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Volume 21 No. 6
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Sportsmanship taking a beating at USTA youth events

On the side of courts at American pro tennis tourneys this summer, and this week’s U.S. Open, is the brand Net Generation, the name of the U.S. Tennis Association’s youth initiative.

My 12-year-old daughter and I have a different name: “Net Generation Cheats.”

Cheating at all levels of grassroots tennis is rampant, so much so that kids quit the game because of it. Chen Shachar, who founded smart court maker PlaySight, said it is the No. 1 reason children leave the sport. Unlike almost every other sport, tennis requires its young participants to referee their own games. While that has always been the case, those connected to the sport say cheating is out of control.

“The cheating in the game is to me worse than ever,” said John McEnroe, responding to a reporter’s question about the subject on a conference call last month to promote ESPN’s broadcast of Wimbledon. “I guess the stakes are higher. It’s a shame that these poor kids feel so much pressure, they cheat in practice at the club when we play. It’s crazy. That is an issue that definitely has to be dealt with.” McEnroe runs the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

John Evert, Chris Evert’s brother who runs the well-regarded Evert Tennis Academy, said the money in the pros, and pressure to get college scholarships, is driving intense pressure from parents. In fact, he finds the biggest cheaters at his academy are not the ones who live in the dorm, but those whose parents moved with them to Florida to train.

But it’s at all levels. My 12-year-old has not had a single match in 12-and-under USTA tournaments in which she played not affected by cheating. As a parent, you may see this happening, but you can’t say a word. If two tennis parents meet, the conversation almost certainly will be on cheating within five minutes.

And cheating is not just line calls, it’s changing the score. This happens all the time.

The USTA sanctions these tournaments and should do something. Katrina Adams, the USTA president, told me last year sportsmanship is a big project for her, but I have not seen any evidence of it filter down practically to events.
Here are a few humble suggestions:

Every USTA-sanctioned event must emphasize sportsmanship before sending kids out onto the court.

There should be two strikes and you are out protocol. There are roving refs at these events, often watching half a dozen courts while also responsible for the front desk. Occasionally they do spot cheating. Twice in a semifinal my daughter played, the roving ref came over and overruled what was obviously a cheating call from the opponent, and said something to the girl. But that was it. In fact, in one instance he just had them play the point over (this, by the way, was at McEnroe’s academy). The girl learned she could get away with it even when being watched.

Pam Shriver, who was also on the ESPN call, suggested tennis use the American Youth Soccer Organization approach and have parents ref some matches. In other words, I would be called on to be a judge in matches my daughter is not playing in. Evert, who once was Shriver’s agent, liked the idea but worried a parent could influence who their kid gets to play. Perhaps, but many of these tourneys have both boys and girls so it could be different gender. And it can’t be worse than now.

Once you start kicking kids out of events for cheating, have a system so if they do it again they can’t play for a designated period of time. They need to know there are serious consequences to this.

Consult golf on its youth ethics protocols and how it created the culture that infuses the game.

The USTA has put a lot of effort in youth tennis, with its 10-and-under initiative and now Net Generation branding. But it needs to call out the 800-pound gorilla in its midst and get the tennis house in order. Otherwise the house is going to shrink.

Daniel Kaplan can be reached at dkaplan@sportsbusinessjournal.com.