(December 17, 2012) -- After a wildly successful professional career that saw him reach as high as No. 5 in the world rankings and play in the 1976 French Open final (as well as the Wimbledon and U.S. Open semifinals), Harold Solomon has been a major player on the coaching circuit. At the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Solomon has worked with juniors of all levels in addition to tutoring many former and current pros such as Mary Jo Fernandez, Jim Courier, Shahar Peer and Jennifer Capriati.
We caught up with Solomon to discuss the state of American tennis and other issues that are currently impacting the junior game.
Tennis Now: As a coach who is heavily involved with junior tennis players, what's your take on the USTA's proposed changes to the junior competition schedule?
Harold Solomon: My thoughts and ideas are probably going to be contrary to a lot of my student's parents ideas. It all depends on what your long term objective is, and I truly believe that in order to really get the U.S. back on top as far as tennis is concerned--and I think that there's no reason that we can't be back on top--there's a couple of things that need to happen.
We can't have an inverted pyramid as far as our junior training is concerned. It needs to be a pyramid. What I mean by that is as you get further up to the top, it needs to become more and more elite. That's upsetting to a lot of people but I really believe that it's important that you get top players playing against the top players more often, and that it becomes more meaningful to be playing bigger tournaments, so that when somebody goes to play Kalamazoo or somebody goes to play the National Hard Courts in San Diego, those are very, very exclusive kind of events. It should really mean something to get into those events. The more exclusive it ends up being, the more it means to players to be able to get up there. It forces excellence to the top.
There are so many factors that go into the lack of junior champions that are able to compete at the international level currently, and I think that this is one of them. I understand the push back from parents, but I think it should be something where the lines of demarcation are clearly understood.
I like the idea of exclusivity, but it only works if there is enough spots at the bottom of the pyramid. It has to be wide enough.
TN: Do you feel that the USTA is capable of changing things regionally? They want to eliminate travel and they want to eliminate point-chasing...
HS: I think it's a good thought process. Once again it goes back to what your long term objectives are. If the USTA is going to spend all the money that it's spending on junior development, there needs to be a junior system that supports it.
TN: What about the USTA's role in player development?
Harold Solomon: I really don't think that they're set up correctly. I think that they've gone about doing it entirely the wrong way. At one stage maybe 10 or 15 years ago I thought maybe that their thoughts and ideas about this were correct. I think that they're not using their funding abilities efficiently.
I am much more of the opinion that what the USTA should do is certify certain academies that they think meet the standards and will incorporate what they have as a curriculum inside their own programs, and they should let juniors--parents--decide where their kids want to go. And the USTA should base their funding of these programs on student’s results. And that way you wouldn't have this huge bureaucracy that's been built up. You take the Bollettieri's you take the Saddlebrooks you take all the different places that are in the business of producing juniors--we have to do a good job in the private sector or people won't come see us--and let them go that way about it. That way you could reach so many more kids.
I just don't know that there's any real accountability for producing results with what's going to end up happening here. What's the target? How do we decide?
TN: I’ve heard this before. It seems like it would make sense for them to spread seed money and create incentive.
HS: You'd be able to reach so many more kids. You wouldn't have all these huge coaching and facility overhead expenses, and we would have to compete against each other--that would be a great thing. Instead of having a more--I hate to say this--socialist system, let the marketplace determine. Personally I think that in the long run that's a more productive type of situation.
TN: What about the thought process that the game has gone global and the U.S.A. should just lower its expectations?
HS: I thinks it's just BS, this whole conversation. You've got players coming from countries that have 10 million people, 20 million people--give me a break. If we can't get the athletes that are necessary involved in the game and then put them in an environment so that they can be successful, and be clear with them about what it's going to take for that to happen, then we're doing something wrong. Seriously, I don't buy that at all [that globalization is the reason for America’s lack of success in professional tennis]. It's the biggest cop-out of all-time. It drives me crazy when I hear that conversation.
The world is different obviously... I understand the pressures that come from parents and this and that and everything else... it's a little bit more along the lines of what Billie Jean King used to say to players on the WTA side. They'd have WTA meetings and players would get up and say 'There's not enough places to play, there's only 64 spots during the week to be able to compete and earn a living,' and she'd look at them and say 'You know what? You need to get better.' And I think that's what American tennis has to do--the same thing--we have to get better. And that has to get driven from the top.
TN: Circling back, do you think that the USTA's willingness to hold town hall meetings is a good sign?
Harold Solomon: The more communication the better in every aspect. It will help stop people from becoming disenfranchised. I think it's really important. But you can't even do those meetings until you are 1,000 percent clear about the results that you are trying to produce. Lay it out and be clear about it. If it's not clear then it's going to be the biggest disaster that ever walked the earth.
TN: Off the subject, just something I've been curious about. Do you feel that the USTA gets in the way of your mission at your academy?
HS: It's a tough situation, I have to say. Here's how it gets in the way sometimes: Say that I have a player that's doing exceptionally well, winning at the international level and starting to play pro tournaments and being successful. Say that person and that family can't really afford to take that player to the next level (have a coach full-time or do the training that's necessary). Instead of the USTA coming back to me and saying 'Harold you've done such an amazing job with that player, what we're going to do is fund their training going forward,' what they will do is end up taking on that student themselves. So the player will come out of the environment that we've set up for them to become successful and go into the USTA’s environment where they may or may not be as successful. I hate the idea that we're competing. We shouldn't be. We're trying to produce American players.
I'm not saying that they [the USTA] are not accommodating. There's lots of times that they are. I have a very good relationships with everybody there. It's kind of a strange situation, it just is.