injured his back. He lost momentum. The culmination of his season was last year at Flushing Meadows, in Queens, at the U.S. Open Junior Championships, an annual event for teenagers that starts in early September and takes place on courts far away from the action of the pros and the spotlight of the press. At the Open, Chase’s game was so off that he didn’t even qualify.
As a boy, Chase was the top junior player in America. Now he was on the verge of cracking up into a cautionary tale. That’s why he and his mother knew he had to finally leave Ohio. But where to?
He had free rides to all the major factories. At the top of the list was Nick Bollettieri’s champion-producing mill in Bradenton, on the west coast of Florida, which is owned by the talent behemoth IMG. This is where household names like Venus and Serena and Maria Sharapova all came as kids, and non-phenoms pay as much as $85,000 a year for room and board. Bollettieri is the largest tennis academy in the country (with 310 juniors from 70 countries, as well as over 50 courts), and the diversity of talent it can host is why so many coaches consider it the best. At Bollettieri, there is always someone around who can beat you, and that’s how great players get better.
Saddlebrook, the resort near Tampa, also wanted him. Saddlebrook is where top Americans James Blake and Mardy Fish train. There are about 100 juniors in its program, with 60 boarders; tennis tuition runs about $55,000 a year.
But Chase wasn’t interested in Bollettieri or Saddlebrook. They were “both big spreads,” he says. Too big for him. He worried about sharing the court with too many kids, and the coaching. He also worried about the potential cost. He didn’t want to make that decision yet. He wanted something smaller, less corporate, more boutique. So he decided to enroll himself in an experiment.
The name on the brochure sounds like a performance-enhancing vitamin drink: Elite Player Development. The force behind the program was a new player in the academy business, the United States Tennis Association, the entity charged with the mission of promoting tennis throughout the country. The USTA does everything from building new courts and organizing night leagues to running tournaments (including the U.S. Open) and developing generations of up-and-coming juniors and pros. But this last department has proven to be a critical problem in recent years. The last American to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick, who won the U.S. Open five years ago. In the women’s bracket, despite the continuing dominance of the aging Williams sisters, the top ten is owned by the Eastern-bloc invasion of Ivanovic, Jankovic, Kuznetsova, Safina. And despite epic performances from Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, national television ratings for tennis matches have remained stagnant. The USTA has been trying to reverse those numbers and figure out a way to revive the domestic tennis economy.
One of its solutions is to find a new symbol to inspire younger players, a PR-friendly hero who can win the big points in big matches and has a good story to tell. But it hasn’t been easy finding the Next Great American Tennis Star. So now they have a new strategy. They plan to spend as much as $100 million over ten years to create one.
“We studied it,” says USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian. “We found that if two Americans play against each other, or if one American is playing, the ratings jump. People are looking for an American champion to root for.”