By Joshua Rey, special to USTA.com
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Hanging outside the outer bank of tennis courts at The USTA Training Center – Headquarters are banners bearing words spoken by the likes of Agassi & Sampras, Connors & McEnroe, King & Evert, and Williams & Williams. The quotations from past and present American legends are there to inspire the future of American tennis.
For the 20 juniors enrolled in the USTA’s 2010-11 National Training Program, Arthur Ashe’s statement above Court 17 will likely resonate most:
"One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to success is preparation."
If there was one underlying message USTA Player Development coaches had for students and parents at Sunday’s orientation, it can be found in Ashe’s words.
The coaching staff, led by former Top-10 player Jay Berger and Swedish strategist Ola Malmqvist, welcomed the fourth class of program players by stressing that success comes only after hard work in gyms, classrooms and practice sessions.
"Everybody in this room has the opportunity to be as good as you want to become," Berger told the students. "In the end, how good you get will be up to you guys and girls. You’re going to have to push yourselves and each other."
Among those addressed were winners of the Easter Bowl (Jordan Belga) and the Dunlop Orange Bowl (Alexios Halebian). There was a No. 1-ranked player in the nation (Daniel Kerznerman) and an unseeded player who upset the No. 1 seed at Wimbledon (Grace Min). A member of the ITF World Junior Finals championship team (Taylor Townsend) and a Bill Talbert Junior Sportsmanship Award recipient (Jeremy Efferding) were also present.
But all those accomplishments aside, Berger hopes he and the rest of the coaching staff can develop an American class that becomes world-class.
"We want Fed Cup champions, Davis Cup players, world No. 1s and Grand Slam champs. That’s why this program was put in place," said Berger. "Our job is to make sure that we have players in the last weekend of the US Open. That’s our goal, and it’s a daunting goal. If it were easy, everybody would do it."
Berger and Malmqvist have worked with Director of Coaching Jose Higueras to assemble a melting pot of tennis minds on the USTA coaching staff. Higueras, himself, played Davis Cup for Spain before guiding the likes of Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Roger Federer.
He’s joined by Ricardo Acuna of Chile, Leo Azeveda of Brazil, Diego Moyano of Argentina and the latest addition to the USTA coaching family, Andy Brandi of Puerto Rico.
Following introductions of all the coaches, players and parents were treated to a surprise appearance from Player Development General Manager Patrick McEnroe. Sixteen hours after interviewing Federer at the Olympus US Open Series event in Cincinnati, McEnroe reiterated the importance of personal desire.
"It’s your job to compete every day you go out there," McEnroe told the class. "We have one goal in mind, and that’s to help you kids to reach your potential. Our expectations are that everyone in this room is in this together... This is about making U.S. tennis better and raising the bar for everybody."
With 11 students returning from the 2009-10 National Training Program, some staff members used their introductions to welcome back a familiar face with a joke. Trainer Brian O’Malley implored 15-year-old Joseph DiGiulio to cut off the curly hair he grew over the summer, while Director of Student Services Tina Dale hinted that Halebian should keep his room a little cleaner this school year.
All joking aside, the daily schedule for the students is no laughing matter. Parents and players received a color-coded graph of what the fall semester entails. Breaks, designated in pink, are few and far between.
The colors most common on the schedule are orange and green, representing tennis practice and school. In all, students are scheduled for 10 practice sessions each week, lasting 90-120 minutes at a time. They also have morning and evening timeslots blocked off for online school work via Kaplan Virtual Education.
Though fitness is only required three days a week, 9:30 p.m. curfew and 10 p.m. lights-out policies are enforced on a nightly basis.
"It goes back to what Ola said in orientation. You have to be abnormal to do this because it’s not a normal lifestyle," said Efferding, 17. "No kid goes through six hours of physical training, and then the rest of the day is school, eating and sleeping basically. It’s really rigorous and challenging."
Coaches couldn’t stress enough the importance of school work. Last year’s Training Program class earned a cumulative GPA of 3.83. Alumni have gone on to play college tennis at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Virginia.
There is a no-tolerance rule in place requiring students to be a week ahead of their coursework before leaving for a tournament. That shouldn’t be a problem for Townsend, a newcomer entering ninth grade who actually attended high school for two weeks in Georgia before moving to The USTA Training Center – Headquarters.
"When we were introducing ourselves, I was telling my class about some of the things that I’ve done," said Townsend. "And when I was talking to some of the adults, they were like, ‘It’s amazing how a 14-year-old can do some of these things.’ So I feel very fortunate and grateful."
USTA National Coach Kathy Rinaldi was Townsend’s captain earlier this year at international competitions in England, France and the Czech Republic, where Townsend went 5-0 in doubles to help the U.S. win gold at the World Junior Finals.
Their reunion in Boca, where Rinaldi will work on a daily basis with Townsend, is much anticipated.
"She’s made a good impact on my game because she’s teaching me about being disciplined on the court and organized off of the court," said Townsend, who worked with Donald Young, Sr. in Georgia.
Townsend’s goals for her first year in the program are to improve her physical conditioning and get acclimated with online schooling, having attended public schools all her life.
"It’s hard to say goodbye to the lifestyle you’re accustomed to," said Townsend. "But it’s going to be a good experience because I’m looking forward to becoming a better player."
Townsend’s mom Shelia made the nine-hour drive from Stockbridge, Ga., to drop her daughter off and attend Sunday’s orientation. She envisioned saying goodbye four years down the road but is confident in the path her daughter has chosen to train with Rinaldi, Malmqvist and the other USTA women’s coaches.
"I think that they’ll definitely give her the ability to have more hitting time on court, which she needed," said Shelia Townsend. "I wasn’t able to really provide that for her and, with her going to traditional school, it was a little bit difficult getting that court time in. But with the discipline that they’re going to instill in her, I think this is really going to be beneficial for Taylor."
While the Townsends embarked upon a new chapter in their lives Sunday, Efferding and his parents, Brian and Lucia, returned to very familiar territory. Efferding was playing on-site at the Evert Tennis Academy five years ago when Berger, then based in Key Biscayne, saw him hit a tennis ball for the first time.
"At first, Jay thought that he was older than he was because Jeremy’s rather tall," said Brian Efferding. "And Jeremy is of mixed descent – his mother is pure-Japanese, and I’m Caucasian – so he didn’t realize that Jeremy was an American player. Then he went down to the Junior Orange Bowl and saw Jeremy competing in the young age divisions, and he found out that he was representing the United States.
"So Jay was very excited and invited Jeremy to come down to Key Biscayne. It was never a plan or a design by us, but it’s just been a joy, and we are so grateful."
Efferding made the move back to Boca – and closer to his home in Lake Worth – when the National Training Program was launched in 2007.
He and his parents are especially grateful that he’s been able to train at a high level without sacrificing the other important things in his life. Efferding is one of six students who live close enough to the training center that he is able to reside at home while participating full-time in the program.
As such, he still finds the time to volunteer with underprivileged children. Efferding also is home-schooled, taking advanced science courses taught by a local Ph.D., AP Human Geography taught by an England-based professor and Japanese classes offered at The Morikami Museum in Delray Beach.
Competition at the training center hasn’t changed Efferding’s on-court demeanor, either. Long admired as one of the nicest players on the junior circuit, Efferding was honored for his sportsmanship last summer at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Two months after adding the Florida Sectional Closed Boys’ 18s title to his collection of championship and sportsmanship trophies, Efferding is back for his junior year at the National Training Program.
"I wouldn’t be where I am today without the USTA, especially under the care of Jay Berger," said Efferding, pin-pointing Berger’s unique pep talks. "He’s developed me as a player and pushed me into becoming the tennis player that I am today. It’s been the best-case scenario for me."
A Closer Look at the 20 Students in the USTA National Training Program
Jordan Belga, 14, Elk Grove Village, Ill.: 2010 Easter Bowl Boys’ 14s Singles Champion, 2008 USTA National Clay Court Boys’ 12s Doubles Champion
Luca Corinteli, 15, Alexandria, Va.: 2010 Plantation ITF Grade 4 Boys’ Singles Semifinalist, 2009 Easter Bowl Boys’ 14s Singles 4th Place
Jake DeVine, 13, Boca Raton, Fla.: 2010 USTA National Championships Boys’ 14s Singles Quarterfinalist, 2010 USTA Spring National Boys’ 12s Singles Consolation Winner
Joseph DiGiulio, 15, Newport Beach, Calif.: 2007 Junior Orange Bowl Boys’ 12s Singles Champion, 2007 Eddie Herr Boys’ 12s Singles Champion
Jeremy Efferding, 17, Lake Worth, Fla.: 2010 USTA Florida Sectional Closed Boys’ 18s Singles Champion, 2009 College Station ITF Grade 4 Boys’ Singles and Doubles Champion, 2008 Bill Talbert Junior Sportsmanship Award Winner
Bridget Forster, 13, Boca Raton, Fla.: 2010 Tennis Plaza Cup Girls’ 14s Singles Finalist, 2009 USTA National Open Girls’ 12s Singles Finalist (Baltimore, Md.)
Alexios Halebian, 16, Glendale, Calif.: 2010 USTA National Clay Court Boys’ 18s Singles Finalist, 2009 Dunlop Orange Bowl Boys’ 16s Singles Champion, 2008 Eddie Herr Boys’ 14s Singles Champion
Hunter Harrington, 17, Spartanburg, S.C.: 2010 Florida Open Boys’ 18s Singles Champion, 2009 Dunlop Orange Bowl Boys’ 16s Doubles Champion, 2009 Eddie Herr Boys’ 16s Singles Champion
Daniel Kerznerman, 14, Brooklyn, N.Y.: 2010 USTA National Clay Court Boys’ 14s Singles Champion and Doubles Finalist, 2010 Tennis Plaza Cup Boys’ 14s Singles Champion, 2009 USTA Winter National Boys’ 14s Singles Finalist
Mia King, 15, Hendersonville, N.C.: 2010 Easter Bowl Girls’ 16s Singles Quarterfinalist, 2010 USTA International Spring Girls’ 16s Singles Semifinalist and Doubles Champion, 2010 Tennis Plaza Cup Girls’ 14s Singles Champion
Thai Kwiatkowski, 15, Charlotte, N.C.: 2010 Florida Open Boys’ 16s Singles Champion, 2010 USTA International Spring Boys’ 16s Singles Finalist, 2009 Eddie Herr Boys’ 14s Singles Finalist
Nikko Madregallejo, 15, Duarte, Calif.: 2010 USTA National Clay Court Boys’ 16s Singles Quarterfinalist, 2009 Junior Orange Bowl Boys’ 14s Singles 3rd Place, 2009 El Paso ITF Grade 5 Boys’ Doubles Champion
Ally Miller-Krasilnikov, 12, Boca Raton, Fla.: 2010 ATP Gator Bowl Girls’ 14s Singles Semifinalist, 2010 USTA Spring National Girls’ 12s Singles 3rd Place
Grace Min, 16, Duluth, Ga.: 2010 Wimbledon Junior Girls’ Singles 3rd Round, 2010 Copa Milo ITF Grade 2 Girls’ Singles Champion, 4-time ITF Junior Circuit Singles Finalist, 3-time ITF Junior Circuit Doubles Champion
Spencer Newman, 17, Miami: 2010 USTA International Spring Boys’ 18s Singles Quarterfinalist, 2010 USTA Spring National Boys’ 18s Doubles Champion, 2007 Junior Orange Bowl Boys’ 14s Singles Finalist
Julia O’Loughlin, 13, Boca Raton, Fla.: 2010 USTA Florida Sectional Closed Girls’ 14s Singles Finalist, 2009 Junior Orange Bowl Girls’ 12s Singles Finalist, 2009 Summer Smash Regional Girls’ 14s Singles and Doubles Champion
Reilly Opelka, 12, Palm Coast, Fla.: 2010 USTA Spring National Boys’ 12s Singles Champion, 2009 Eddie Herr Boys’ 12s Singles Quarterfinalist
Spencer Papa, 14, Edmond, Okla.: 2009 Junior Orange Bowl Boys’ 14s Consolation Winner, 2009 El Paso ITF Grade 5 Boys’ Singles Quarterfinalist, 2008 USTA National Championships Boys’ 12s Singles and Doubles Champion
Taylor Townsend, 14, Stockbridge, Ga.: 2010 ITF World Junior Tennis Finals Champion, 2010 USTA National Clay Court Girls’ 16s Doubles Champion, 2010 Easter Bowl Girls’ 14s Singles 3rd Place and Doubles Champion
Konrad Zieba, 15, Glenview, Ill.: 2007 USTA National Open Boys’ 12s Singles Champion (Omaha, Neb.), 2006 USTA National Open Boys’ 12s Singles Champion (Flushing, N.Y.)