A thank-you note to Serena Williams 

Thank you, Serena Williams.

You had every reason to skip the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford this year. But you still came out and won four matches in five days, even though you were jet-lagged and tired from waking up at 1 a.m., since your body was still working off the British clock. Sandwiched between Wimbledon and the London Olympics (which will hold its tennis events at Wimbledon), no one would have faulted you for savoring your latest Grand Slam title on the other side of the pond last week.

Instead, you brought thousands of fans out to Stanford while grabbing your second straight Bank of the West title. Although you admitted that you didn’t play your best, you still reminded us why American tennis sorely missed you last year, when you were sidelined with health problems.

For the first time since the advent of computer rankings more than 40 years ago, no American male or female player was ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the French Open last year, and many questioned whether American tennis could ever return to the glory days of Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.   The problem, according to Patrick McEnroe, general manager of USTA Player Development, is that Americans grow up playing one-shot power tennis on hard-court surfaces, while the rest of the world is developing technique, footwork and defensive strategy by learning the game on clay.

Last week, Jim Courier said he developed his multilayered game by playing on multiple surfaces as a junior.
“It would eliminate a lot of holes in your game if you were exposed to that [kind of tennis] early,” he said. “Now, it takes money to do that.”

Courier also highlighted another problem with American tennis: most of the talent is developed through expensive private tutoring, while kids in other countries, like Spain, are trained in uniform national systems. We’re likely to dominate the podium at the Olympics again this summer precisely because of our ability to develop athletes through grass-roots programs and an unparalleled high school sports system. But when it comes to tennis, why do we sit around and wait for the next prodigy to materialize out of private coaching?

Patrick McEnroe wants to change this; he’s opened three USTA training centers since 2008 to develop tomorrow’s champions. But this isn’t a problem that can be fixed overnight.

Serena, you’ve returned to dominance, in large part, by playing the old-school American game to perfection. You set aces records for a singles match (24) and an entire tournament (102) at Wimbledon recently. I’m not taking anything away from your game — you’re undoubtedly one of the best all-around players in the history of women’s tennis. But let’s be honest — you’re a once-in-a-lifetime talent and your speed, power and athleticism can’t be taught.

So, while I’m thanking you for all the excitement this past week, I’m going to conclude by asking for a favor. Is there any way you can defy the laws of nature, again, by continuing your dominance for another, say, five years (you’ll be 35), so that American tennis can stay relevant while we develop a system for teaching kids how to play the game the right way?

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com.

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Paul Gackle

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