At 8, Chase began to beat his mother. At 9, he began to win tournaments around the Midwest. By 10, he was training with college kids, and his mother put 40,000 miles on their minivan driving him around. He received his first racquet sponsorship at 11. At 12, he won the junior nationals and got his first clothing sponsor. He also got noticed.
“He was big, he was fast, and he could really hit the big ball,” says Rodney Harmon, head of men’s player development for the USTA.
At 13, after winning Les Petits As, the legendary juniors tournament in France, he received his first offer to turn professional. But 13 was too young for Chase to turn pro, his mother told him, and they chose to struggle with the costs of constant flying, hotel rooms, homeschooling, and a private coach.
That same year, he won the nationals again, and the USTA offered him financial grants to defray his expenses. Now he had two coaches: Al Matthews, and the USTA’s Dave DiLucia. With Matthews, he traveled in the States, and at night, in hotel rooms, Matthews read to him from a book of quotes and applied the heady intellect of Aristotle and Thoreau to Chase’s tennis game. With DiLucia, Chase kept a journal of his matches and traveled throughout Europe and began to prepare himself in earnest for the pro tour.
Then Chase turned 15, and the USTA wanted him to jump ahead to compete in the under-18 division. This created a rift between his coaches. “My philosophy is that you have to conquer one thing before you conquer the next,” Matthews says. “You can’t skip steps.”
The other view, espoused by DiLucia and the USTA coaching staff, is that raw talent needs to be challenged and tested. Chase’s mother felt the USTA was trying to develop her boy too fast, though the USTA finally won the argument. “The USTA, in desperation, pushed a lot of these young players ahead in a hurry,” she says. “Agassi was retiring and Sampras had retired, and it was like, ‘Those guys are all gone. Now we’ve got to do something.’ ”
Hence, the academy. “We were getting blamed for not producing any champions, so we decided to do something about it,” says Jane Brown, the USTA’s president, who adds that cuts were made “across the board” to come up with the academy’s annual funding. “We’ve run out of material,” echoes Nick Bollettieri. “We had a very good eighties and nineties, but look around: the Samprases, Couriers, Todd Martins, and Agassis are all gone.”
Ironically, this Silent Generation began, some tennis people say, when the USTA first began its player-development program, in 1988. One reform the American tennis czars sought to make then was eliminating rankings for all kids under the age of 12. The goal was to replace preteen cutthroat competition with a genuine love for the game. “In hindsight, we made a huge tactical mistake,” says Kevin O’Connor, who runs Saddlebrook. “Our kids are now at least two years, and a couple hundred matches, behind everyone else in the world.”
So now everyone wants to restock the pool of American tennis talent, and the debate is over how this should be done. “There are multiple schools of thought,” says Nick Saviano, a former USTA coach who runs a private academy in South Florida. “One school is that the USTA should be a part of the development process. And the other schools are that they shouldn’t be involved in the process and that it should be left up to the free-enterprise system.” Saviano belongs to the latter school. His point is one of global economics: In order to create the Next Great One, the USTA must concentrate on what America does well, which means keeping the focus on this country’s traditional tennis ethos—independence and innovation.
To others, what worked before is just not good enough. “We’re competing now with the whole rest of the world, and the rest of the world are hungry mothers!” says Bollettieri, who considers himself a partner of the USTA’s academy, not a competitor. But is spending about $10 million a year to push two dozen kids (at roughly $416,667 a head) the best way to go about it? “I’m skeptical of its cost-to-benefit ratio,” says Colette Lewis, who’s been following junior tennis for the past three decades and now runs a blog, ZooTennis.com. “With all the intangibles involved, it’s too risky to devote that much attention and money to a handful of young players.” The gamble is not lost on Kantarian. “Any time you spend money, it’s always, Could we spend it better?” Kantarian had a choice: “Do we spend it on racquets and give them out for free? Do we build more courts? Or do we try to do something different?” So far, he’s tried the first two. With Elite Player Development, he says, “We think it’s worth a try.”