If there were a perfect formula for turning aspiring tennis players into champions, someone would have patented it by now.
A system that develops skills, but keeps the kids enthusiastic and makes the best use of parents’ often-stretched budgets remains a dream.
But there are many who feel that the U.S. Tennis Association’s formula can be improved upon. And that’s where Johan Kriek comes in.
A two-time Australian Open champion, the 59-year-old Kriek now is a respected coach, running his academy out of the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Next week, he’s bringing in a tournament format that’s proven extremely popular in Europe to the resort.
The inaugural Kriek Cup, which takes place Aug. 13-19, will use UTR rankings and award UTR points.
UTR format increasing in popularity
The tournament, which is singles only, will welcome players from a dozen countries. It will use a compass draw that not only guarantees the kids find their own level, but that they will get at least four matches.
It will welcome kids aged 10 to 16, but with categories for each year of birth, not each two years.
UTR, the Universal Tennis Rating, uses a 16-point scale that integrates the rankings from some of the largest tennis federations in the world including the USTA, Tennis Canada and the British Lawn Tennis Association.
But goes further. It analyzes match results without regard for age, gender or where the matches are played.
“We realized there’s a big disconnect between American parents of juniors as they understand UTR rankings. You ask college coaches and they’ll tell you they go strictly by UTR. So there’s a huge gap in education for parents,” Kriek says. “The parents think college coaches are looking at USTA rankings. But they don’t convey the true sense of what a player is worth. In many ways, the USTA rankings don’t make much sense for the coaches.”
College track a logical route
The college aspect has never been a more important consideration as the peak age on the professional tours skews older.
No longer are you washed up if you don’t “make it” before you’re out of your teens. So there is time to benefit from the college experience even if a player has professional ambitions.
As well, the reality is that most juniors won’t make it in the pros. But many will go on to play college tennis.
“I am not the pain in the side of the USTA. The pain is felt by parents who spend an inordinate amount of time on coaching, traveling and all those things,” Kriek said. “The USTA is a massive organization that has tremendous power. But the world is always evolving, and most of the best tennis players in the world are coming of Europe right now.
“That’s no accident. So you have to go with what works.”
On-court coaching, compatible skill levels
The Kriek Cup is part of the Ten-Pro Global Junior Tour, which has put on events in some of the biggest academies in Europe.
The owner of the tour, Goran Novakovic of the Netherlands, welcomed more than 500 kids at a tournament at the Nadal Academy in its first year and more than 300 at another event at the Mouratoglou Academy.
Part of the formula is the addition of on-court coaching for the kids, similar to the procedure in place on the WTA Tour.
Kriek wanted to run a tennis tournament at the PGA National Resort & Spa in the summer, when things are quieter. And Novakovic wanted to expand his tour to the U.S. So it was a perfect fit.
“We’re probably not going to have a tremendous amount of kids, with growing pains in the first year. But as it becomes more acceptable to use UTR rankings in the future, we will grow,” Kriek says.
“From a parents’ standpoint, this type of tournament that I’m running, the minimum amount of matches you will play is four. So that’s three or four days at a tournament. With the USTA, you play first round, play a backdraw match, lose both – and you’re going home, despite all that money spent on travel, hotel, all the costs involved,” Kriek adds. “With the compass draw, if you keep losing you’re going to find your own level. As you win, you go up, and the next person you play is going to be about at your level.”
The kids can also play up in age groups. In a tournament format with two-year categories, that could mean playing a kid three years older. In this format, playing up only means kids one year older. And with the possibility of playing in two categories, the kids can play a minimum of eight singles matches, in one place, in one tournament.
Maximizing stretched tennis budgets
“I really can’t tell you why (the USTA) did not adopt a different track, signing up with UTR. Maybe they will. It’s okay in the ATP or WTA Tours to lose. You go home, or just go play doubles. But these kids are juniors,” Kriek says.
“They are being developed, so it’s silly to apply the same rules to a 12- or 14-year-old as you do to the professionals. You make it really worthwhile for the trip. That makes a hell of a lot more sense.”
Kriek was at a recent USTA coaching weekend at the Orlando center (the new multimillion-dollar USTA headquarters), as a guest coach for the best 11- and 12-year-olds in the country. “The parents of all those kids love UTR; it’s more representative of what your kid is. The USTA system can be a bit warped. If you have money and can travel to a lot of tournaments you get points, but the ranking is not necessarily indicative of who you are as a player,” Kriek says. “The feedback that I get from parents is that they really love UTR.”
Once the inaugural edition is done and dusted, Kriek and his partner will look at it, perhaps change the date for 2018. Ideally, they will try to create a tour, a series of tournaments in Florida and the southern U.S. states, based on the UTR rankings.
One trip, dozens of matches
Kriek would like to see a similar tour in California, as well – perhaps one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.
The underlying concept would be to try to make it possible for parents and junior players to make one trip and play several tournaments in the same general area – and play more matches at each tournament – to maximize the time and cost.
“The problem is that there are so many USTA tournaments. The kids are over-tournamented. They play so many, chasing points,” Kriek says. “The parents are telling me constantly that they’re tired of the cheating. They’re tired of spending so much money – just to play two matches and go home.”
Kriek, a native South African, is thinking even bigger. “I would love to take this concept to South Africa. And I’d like to work with some of these other tournaments – in Poland, for example (Kriek’s wife Daga hails from there),” he says. “Maybe a Kriek series of tournaments all around the world, tied in with my academy.”
(For more information on the inaugural Kriek Cup, call 561.814.3655)