On July 19th at The Racquet Club of Memphis, the 2009 USTA Girls' 18 National Clay Court Championships will open, with almost 200 American players aiming to someday break the recent seal of world dominance by the Williams sisters and eastern European players. This is an event that's been held in Memphis every year since 1990 (it was won by Davenport in '91), and eight years before that as the national hard-court championships (Capriati won the title in 1989 at age 13). The Williams sisters,alas, never competed in the event.
Tournament director Peter Lebedevs has a couple of thoughts on why more American women haven't made the leap to Grand Slam success. "The education component is less emphasized in European countries," says Lebedevs. "They're working them more as an athlete. They do more training. Also, in Europe, a train ride can take you from France to Italy, and each country has a whole bunch of tournaments, with each country's best players to compete against. Here in the U.S., the country is so spread out, you've got to travel so far to compete against the best. The U.S. is trying to identify the best athletes at an early age, and give them more opportunities at regional training centers."
Less than a forecast of future Wimbledon finals, the Clay Court Championships are a unique audition for American college coaches. Memphis has the advantage of a central location, and with the event in July, college coaches have travel time on their hands they normally don't. Lebedevs estimates more than 70 NCAA programs will be represented at the workshop held the day before the tournament begins.
"Kids get to meet coaches, set up visits, learn about schools, and the coaches get to show off their schools," explains Lebedevs. "Vanderbilt always comes in and takes the front, center table. And they're always Top 20. Once the event starts, they're not allowed to talk to the players ... NCAA rules. So they meet them before our event." Lebedevs estimates that around 100 players signed scholarships a year ago, and those who don't are usually just too young to do so. Last year, Germantown's Allison Hodges caught the eye of coaches from Central Florida, a school she hadn't considered until playing in the Clay Court Championships.
Players as young as 13 or 14 (there is no under-age limit) qualify from 17 sections across the United States. Players ranked among the nation's top 20 by the USTA qualify automatically. They'll be competing over an eight-day period, and on courts at The Racquet Club, the Memphis Country Club, and the University Club. While groundstrokes and serve technique are important factors, Lebedevs says college coaches tend to look for attitude as much as pure talent.
"College tennis is kind of like professional baseball," says Lebedevs. "You play a lot of matches, and you've got to bring it every day, so coaches are looking for kids who stay tough. They want to see kids who fall into the consolation draw and have to play two matches on the same day, in 100-degree heat."
Among the favorites at this year's event will be Catherine Harrison of Germantown and a pair of Floridians well accustomed to playing on clay: Danielle Collins (a quarterfinalist a year ago) and Mary Clayton. On the subject of these three favorites, Lebedevs notes a rising-star quality that will draw some national spotlight toward Memphis. "They're 14 or 15, and they're playing here," he says, "They're pretty darn good. They're the ones who stand out."