Top coach criticizes USTA for ‘wasting millions’ and cutting player development program

Top coach criticizes USTA for ‘wasting millions’ and cutting player development program

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla — As one of the biggest months on the pro tennis calendar in the U.S. heads toward a climax at the Miami Open, there is turmoil inside the operation that has helped create a mini-renaissance in American professional tennis.

Last week, Jose Higueras, the former pro who helped lead the player development program for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which is responsible for the current generation of top professionals, sent a blistering letter to leaders of the American tennis community and the USTA, criticizing the wide-ranging budget cuts that he said threaten to undo the progress of the past dozen years. 

Higueras, a native of Spain who moved to Palm Springs, California, and coached the Grand Slam winners Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Roger Federer, is among the most respected voices in tennis coaching. He became a U.S. citizen after marrying an American woman in the early 1980s.

In his letter, Higueras said the leadership of the USTA had veered off course since 2020, “deliberately cutting funding and staffing for the Team USA pathway and American players, while they waste millions of dollars on boondoggles like unnecessary building renovations at the USTA Campus in Lake Nona and a million dollar holiday party.” 

In recent years, the USTA has cut funding for camp programs and eliminated four positions that helped run them. It has also cut the number of national team coaches from 24 to 11. Higueras estimated that USTA funding and grants had an impact on roughly 1,500 players and their parents, and 1,500 coaches annually — figures that stand to drop substantially amid the current budget cuts, with potential downstream effects. The USTA did not refute any of Higueras’ numbers.

In a statement, the USTA said it was “incredibly proud” of its player development program and the partnerships with the private sector that had driven the success of American players in recent years, success that it knows inspires children and adults to play. 

Indeed, these are supposedly good times for American professional tennis. 

Coco Gauff, already a U.S. Open singles champion at 20 years old, has become one of the top celebrities in U.S. sports. There are six American men in the top 40, all aged 27 or younger, more than any other country, and three in the top 20.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

From 1995 to the middle of 2008 — when Higueras accepted an offer from the then head of player development Patrick McEnroe to help revive American tennis — the country produced just three junior Grand Slam singles champions. From mid-2008 through last year, the U.S. produced 22 junior Grand Slam champions. In 2015, three players Higueras and his team developed through their teen years — Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka — all won junior Grand Slam titles.

Both Paul and Frances Tiafoe have often said they would never have been able to afford the coaching and training opportunities that have led them to Grand Slam semifinals without the assistance of the USTA. 

However, the organization said it needed to take “a holistic approach to ensuring that appropriate levels of funding are in place for all of its priorities”, making sure that the growth in participation during the Covid-19 pandemic continues by investing in grassroots and community tennis programs.

“To do so, the USTA must balance and reprioritize support for key areas, such as growing participation — ensuring that every player has access to a facility and a place to play — and that there are sufficient, qualified coaches available nationwide to inspire love of the game,” the USTA said.

In the view of Higueras and other veterans of the USTA’s player development program, the organization is making investments in community tennis and other areas at the expense of the next generation of top American players. 

For nearly two decades, the USTA has worked hard to try to reduce the high costs of tennis training that so many families struggle to afford. Expenses can reach $2,000 (£1,600) a month or more, not including travel, which leads them to encourage their children to pursue a cheaper alternative.

The USTA pursued a broad strategy in that effort. It invested millions of dollars to train coaches throughout the country to teach the skills required for the modern game. 

At the top of its coaching pyramid were more than 20 national coaches that worked to develop the elite talent. It held local and regional camps to identify and cultivate that talent and regularly brought the best players together for national camps at its training centers in Florida and Carson, California. Those coaches worked closely with the best players and often accompanied them to tournaments in their teen years before they were earning money and could afford to pay a coach to travel with them.

Sometimes Higueras, who traveled more than one million miles to every corner of the U.S. to help develop the program and to attend junior tournaments, even hosted smaller camps for the best of the best at his ranch in the California desert.

“My wife asked me five times why I was doing this,” Higueras said during a recent interview. “This is my country. I was obsessed.”

Marc Lucero, a former national coach who is based in California, remembers spotting Jenson Brooksby hitting a beginner-level squishy orange ball at a training camp in 2009. Thirteen years later Brooksby was ranked as high as No 33 in the world. Now 23, he is coming back from wrist surgery and a suspension for missing three drug tests.

“I agree with the entirety of it,” Lucero wrote in a text message when asked about the Higueras letter, which he had read.

What baffles Higueras most is that the cuts have continued after the USTA has largely recovered from the debacle of having to hold the 2020 U.S. Open without any spectators because of the pandemic. The U.S. Open has recorded record revenues and attendance in recent years. In 2022, the most recent year for which figures are available, the organization collected a record $529million. 

Also, the USTA has restocked its reserves thanks in part to the sale of the Western & Southern Open, the main tune-up for the U.S. Open, to financial services firm Beemok Capital for about $300million. However, according to people within the organization, there is widespread debate about how large a role the USTA should play in developing professionals, despite years of pronouncements that producing star players is essential for generating enthusiasm for the sport, especially at the grassroots level, which has become its priority.

Higueras said there is enough money to accomplish both tasks. 

I am 100 per cent for community tennis,” Higueras said. “Community tennis should be a good start to find some kids.

“But the next step is player development. That is a totally different expertise.”

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup)

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