Young No More

by: Peter Bodo | April 25, 2011

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Don by Pete Bodo

As conference calls and other similar media events go, it was a corker. Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of the USTA Player Development Program, pulled no punches in discussing the recent controversy created by indiscreet Tweeter Donald Young Jr., following his loss to Tim Smyczek in the final of the USTA's French Open wild card playoff. The card belongs to the USTA to do with as it pleases, thanks to reciprocal agreement between the French major and the U.S. Open.

Although the call was billed as a forum for discussing that wild card playoff and other, general player development issues, it was clear from the get-go that the main and perhaps only item on the agenda for McEnroe was the Young affair. At times during the call, McEnroe's tone was so impassioned that you might have easily mistaken him for that other McEnroe.

But Johnny Mac's most exquisite outbursts were always grievances filed on his own behalf. By contrast, the anger of brother Pat, long known as the patient, level-headed, diligent McEnroe, was fueled by the extent to which Young's childish and vulgar outburst on Twitter was felt as a cruel blow by half-a-dozen USTA coaches and trainers whose work for McEnroe and the program consisted in large part of working with Young. "My emotions are not just coming from my personal feelings," McEnroe said. "But from my feelings for our team, the guys who have tried to do everything to help this kid."

If you don't know the background, click on the above link or read the post I wrote for ESPN on the genesis of the controversy. But yesterday, McEnroe accurately characterized the incident as just the "tip of the iceberg," the body of which is a remarkably long history of USTA support for Donald Young frozen solid to a staggering sense of entitlement and self-destructive tendencies in the Young camp. The group consists basically of the 21-year-old champion manqué and his parent-coaches, father Donald and mother Ilona.

This is a truly sad narrative made all the more poignant by the fact that USTA operatives feel that on those occassions when they've successfully kept Young's parents sidelined, Young has been a co-operative, enthusiastic, pleasant kid. That's one of the reasons the McEnroe and the USTA haven't simply cut Young off, although it will take an apology and probably a few healthy meals of humble pie at the Young household if the relationship between the parties is going to survive.

McEnroe took pains to point out that the USTA doesn't want to take over and run any kid's life. The Player Development program is flexible, and it accomodates players with different desires and needs, including those who want to keep their private or non-USTA coaches involved in the development process. "There are lots of parents and coaches involved," he said. "We deal with a lot of different scenarios. But we want the relationship to be a two-way street, when a lot of times these people basically come and say, 'Here's what we want, here's what we need for you to do for us.' That's just not the way it works."

McEnroe feels that the Youngs have frequently violated that basic, good-faith concept, and bucked the USTA even while appealing for—and gladly taking—its help. Mostly, this has taken the form of meddling; Young's parents frequently ignored or reversed the advice and even the specific instructions given to Donald by the USTA coaches working with him. "When the coach working with Donald says that he ought to spend some time before his next match doing some conditioning work and Donald's mother says, 'Oh, no, he can't do that, he has to take a nap...' well, that gets a little demoralizing, never mind how it might affect Donald's progress."

Many USTA-affiliated coaches and trainers have similar stories, all of them pointing toward a culprit that not be a person or persons but an attitude—a sense of entitlement in gifted young players that is so strong that it ruins them—and, in the process, keeps U.S. tennis mired in the doldrums. "We're trying to affect some change in that culture of entitlement," McEnroe says. "Sure we live on our own little world, but we (at the USTA) have a passion for this, we have people who care."

The wild card playoff system (the U.S. has a similar reciprocity program with the Australian Open) that helped create this controversy is part of the effort to diminish the delusional expectations of some gifted players. It departs from the philosophy under which wild cards are meted out to those who are perceived to "deserve" them, rather than those who earned them in an immediate, direct manner—via competition against their peers. Young personally has received 13 wild cards into the U.S. Open (albeit in different draws, including mixed doubles and qualifying) as well as a load of wild cards into other U.S. tournaments. Just how much those free rides have helped—or hurt—him is an open question.

Partly for that reason, the USTA instituted and is committed to sticking with this concept of holding an invitational mini-tournament (this year, the USTA deemed just six players worthy of an invitation, including Young) with the wild card at stake. "This is a golden opportunity to compete and achieve something, not some kind of chore," McEnroe said. "John Isner showed up for the playoffs when he was No. 70 in the world. And he won it and earned a card. We try to send the message to the players—you need to earn what you get."

That can be a hard lesson, especially for someone who's had as much attention and support lavished upon him as Young. That raises the question, Did the USTA somehow have a hand in spoiling Young, simply by giving him too much, too soon?  Ironically, McEnroe is one of the few former players who, thanks to his celebrated older brother, understands how wild cards can hurt as well as help you. Between October of 1998 and the following November, McEnroe received wild cards into seven consecutive tournaments—and never won a match. He believes he holds the ATP record for getting the most wild cards in a single year. "I felt guilty taking them," he has said. "Down deep I knew I was just getting them because I was John's brother."

A sense of entitlement can came in many different forms—and have an unpredictable range of consequences.

The big question now is, Can the Youngs and the USTA move beyond this? Do either of them really want to, or is this the final, disappointing chapter in the history of a former tennis prodigy? It could happen, it could all end right here and now because it's been almost three, long years since Young hit his career-high ranking of No. 73, which is still a long way and many wins away from his present ranking of No. 95. And left to their own devices, the Young's haven't demonstrated any great ability to shepherd Donald to the promised land.

A few weeks ago, Young qualified for Miami shortly after posting his best performance in a big event at Indian Wells. But he lost in the first round to Denis Istomin, after which he promptly disappeared with nary a word to the USTA. I've learned that he was next spotted by USTA eyes at the qualifying event for Houston. He showed up to practice on a court adjacent to the one being used Mardy Fish. Donald was out there with Ilona, and an unknown hitting partner of little note. Young did not qualify—although he did go on to win that Tallahassee Challenger the following week (beating only one player with a ranking in the double digits, No. 86 Rainer Schuettler), with USTA strength and conditioning trainer Rodney Marshall helping him out that week.

During his successful run in Tallahassee, Young reportedly turned to Marshall as he battled his way to the title, shouting and repeatedly pumping his fist. But just about a week later, Young, a loser in the playoff tournament, was denouncing the USTA on Twitter, reducing Marshall in effect to a persona non grata. Young hurt a number of people, and that's why McEnroe let go with both barrels. "I know what all the members of my team are doing on a daily basis, and that's why I take this so personally. Because they're my team."

if Donald Young is going to play in the main draw of the French Open, he's going to have to get in through the qualifying tournament. He'll have to earn his place, and unless Young issues some dramatic and heartfelt statements and apologies in the coming days, it could be a pretty lonely quest.

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