Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Q + A with Stephen Amritraj, Collegiate Coach for USTA

On the Rise (a tennis blog) is pleased to bring you this interview with Stephen Amritraj, Collegiate Coach for the USTA. Stephen has been in his current position for about 6 months, and was recently at the ITA Men's National Indoors Team Championships, where this blog made his acquaintance. He was kind enough to agree to an email interview. Follow Stephen at @stephenamritraj ... if you dare!

Stephen Amritraj
On the Rise (a tennis blog): First, for those who may not be familiar with you, what's your tennis background, and what brought you to your current position?

SA: I played at Duke University and mostly doubles on the Tour after, due to the fact that I tore my ACL twice. But as a player I will be the first to say that I wasn’t very good compared to the players I work with now. In 2009, after I was pretty much done playing, Rajeev Ram and my cousin, Prakash Amritraj, asked me to coach them because they thought I would be good at it. Both were about 220 at the time and within 6 months Rajeev won Newport singles and doubles and ended the year in the 70s. I worked with him on and off until 2012 and 2013, when I worked with Mardy Fish when he was 7 in the world. It was an incredible opportunity and learning experience to be able to see a guy in the top 10 and see his habits, mindset, and tennis ability on a daily basis.

I started for USTA Player Development in January 2014 and ran the Men’s program at the Training Center – West in Carson, CA which included Steve Johnson and others that we brought in like Austin Krajicek, Daniel Kosakowski, Chase Buchanan, Jason Jung, and Nick Meister, on top of a promising group of boys part-time. And in September of last year, I started my current position as the Collegiate Coach for the USTA, which is pretty much a dream come true and I am grateful every day that the USTA gave me the opportunity.

OTR: You've had a few months now to settle into your current position. What have been the biggest challenges? And the most unexpected rewards?

SA: For the most part, it’s pretty much everything I expected. Each day is truly a reward for me to be able to do what I love with players that mean a lot to me.

OTR: Let's talk some recent collegians. There are 9 recent (4 years or less removed from school) collegiate American men in the Top 300, most of whom are at or near career high rankings. A couple have fallen off a bit. What specifically is the USTA doing for these guys, and how should the average fan of American tennis take stock of their progress?

SA: It’s great to see so many doing well, but quite honestly, it’s not surprising. I think you will see a lot of players from college ending their first full year on the tour ranked around 350. Krajicek-2012: 339. Buchanan-2013: 318. Connor Smith-2014: 358. I think this provides a solid benchmark, and the ones that have gotten there quicker—Isner, Johnson, Klahn—were the NCAA winners or finalists.

The first real push starts from there (300s) to 250, so they can play in the Grand Slam qualifying and then the most difficult part is getting from 200 to top 100.

However, if these players truly give everything they can to the process of being the best they can be, we respect those efforts, no matter what the final number next to their name is.

OTR: What about the women? It seems to me that the canard that if women go to college it means they won't make it on tour. It's a younger game, much less depth, etc. But even so we have Nicole Gibbs in the Top 100, Mallory Burdette got there quickly before she retired, and in all 5 American women who played in college are in the WTA Top 300. What are your thoughts about the state of women's college tennis vis a vis the pro game?

SA: Nicole is doing great and we are really proud of her.

On the whole, women’s tennis a little younger and the transition is a little quicker from juniors and college, as you mentioned. However, we also have the best women’s players in the world by every ranking measure around and I am excited to see this current group of collegians compete at the next level, especially internationally.

We have very good players currently in college-- 9 of the top 10 in the ITA ranking are American, and that’s not including Jennifer Brady, who took the fall off and is ranked around 215 [in the WTA]. These girls can play.

I would hope they would look at someone like Irina Falconi, who is a tremendous example of playing for the right reasons and working to be her best. She is back around 100 now and is continuing to make strides with a wonderful attitude and work ethic.

OTR: Now for doubles: you reached the Top 200 in the doubles rankings. By my count, 19 American former college players are in the Top 200 of doubles - 7 women and 12 men. To what extent should college players think about that as a potential part of a pro career, and are you concerned about the state of doubles in college (and in the pros)?

SA: College tennis is an incubator of doubles due to the importance of the doubles point in dual matches. No one else is the world practices around 4 hours of doubles a week from the ages of 18-22. And I think you see those results play out in the numbers you mentioned and that over 20 of the Top 100 in doubles on the ATP Tour are ex-collegians, whereas only 5 of the Top 100 in singles are ex-collegians.

Everyone plays on the tour for different reasons and doubles may be the only option a lot of these players have. I know it was mine. I would hope they would give their singles a chance, while keeping in mind that a good doubles level in college usually translates quite well to the tour.

OTR: Looking at the current state of college tennis, there's a lot of controversy, obviously, about scoring and general shortening of matches. I have three questions:

a) Having been at the ITA Indoors (and other events) what's your take on no-ad for singles from your perspective in developing future pros?

SA: I’m way more concerned about the daily process of improvement and development than I am about the ad/no ad debate. If players are taking responsibility with the incredible offerings that colleges give them and practicing with detailed, specific focus, crushing fitness, eating right, and making smart choices to mature, then we will be in good shape for them to achieve on the tour. That stuff is way, way more important for individual player development than Ad/No Ad.

Being a fan of college tennis and having been there, the no-ad and especially, no warm up, was fun to watch.

b) What's one thing you wish could be improved about college tennis, again in terms of your perspective in developing future pros?

SA: I think college tennis is amazing and I would just beg the players to try to keep a process-based mindset in an extremely results-oriented situation. Especially when they are winning. Keep an understanding that if you want to succeed at the next level, winning at the college level isn’t enough. Stay hungry, don’t get complacent, keep working on specific focuses, get uncomfortable in practice so you can grow. This is especially true for those who do really well early in their career and stay in school.

c) There's a lot of talk about the importance of playing on clay to help players develop their games to the fullest. However, as far as I can tell, when you're in college, most of the work you do is on hard courts. Is that a concern? How would you address it, if at all?

SA: There are some college tournaments on clay in the fall like the USTA College Clay Court Invitational and the Dickie V Classic. In addition, there are USTA Pro Circuit Events in the fall, winter, and summer on clay that are great places for players to develop. And finally, I would encourage players to take a look at the ITF schedule during the summer as that is another opportunity to play and develop on the dirt.

OTR: One more thing! The BNP Paribas Open Collegiate Challenge is just around the corner. Will fans not in Indian Wells be able to watch any of that? And either way, what should fans look for?

SA: Indian Wells and Tournament Director Steve Simon have taken the forefront in promoting college tennis at the professional level. Over the last few years, they have been very generous by giving some of their qualifying wild cards to local collegians and the expansion of this year’s BNP Paribas Open Collegiate Challenge gives both fans an opportunity to watch college tennis and the players a chance to compete on one of the biggest stages in the tennis world.

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