John McEnroe's Bold Move To Revive US Tennis

Bernard A. ChavisContributor IJune 16, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 20:  Tennis Player John McEnroe  attends the Vanity Fair Party during the 9th Annual Tribeca Film Festival at the New York State Supreme Court on April 20, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Kudos to John McEnroe for taking a very bold step to revive American tennis. He recently opened a $18 million dollar, 20 court tennis facility on Randall's Island in New York.

The most successful player in US Davis Cup history was always ready and willing to represent his country in Davis Cup play. The passion he displayed on the tennis courts is matched by his commitment to bring the US back to its rightful place of prominence in the sport. His passion for this country and tennis is unquestionable.

Unlike many who talk a good game and do nothing, McEnroe has put his money where his mouth is.

I share his long standing frustration to get the USTA, (the governing body of tennis in the US by an act of congress) to construct and put into effect a well thought out and systematic agenda to bring the United States back into the forefront of Tennis and develop the next generation of players to carry on the great tradition of American tennis.

With the exception of Venus and Serena Williams and perhaps Andy Roddick and James Blake the US program has fallen on hard times.

Where are the current counterparts to past top players such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe? There is no question that the USTA has the resources and money for this.

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When I last checked Donald Young, a 21 year old African American who had a sensational junior tennis record, has been relegated to playing on the pro satellite tour. What ever happened to Lavar Harper Griffith, another African American player from few years ago who showed promise? When I checked, he was relegated to being a practice player of the US Davis Cup team.

It will be interesting to see if the USTA will find a way to partner with John McEnroe on this project. His younger brother Patrick is the USTA’s General Manager of Player Development.

It is a precarious situation, John as the outspoken innovator and Patrick as the company man. In a resent article in Sports Illustrated (May 31, 2010), when asked if he hoped to work with Patrick he said, “He hasn’t called to congratulate me. I don’t know what that means.”

With an annual operating budget exceeding $200 million and top notch training facilities, it should be a no brainer. However, internal politics and unwise financial deals may be a stumbling block. An article in the New York Times (Nov. 24, 2009) revealed that the USTA paid former Chief Executive of Professional Tennis, Arlen Kantarian more that $9 million in 2008.

The USTA Player Development Program has undergone many transformations over the years while having very little to show for players developed and money spent.

A few years ago as National President of the American Tennis Association I had the opportunity to be a member of the USTA Plan for Growth Steering Committee. The organization had committed to spending $35 million to grow the game. I was the only African American on the committee of about 18 that included tennis legend Billie Jean King.

I offered that the growth of the game lies in the urban inner city areas of the country. This is where the majority of the population lives. My comments were ignored. This remains true today. This is not rocket science.

Maybe that is the problem with the USTA hierarchy it makes to much sense. Let’s hope that the current situation and John McEnroe’s bold initiative move wakes up the establishment.

Let’s not forget that the issue of racial diversity is an open sore in the organization that continues to be an issue. Racial exclusion is a well documented fact in the USTA’s past.

History was made with the election of the first African American President, but many areas of society still lag behind in leveling the playing field. Shortly after being appointed to his position as General Manager of Men’s Tennis for the USTA, Patrick McEnroe fired Rodney Harmon, an African American and long time employee who held past positions as Director of Men’s Tennis, Olympic Men’s Tennis Coach, and Director of Minority Participation.

For an organization that is trying live down a past history of racial discrimination the record is not promising.

Zina Garrison was fired as Fed Cup Captain and filed a racial discrimination suit against the USTA that was settled out of court. Cecil Holland and Sande French, two high quality tennis officials, filed a racial discrimination suit and settled out of court. Leslie Allen, a former tour pro player and Magna Cum Laude graduate of USC, was let go as Fed Cup Chair. USTA’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Karlyn Lothery left after two years on the job. Not only does the organization have a major problem with player development but racial diversity continues to be a black eye throughout the program.

Bernard A. Chavis, Author

The Games of Tennis, An African American Journey

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