It’s a swampy, 82-degree june afternoon in miami at the country club on Indian Creek, an 86-resident, half-square-mile gated island in Biscayne Bay just west of Surfside. Past a towering old banyan tree, to the side of the Maurice Fatio–designed Spanish-style golf clubhouse with a salmon-colored stucco roof, two young kids are smacking a tennis ball back and forth on one of the club’s four courts, close to the water’s edge. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
One is Louis Siegler, 14, wearing a white top and red shorts. The other is his sister, Julia-Rose Siegler, 11, her sandy-brown hair tied back in a ponytail and her blue socks pulled up practically to her knees. Louis, who on this day has a United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranking of no. 23 in the country in his age group, slides like a pro on the Har-Tru surface and cracks a backhand down the line. Both he and his sister, who per USTA stipulations won’t have a national ranking until she’s 12, excel at that particular shot.
The Siegler siblings are committed student athletes who train at Saviano High Performance Tennis (SHPT), one of the world’s top tennis academies, in Plantation, about 40 minutes north of Miami. It’s run by Nick Saviano, arguably the buzziest coach on the pro tennis circuit right now due to the meteoric rise of his longtime student Eugenie Bouchard, 20, a Canadian who had a breakout Grand Slam run this season, notably placing second at Wimbledon. Louis, an eighth grader, is homeschooled so he can play at SHPT daily; Julia-Rose, who is in fifth grade, goes to private school but hits at SHPT daily. Every weekday, full-time SHPT students like Louis play four hours of tennis—be it a private lesson, drills or matches—and do one hour of fitness training. Louis plays in about 25 tournaments per year, traveling out of state for around half of them; Julia-Rose enters about 20 competitions, mostly in-state. It’s a typical tennis load for a competitive Florida junior player with big dreams of becoming the next Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams, or, specifically in Louis’s case, Novak Djokovic. “Djokovic’s game is the most realistic for me to emulate since I have his build,” the lanky Louis says.
If the big business of breeding a tennis star has a ground zero, it’s the stretch of turf from Miami to Boca Raton, and Saviano, 59, sitting in his office inside the worn-in clubhouse in sunny, green Plantation Central Park, is articulating why. “South Florida is the world’s biggest tennis hotbed,” he says, leaning forward, arms crossed and resting on the desk. His black sports sunglasses dangle around his neck from a cord.
“What you get is the full spectrum of tennis: world-class players, a solid tournament structure, good weather, all court surfaces.” Not to mention access to the globe’s top coaches found at Saviano-like private academies throughout the state.
It makes sense, too, seeing as where there is prime tennis, there is money, and South Florida is stuffed with both. The ultra-exclusive Indian Creek, for example, is one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. It’s the kind of high-hedges neighborhood where, with just 33 houses, corporate takeover king Carl Icahn lives alongside Sears CEO Eddie Lampert, art collector Norman Braman, Latin star Julio Iglesias, former Miami Dolphins football coach Don Shula and supermodel Adriana Lima, to name a few. In August 2012, a five-pavilion mansion on two Indian Creek acres sold for $47 million—making it the most expensive house ever purchased in Miami. The island, with its namesake country club boasting an 18-hole golf course, even has its own police force, which patrols by jeep, boat and Jet Ski 24 hours a day.
As such it’s probably no surprise Florida is also home to perhaps the planet’s most over-the-top tennis parents. “We’re bringing in a sports psychologist,” one dad said in June while watching his 14-year-old son play in a USTA tournament near Orlando. “She’s 60 dollars per hour. She said she’d do a group session, but we don’t do groups.” “He’s got anger issues,” another parent said of his son. “He has no reason to be slamming his racket into the ground”—to which a nearby dad responded: “He’s turning into a teenager. It’s called testosterone.” One son set himself up for a winning shot but missed, hitting an easy overhead into the net. “I’m so sick of this crap!” his dad yelped. “He’s got to learn how to finish the point!”
“It’s all overkill,” Saviano tells me when I ask him about the stage parents’ intensity. “Being in Florida exacerbates it.”
The phone rings. Saviano answers, and while he’s chatting—“Yes, if he comes here, we will be able to fix his serve”—I glance at the blue wall to my left, which is covered with more than two dozen mostly black-framed photos of some of the 50 pro players Saviano has worked with, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati and Michael Chang among them. Saviano hangs up. “Sorry, someone from Australia’s looking for his child to train here,” he says. “People come from all over. There are players from Asia. Eugenie moved from Canada.”
It’s a global enterprise, these Florida tennis academies, whose roots date back to 1979, when Nick Bollettieri, who turned to teaching tennis in 1956 after dropping out of the University of Miami School of Law, founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, about an hour south of Tampa in Bradenton. Worldwide sports behemoth IMG saw Bollettieri’s academy as a template for other sports, and purchased it in 1987, morphing it into the IMG Academy. The 500-acre campus has 52 tennis courts, a 10,000-square-foot weight room and 950 student athletes from 75 countries who train across eight sports. “In Florida, there are hundreds of tennis academies now,” says Bollettieri, who has shaped the games of everyone from Boris Becker to Maria Sharapova.
The elite world comes with a hefty price tag. At IMG, for example, it costs up to $71,400 per year for a tennis player to enroll full-time. “To develop a world-class player costs tens of thousands of dollars a year,” Saviano says. Training and travel gets incrementally more expensive as a junior player gets older. Saviano estimates that at 11 years old—Julia-Rose’s age—it might cost $20,000 annually and increase at a rate of $5,000 to $10,000 a year. This means from the time a kid picks up a racket to the time that kid turns pro, “it costs a minimum of a quarter-million dollars,” Saviano says.
And aspiring tennis phenoms must start young. “The development of champions must be established by age 13 or 14,” Saviano says. “If that process is not done technically, tactically, mentally and emotionally by then, the upper end of what the player can achieve starts to diminish.” And these days junior players are waiting until they are closer to 20 to start playing on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) or men’s Association of Tennis Players (ATP) tour. “To turn pro today as a teenager is very dangerous,” Bollettieri, 83, says. “You are opening yourself to injury by facing well-seasoned vets who are 30, 40, 50 pounds heavier and inches taller.” Even if a hopeful junior does make it to the pro circuit, he or she shouldn’t count on sponsors footing the bill. “Today sponsors only open doors for those they think will be unbelievable,” Bollettieri says. “They are not the same as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. They are very sparse.” In fact, the no. 161–ranked professional player on the WTA or ATP tour actually, according to Bollettieri, loses $150,000 annually.
But throwing all this money around does not mean the odds work in a budding tennis champ’s favor. Saviano looks out his office window at his academy’s 26 Har-Tru courts, where the USTA National Clay Court Championships for the girls’ 14-year-old age group is taking place—it’s a tournament that draws the 128 best singles players from all over the country. “Only one of the 128 here today might make it to the top 100,” he says, “let alone the top ten.”
It’s true that becoming a tennis sensation, particularly an American one, is more difficult now than ever before. Nowhere is this better illuminated than in the Grand Slam results and tour rankings. It’s been four years since an American man made it to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Andy Roddick was the last American male to win a Grand Slam (the U.S. Open)—and that was in 2003 (he’s since retired). When John Isner fell out of the ATP’s top 20 rankings in August 2013, it was the first time in 40 years since the men’s rankings began that no U.S. male was among the 20 best players. (Isner has since been vacillating between no. 9 and 17.) The women’s side doesn’t look quite as bleak, thanks in large part to the Williams sisters—but only 17 American women qualified for the U.S. Open’s main draw in 2014, quite the decline from the peak 76 in the 1981 tournament.
Cost, obviously, is a major contributor to the problem. “Where is the money coming from?” asks Saviano. “It’s prohibitive.” This is where the USTA is supposed to step in. America’s governing tennis body, a not-for-profit based in White Plains, New York, the USTA raises about $200 million from the U.S. Open, which makes up most of its annual operating budget; $15 million of that per year gets funneled to its player-development arm, formerly run by ex–tennis pro Patrick McEnroe. The program, which has a 56-person staff, 24 of whom are coaches, is headquartered at former tennis prodigy Chris Evert’s Evert Tennis Academy, in Boca Raton. Around the end of 2016, Player Development will move to a 100-court, $60-million facility that will start construction this fall in Orlando. “The paramount reason the USTA got into this business of training these kids is because it’s so expensive,” said McEnroe before announcing in September that he would be stepping down from his role. “It’s trying to be part of the solution.”
But many argue that player development is the biggest hurdle. “Having observed it up close for the past 23 years,” wrote coach Wayne Bryan, father of brother doubles sensations Mike and Bob Bryan, in a letter that made its way around Facebook in January 2012, “I say USTA Player Development has been and continues to be the biggest impediment to the growth of tennis in this country.”
Player Development basically does two things: provides support to private academies with students who show professional potential and invites players to train at the Player Development facility. For example, WTA no. 22–ranked Sloane Stephens, 21, a former Saviano academy pupil, is now training with Player Development part time in Boca Raton. Which illustrates another problem: “Sometimes the other [private] academies feel like they’re competing with the USTA,” said McEnroe.
To be fair, USTA Player Development is not the entire problem. Bollettieri says to get winners, the sport needs actual athletes—but those kids are going into sports like football or basketball. McEnroe echoes that: “Kids who pick up tennis do it for their third or fourth sport.” Plus, he says, “The other reason is the rest of the world has caught up. Tennis is more popular in other countries now.” Bollettieri agrees. “We’re playing against the whole world,” he says. “It’s very different than it was 20 or 30 years ago.” The solution, Saviano says diplomatically, is that “the foundation of a world-class champion needs to be accomplished locally and regionally. Anything that diminishes that will damage the development of elite players.”
Which brings us back to the Sieglers, who are still grinding it out on the Indian Creek tennis courts. They are blind to the fact that they are sitting squarely in the middle of a tennis-star-breeding business-model problem—and let’s keep them oblivious. Because these kids love tennis. Ask Louis what one of his favorite tennis moments is, and he instantaneously recalls the 2009 Wimbledon in which Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick 16–14 in the fifth set; ask Julia-Rose what she likes about the sport, and she says, “Hitting tennis balls gives me a good feeling.”
And to them, it’s not all about winning or losing. “Nick’s really big thing is that winning is secondary,” Louis says of Saviano. “He emphasizes a commitment to excellence—being the best you can be.” Aha! Here, on Indian Creek, without even realizing it, the little boy wonder seems to have solved his sport’s dilemma: If those who make such a significant contribution to a junior tennis player’s career—the private coaches, the parents, the USTA, heck, even the sports psychologists—can come together with the common goal of making U.S. tennis the best it can be, then perhaps we might have our next great American tennis star. Until then.... Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.