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High-Tech Tennis

The New USTA National Campus Is A Technological Marvel. Is that enough?
By Gerald Marzorati     Photographs by Christopher Morris

Lake Nona is a nearly 11-square mile planned community at the southeastern limits of greater Orlando—a vast, watery exurban frontier of raw newness and sun-suffused possibility. Dump trucks rumble past half-peopled housing developments, designed and arrayed in the New Urbanist style: snug blocks, walkable street grids, neo-traditional homes and apartment buildings of various shapes and sizes harmonized by their dusty pastels. The palms lining the main thoroughfares are still staked, and black plastic liners remain visible along the edges of man-made ponds. In the tawny fields that stretch between the clusters of fresh construction, cattle graze.

The here here is an idea, or so it seems—an idea that makes it something more than yet another example of Florida real estate reach. That idea is 21st-century wellness. It’s a place devoted to getting and keeping fit. Yes, there are strip malls and gated communities of modern manses in Lake Nona. But there is a near-Scandinavian commitment to footpaths, bicycle lanes and trails, and open space. I saw lots of folks taking dawn runs and speedy bike rides past billboards exhorting them to “live forward.” Lake Nona is a mixed-use development, and the industries anchoring it are mostly health-promoting too, centered on biotech and medical research: advanced hospitals, the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, the health-science campus of the University of Central Florida. Sports is another related industry Lake Nona has been working to attract. A training complex for pro soccer’s Orlando City Lions is nearing completion. Why not learn and prepare where the weather is warm, the medical and performance experts are gathered, and the airport—an international airport, and one of the nation’s largest—is just minutes away?

The United States Tennis Association officially opened its 64-acre, $63 million “national campus” in Lake Nona in early January. Finishing touches remained when I visited for several days a couple of weeks later—there were as many landscapers and furniture movers as tennis players wandering the grounds—but there was more than enough to marvel at. Standing on the veranda of the campus’ two-story tournament administration building my first afternoon there, an adamant winter sun spangling several freshly built ponds and what cars there were in the parking lot, I saw tennis courts everywhere I looked—row after row of them soldiering into the distance, one hundred in all, each equipped with lights for night play. Farthest from where I stood were a dozen hard courts dedicated to collegiate tennis: regional and national tournaments, along with the home matches of the University of Central Florida, whose tennis director, Andy Roddick’s brother John, was just then overseeing a men’s-team practice. To my left were 32 Har-Tru clay courts, open to the local community and available for recreational player tourneys, and before me, to the right, were eight scaled-down, cushioned-surfaced courts for the 10-and-under crowd. The place, goes the USTA messaging, is for everyone. Reserve a court ($12 an hour). Take lessons. Tim Cass, the general manager of the campus, had told me when I’d first arrived on the campus that a luxury hotel would soon rise next door to the site, and, he went on to suggest, “in a city, Orlando, of theme parks, this could be a tennis theme park.”

Let’s be clear, though: The visitors who matter most here are those who are, or who are working to be, high-performance Division I players or young tennis pros. It may not be the stated mission of the national campus to develop, or help develop, American players who reach the Top 10 and win Grand Slams. But ultimately, that’s what the place was built to foster. Twenty of the courts are exclusively for player development—a mix of Plexicushion hard surface (like that used at the Australian Open); DecoTurf hard surface (U.S. Open); indoor hard surface; and crushed-brick red clay (French Open). There is a dormlike lodge for players who are visiting for a few days or weeks, and, at the heart of the campus, a state-of-the-art performance center, equipped with all manner of machinery and technology to strengthen, condition, and heal the hopefuls of what has evolved into a gruelingly physical game.

It’s a game, as has been repeated so many times, that American men and women no longer dominate as they did 20, 30, 40 years ago. Since 2003, when Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open, no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title. In the past 10 years, only one American woman without the last name Williams has finished a season in the Top 10: Madison Keys, who, at 21, broke through and finished 2016 ranked No. 8. She skipped the Australian Open, in its second week during my visit to Lake Nona, because she was recovering from surgery to her left (nondominant) wrist. No American player in recent years has emerged with her potential to be a champion, and thus, among the people who worry about such things—people like the executives and coaches with offices on the Lake Nona campus—there is a lot riding on her. She did look to be recovering nicely from that surgery. From the veranda, I could see her—and, even more keenly, hear her—crushing balls served to her backhand by her hitting partner.

Martin Blackmon took over as the USTA’s general manager of player development two years ago. He succeeded Patrick McEnroe, who was unwilling to commit full-time to the job (he wanted to continue as an ESPN commentator) and not interested in moving to Florida once the Lake Nona campus was ready to open (player development was for years run out of USTA offices in White Plains, the New York suburb). With regard to finding and developing tennis talent, you could say that Blackman, who is 47, has seen it all. He learned the game in Barbados, where his family moved from the Bronx when he was a 2-year-old. He earned a scholarship to Nick Bollettieri’s academy when he was 13—he trained there with Andre Agassi and Jim Courier—and then, after winning a junior championship at 16, received a scholarship to attend Stanford, where he was part of two national championship teams (and Patrick McEnroe’s doubles partner). He went on to spend six long years on the men’s tour, never breaking into the Top 100, and then spent the next 20 coaching and searching for promising players in one capacity or another: at American University; at a juniors training center in Maryland; at an academy he founded in Boca Raton, Fla.; and for the USTA. Along the way, he came up with a few ideas about what makes a champion.

Foremost, perhaps, is that it takes a team to make a great player. This, as Blackman explained to me one morning over coffee, having just returned from Melbourne, is a concept that encompasses a range of approaches and practices. He believes, for instance, that young players respond to healthy competition with and among their peers—that there’s a way of both supporting one another and pushing one another that comes of it. He’s seen the success that the tennis federation in Spain had in developing a batch of male players in the first decade of this century.

But his notion of “Team USA,” a phrase he uses like a mantra, goes beyond any particular cohort of players. “The coaches here—there are 64 of them—I have to make sure that our team is the best, and that they are working for the team,” Blackman tells me. There was a relaxed firmness to the way he arranged his lean frame in his chair, and to his voice, too. “Do they understand what the best practices are? It’s not just the technical and strategic aspects of the game. There’s performance training, the mental game, recovery, nutrition. Have I got the best people to impart the knowledge to the players, each of whom is an individual with different needs?”

He wants to attract more female and minority coaches to the team, and more minority athletes, too. He wants the players’ parents to feel part of “Team USA,” and former greats like Courier and Roddick and Chris Evert to be on board. “There’s no substitute for getting the players who’ve won a Grand Slam, who’ve been Top 10, connected with junior players and young pros,” he says. “The advice, the support.”

His biggest challenge, he acknowledges, is attracting top juniors and burgeoning pros willing to buy into his team approach. These players have been developing on their own, near home or at college with their own coaches and ways, and, often, ever-hovering parents. There was a time when (or at least there was the perception that) you were either with the USTA and its system or essentially locked out of what the organization had to offer, and there were clashes and bad blood on this front during McEnroe’s early years. Beginning in 2013, he shifted the USTA’s approach to devote more time to such players and to show more flexibility in how these players could relate to the organization and use its resources. Blackman has doubled down on that at Lake Nona.

“Tennis in America is a culture, with many stakeholders—parents, coaches, players—and most of them are not directly engaged with us,” he tells me. (Madison Keys, for example, is one of those players.) “How do we use our expertise and resources to support them? I want them to feel that USTA player development is here to serve them. Maybe you don’t have your own performance-team support, or you have a great team of coaches but lack a nutritionist. Come here for a few days, or a few weeks. Come to us for resources or advice. Come down here.”

Martin Blackmon took over as the USTA’s general manager of player development two years ago. He succeeded Patrick McEnroe, who was unwilling to commit full-time to the job (he wanted to continue as an ESPN commentator) and not interested in moving to Florida once the Lake Nona campus was ready to open (player development was for years run out of USTA offices in White Plains, the New York suburb). With regard to finding and developing tennis talent, you could say that Blackman, who is 47, has seen it all. He learned the game in Barbados, where his family moved from the Bronx when he was a 2-year-old. He earned a scholarship to Nick Bollettieri’s academy when he was 13—he trained there with Andre Agassi and Jim Courier—and then, after winning a junior championship at 16, received a scholarship to attend Stanford, where he was part of two national championship teams (and Patrick McEnroe’s doubles partner). He went on to spend six long years on the men’s tour, never breaking into the Top 100, and then spent the next 20 coaching and searching for promising players in one capacity or another: at American University; at a juniors training center in Maryland; at an academy he founded in Boca Raton, Fla.; and for the USTA. Along the way, he came up with a few ideas about what makes a champion.

Foremost, perhaps, is that it takes a team to make a great player. This, as Blackman explained to me one morning over coffee, having just returned from Melbourne, is a concept that encompasses a range of approaches and practices. He believes, for instance, that young players respond to healthy competition with and among their peers—that there’s a way of both supporting one another and pushing one another that comes of it. He’s seen the success that the tennis federation in Spain had in developing a batch of male players in the first decade of this century.

But his notion of “Team USA,” a phrase he uses like a mantra, goes beyond any particular cohort of players. “The coaches here—there are 64 of them—I have to make sure that our team is the best, and that they are working for the team,” Blackman tells me. There was a relaxed firmness to the way he arranged his lean frame in his chair, and to his voice, too. “Do they understand what the best practices are? It’s not just the technical and strategic aspects of the game. There’s performance training, the mental game, recovery, nutrition. Have I got the best people to impart the knowledge to the players, each of whom is an individual with different needs?”

He wants to attract more female and minority coaches to the team, and more minority athletes, too. He wants the players’ parents to feel part of “Team USA,” and former greats like Courier and Roddick and Chris Evert to be on board. “There’s no substitute for getting the players who’ve won a Grand Slam, who’ve been Top 10, connected with junior players and young pros,” he says. “The advice, the support.”

His biggest challenge, he acknowledges, is attracting top juniors and burgeoning pros willing to buy into his team approach. These players have been developing on their own, near home or at college with their own coaches and ways, and, often, ever-hovering parents. There was a time when (or at least there was the perception that) you were either with the USTA and its system or essentially locked out of what the organization had to offer, and there were clashes and bad blood on this front during McEnroe’s early years. Beginning in 2013, he shifted the USTA’s approach to devote more time to such players and to show more flexibility in how these players could relate to the organization and use its resources. Blackman has doubled down on that at Lake Nona.

“Tennis in America is a culture, with many stakeholders—parents, coaches, players—and most of them are not directly engaged with us,” he tells me. (Madison Keys, for example, is one of those players.) “How do we use our expertise and resources to support them? I want them to feel that USTA player development is here to serve them. Maybe you don’t have your own performance-team support, or you have a great team of coaches but lack a nutritionist. Come here for a few days, or a few weeks. Come to us for resources or advice. Come down here.”

Tennis has been slow to embrace the power of data, but the opening of the national campus could well be its Moneyball moment. Thirty-two of the courts are so-called smart courts, with electronic monitoring systems designed and installed by PlaySight, a company whose engineers helped create advanced flight simulators for the Israeli Air Force. Cameras and analytical instrumentation can, respectively, videotape and instantaneously process every move a player makes, every swing he or she takes, and the speed, spin rate, and flight path of every ball that gets struck. This video and data can be reviewed and interpreted in real time at courtside kiosks equipped with computer terminals. It also gets stored, so that players and coaches can chart progress (or, for that matter, diminishment) over time. PlaySight has been around now for several years, growing more sophisticated in what it is capable of capturing, and has been adopted by a number of the bigger collegiate tennis programs. But Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director and CEO, is not exaggerating when he calls the national campus “the most technologically sophisticated facility in the world.”

Dave Ramos oversees performance and coaching education on the campus, and he invited me to change into my tennis kit and hit with one of his fellow coaches on a smart court before lunch on my second day there, while he and Marco Matteucci, who’s the campus’ tech guru (and a former tennis coach at Baylor and Columbia), looked on. I rallied for 20 minutes or so, pinned behind the baseline by more topspin than I’m used to absorbing in my senior-league doubles matches. Then we gathered at the kiosk to see how I measured up. The dashboard Matteucci had created for me greeted me with orderly bar graphs and pie charts of what had been a mess of a run around. My forehands had mostly stayed in (82 percent) and averaged 44 miles per hour, though somewhere in there I belted one that nearly reached 64. (Madison Keys’ average is 79, by the way, and her hardest close to 100.) My net clearance was low on all my ground strokes, no doubt because my spin rate was low. The video revealed my struggles to take heavy, topspin-laden balls on the rise, and to get my shoulder fully turned on my backhand. I had burned nearly 200 calories—most of them, I suspect, dashing to the net in an attempt not to have to take another dipping ball at the baseline early.

I followed Ramos into the performance center and past the weight room, where Frances Tiafoe, a 19-year-old who had just cracked the Top 100, was working out with a trainer. We arrived at what looked like a Pentagon command station—a room with a big horseshoe-shaped desk that, when fully completed, will face a wall-size monitor. Here, Ramos explained, coaches will be able to gather and, viewing data and video together, access a player’s furtherance. Or, a player could sit with her or his team and have a classroom session.

Neuroscientists have a term: mirror neuron capacity. It functions, if it’s functioning, this way: The same region of the human brain is used whether we are performing an activity or, say, watching ourselves or someone else perform that activity on video. To brain researchers, this means that watching and analyzing tape is a great way to learn. CiCi Bellis, who, at 17, turned down a scholarship to Stanford to turn pro, relocate to Orlando from her Bay Area home, and train on the campus, is a believer. “It’s really cool,” she told me after a practice session. (She too had been forced to skip the Australian Open: a hamstring injury.) “I’m a really visual learner, so it helps me—the graphics, the video.”

Ramos mentioned a few things I wouldn’t have thought of. He said players were adjusting their string tension based on the data on pace, spin, and depth of their shots measured by PlaySight. The tech team on campus has also obtained, analyzed, and tagged hours and hours of video of players around the world on tour; if you want to know in what game situations Marin Cilic is likely to come to net, or when Sam Stosur, on clay, tends to run around her backhand, you can watch and find out. “And I can give players homework,” Ramos goes on to tell me, laughing a little. “I can send them off to practice their serve on one of the courts with PlaySight turned on, and check to see if they did.” He pauses, then says: “All this—the film, the data, and what we are going to see in wearables in the coming years, things like insoles that will measure weight load, push-off, speed of direction change—is pretty much the future.”

With players like Keys and Bellis working their way back from injuries during my days in Lake Nona, it did not come as a surprise that facilities for getting well and staying well are state-of-the-art too. After my film-and-data briefing, Ed Ryan, the director of medicine in Lake Nona, met me in the wing of the performance center devoted to sports medicine and recovery. Two young players, post-practice, were lying on their backs on training tables, staring at their smartphones, their thighs encased in pneumatic compression sleeves that, the thinking goes, were flushing deoxygenated blood and lactic acid from their quads and hamstrings so that fresh, nutrient-rich blood could more easily flow in. Ryan talked about the partnerships the USTA has established with a new medical facility in Lake Nona, the Nemours Children’s Hospital, and with the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, across the state in Gulf Breeze, to assure that he and his staff of physios are able to keep up to speed on the latest breakthroughs and refer players to specialists should the need arise.

“I think one of the things we’ve also come to understand is that we have to see the players as people,” he tells me. “It’s not just their muscles and joints we need to concern ourselves with. What about all the travel—how’s that affecting them? We want to work on sunscreens. We want to know if someone is getting stomachaches.”

My gaze, as Ryan spoke, kept drifting to a small, narrow pool across the room. Eventually, I pointed. “The aquatic treadmill,” he says. Players use it, he explained, when recovering from leg or hip injuries and needing to reestablish and strengthen their gait—a task made easier with the water decreasing a user’s weight load by 80 percent. It can also be used for training: An athlete can run a lot longer, for instance, because the joint stress is much less.

“Can I try?”

“Why not?”

I went off to a locker room down the hall, stripped off my tennis whites, quickly showered, returned in the Under Armour compression shorts I’d worn under my kit, and eased myself in. The water came up to my shoulders. Ryan turned on the treadmill low, two or three miles per hour. “Slow run a bit,” he suggests. “We don’t use the word ‘jog’ here.” It felt like a cross between running and pedaling on a stationary bike: You extend your legs fully, sense a feathery footfall, but feel next to no impact. I could watch my stride on two monitors built into the front of the pool, and Ryan could watch on a monitor of his own.

After 10 minutes or so at an easy gait, I asked if the machine could be used for interval training, which had lately, and, perhaps ridiculously, at age 64, become my choice of cardio self-torture. Whoosh! The treadmill sped up to eight miles per hour and bursts of water from built-in jets were suddenly pounding my core. I lasted about 45 seconds before, gasping and losing ground, I let the water blasts propel me to the becalmed back of the pool. I lifted myself out, walked a few steps to an adjacent ice bath, and plunged in. It was only then that I thought to ask Ryan if that was okay—and to ask myself why. It was 54 degrees. I did not last the requisite six to eight minutes (not even close!) required for healing the micro-traumas in my muscle fibers. I was dealing with the more pressing trauma of feeling unmentionably cold.

Reilly Opelka is tall—front-court basketball tall, at 6’ 11″ the tallest player on the men’s tour—and, at 19, may still have a little growing left to do. When Martin Blackman talked about how it takes a team, a cohort of ambitious players pushing one another, to make a champion, he didn’t spend a long time talking about the women. The United States at that moment had 16 women in the Top 100, with CoCo Vande­weghe suddenly playing the best tennis of her life at 25 and, along with Bellis, another teen hopeful in the pipeline—Kayla Day, who won the junior crown at the US Open last September. Whom Blackman had much in mind was Opelka and a group of young men, mostly in their late teens, who represent—at this stage, albeit an early stage—the most encouraging next generation on the men’s side since Blackman’s own first years on the tour in the late 1980s, when Agassi, Courier, Michael Chang, and Pete Sampras were new to the ATP. There are the 20-year-olds: Jared Donaldson, who scored a first-round upset at the US Open last fall, defeating David Goffin; and Noah Rubin, the Wimbledon boys’ singles champion in 2014. And there is a swarm of 19-year-olds, winners of junior Slams and tournaments on the second-tier Challenger circuit: Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, Tommy Paul, Ernesto Escobedo, Stefan Kozlov, and Taylor Fritz (who trains at the USTA’s West Coast center), along with Opelka. All have spent time in the Top 200, and Fritz and Tiafoe have managed to sneak into the Top 100—“a place with very few job openings for men, maybe five a year,” as Blackman puts it.

Opelka is a pure product of the USTA. He’d been training for years at the USTA facility in Boca Raton with USTA national coach Diego Moyano. He has continued to work with Moyano, a clay-court specialist, in Lake Nona, and with the USTA’s longtime head coach of strength and conditioning, Satoshi Ochi. Opelka shares an apartment with Paul in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, and when Fritz got married last summer, he was his best man. “It’s not foreign to us to play against each other, really, to compete against friends,” he tells me one afternoon in the lounge at the performance center. “We’ve been doing it for a while. It is different, though. Taylor Fritz—he’s, like, my best friend.” (Two years ago, Opelka beat Fritz in a semifinal match at the Wimbledon boys’ singles, firing 18 aces with a serve that can now reach 140 miles per hour.)

Not that he has much time for socializing. He was just back from Melbourne, where he’d qualified for the main draw with a week of wins before losing a tough-fought five-set, first-round match to Goffin, the world’s No. 11. He was preparing now in Lake Nona for Challenger circuit tournaments in Dallas and San Francisco. He was on the court first thing in the morning four times a week for a two-hour session, doing drills with Moyano or playing points with another player, as he’d done that morning with Tiafoe, who’s also moved to Orlando. Then, after lunch, there was at least another hour and a half in the gym. One or two other days each week, he tended to do double sessions. The campus was his workplace, with long hours.

He told me he was “still getting familiar” with the PlaySight system. “I can imagine how it could really be cool for someone younger than me,” he says, “though there are little things I pick up about myself, patterns, like how I serve in certain situations. When you are actually playing, you’re not thinking about that.”

What he has taken fully to are the stats and tagged videos of match play of opposing players. He told me about a match he’d played against France’s Jeremy Chardy last summer at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. He was down a set, up 6–5 in the second, and receiving with a break point opportunity when it started to pour. Back in the locker room, during the rain delay, someone pulled up data and film of Chardy on an iPad, and he saw that Chardy, facing a break point when serving to the deuce court, went out wide 80 percent of the time. “I just sat on it,” Opelka recalls, shaking his head a little and grinning. He crushed his return, broke, won the set, and went on to take the match.

He emphasized a few times that being part of a young generation of Americans, many of them training in one place for stretches of time, helped “to keep it fun”—kept it all from simply being the toil that it essentially was. Blackman had made a similar point. He’d talked about recently watching streaming video of Roger Federer during a practice session of his in Dubai. (Countless fans watched too.) “He still loves the process—at his age!” Blackman says. “And you have to—that’s what we are trying to create the setting and the atmosphere for here. It’s such a hard game, tennis. And today, to reach the top, you have to do everything well, which takes time. And sacrifice. And then you have to keep improving, through your 20s, even if you are at the top.”

Of course, Federer is doing that on his own. (That’s not a Swiss campus he trains at in Dubai.) So, essentially, is Alexander Zverev, the 19-year-old German-born player who is coached by his father, a onetime Russian pro. Zverev spends time training in Monte Carlo, and Miami, and Hamburg. He’s won a match against Roger Federer and reached the Top 20, and, when the ATP holds its inaugural Next Gen Finals in Milan next fall—for the eight highest-ranked players 21 and under—he is likely to be among those to beat. And then there’s the 20-year-old Croat with the Novak Djokovic-like game, Borna Coric: He’s been a Top 50 player for two years, and trains in Dubai. A few young Russian players—Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev—have also shown considerable promise, but none of them calls Moscow’s Spartak Club home, nor do they train together. It would come as no surprise to find any of them in Milan come November. It will be a good sign (and no real surprise, either) if Tiafoe or Opelka or one of the other young Americans gets there. In a very real sense, Milan can be understood as a measure of how well it’s looking for the future of American men’s tennis, and how things are going in Lake Nona.

As Featured in Racquet Issue No. 3

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