Coaching the Coaches

Thursday, July 31, 2014 /by
Novak Djokovic listens to coach Boris Becker on the practice court. (AP Photo)
Novak Djokovic listens to coach Boris Becker on the practice court. (AP Photo)

For someone coming from Manhattan, the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows can seem like a trek deep into the New York boroughs. To get to the courts where former U.S. Open quarterfinalist Tim Mayotte has his academy, though, you must go even deeper. When I visited this spring, I passed Arthur Ashe Stadium and the Unisphere on my way to Cunningham Park in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens. From there I walked around a circus tent that blocked its entrance, and eventually found my back to the small set of hard courts that house the Mayotte-Hurst Academy. Never let it be said that Mayotte, a Stanford grad and silver medalist at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, takes the easy road.

At Fresh Meadows, Mayotte and his coaching partner, Lee Hurst, were running an afternoon practice session with a dozen or so of their juniors. On one court was a brown-haired, 10-year-old boy whom they considered especially promising. It wasn’t his ranking or his results that impressed them; it was the way he had adapted to the technique that they had tried to instill in him. He did look like a quick study. Not only did he have the smoothly controlled strokes of an older player, he appeared to have the makings of a professional-level fist-pump.

Mayotte compared the student to a visiting player on a nearby court, who had a higher ranking.

“Over time,” he said, “we think our kid will be the better player because he’s doing things the right way, and he has a foundation he can build on.”

To Mayotte, U.S. tennis doesn’t lack the best athletes, as some believe. And the country’s kids, as others say, aren’t too soft. To his mind, what we lack is the proper technique for today’s game, and the coaches to teach it well.

Mayotte and Hurst, an Englishman and veteran of Florida’s Saddlebrook Academy, met when they worked as developmental instructors for the USTA at Flushing Meadows; there, in 2009, they launched the organization’s High Performance Center. Eighteen months later, frustrated by what he saw as the USTA’s rigid and not fully articulated teaching philosophy, Mayotte left to start his own academy in Queens. 

Now he's back with a new idea, one that he thinks will get to the heart of the nation’s tennis woes: A coaching university. Earlier this month, he sent an email to the U.S. tennis community that listed two goals for the project: “(1) Create a rigorous, 2-3 year training program that will develop a large number of coaches to train the next generation of players and coaches. (2) Create a common vernacular that enables systematic analysis and more fruitful, disciplined discussion of the development of performance players.”

As to why he felt a coaching university was necessary, Mayotte wrote, “The game has changed so radically that a style of playing and coaching that once produced a number of highly ranked players is now inadequate to produce champions. American juniors and their parents are subjected to a largely uneducated or under-educated teaching core.”

When he sent the email, Mayotte expressed some hope that he could obtain seed money from the USTA and the country’s two coaching associations, the USPTA and USPTR. But while he has received many encouraging messages, including one from the USTA’s top developmental coach, Jose Higueras, Mayotte is set to go it alone. According to him, the coaching associations don’t believe that prospective teaching pros will take two years, and go into debt, for the equivalent of a certificate they can currently get by attending a workshop and passing an exam.

And this is the crux of the problem, according to Mayotte: Other countries require their tennis coaches to have a more sophisticated level of knowledge than the U.S. does. To him, those countries have also done a better job of teaching the game the way it’s played today. Rather than emphasizing the big serve and big forehand, they coach from the feet up, and connect every part of the game along the way.

“The French are exceptional at teaching,” Mayotte says as an example. “Their federation has a Head of Technique, and their coaches are professional and well trained. We like to say the French players aren’t tough enough, and that might be the case, but you can see they have so many players who hit the ball so well.”

“I look at our players,” he continues, “and I see that we don’t hit the ball quite well enough, and that adds up over three sets or five sets. A big part of that is a coach’s understanding how a player’s strokes and movement work together. Having the right swing shapes and footwork patterns has become so important in today’s game, and we struggle with that.”

Mayotte believes that U.S. tennis places too much blame for its shortcomings on the fact that the sport doesn’t draw the best athletes here, and that the ones who do play it aren’t hungry enough.

“You look at kids like [Francis] Tiafoe,” Mayotte says. “It’s pretty obvious he’s a great athlete, and that he’s into it. With most of the kids I see, desire isn’t the problem. But I worry about someone like Tiafoe because already you can see that he could use some cleaning up on his technique. When I first saw Andy Murray in the U.S. Open qualies, you could tell he was doing the right things already.”

Even the current controversy in this country over forcing young children to use smaller courts and softer balls isn’t going to make any difference, Mayotte says, if there aren’t coaches there to teach kids how hit the ball, whatever ball it is, correctly.

That’s where Mayotte, someday, wants to come in. A student of philosophy in college, he says that “writing a curriculum is exciting for me.” His hope for a teaching university is that an “angel investor” could be attracted to put money behind the idea. As an example, he points to the training center in College Park, Md., where Tiafoe plays, and which was funded by banker-philanthropist Ken Brody.

Ultimately, what Mayotte hopes to do is create a higher and more unified professional standard for his industry.

“What I want to create,” he says, “is a framework where coaches can share information. Right now, there’s too much, ‘This coach has his way, that coach has her way,’ and everyone does their own thing. There should be an underlying science that guides what all of us are doing.”

For Mayotte, the players alone will never reverse the U.S.’s decline at the top of the sport.

“If the coach doesn’t know how to get you there,” he says, “you’re not going to get there.”

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