By Emilio Sanchez, CEO and Founder of the Academia Sanchez-Casal.
In the US, one of the most important dates of the year is Thanksgiving Day. After living here for seven years, we have started to understand this tradition and to feel part of it. The only problem is that when you have a tennis academy for kids from 10 to 18 years old, most of them have a goal to compete in Eddie Herr at IMG Academy on that weekend. Therefore, every year we have to put together a big group of players and drive up north with the travelling teams. This year on top of that I had two of my kids competing: 15-year-old Emilio and 13-year-old Valentina. That’s why for the ASC Florida players and my family, it’s difficult to celebrate the holiday.
Before I talk about their terrible experience at IMG, I want to go back in time. Thirty-seven years ago I flew for the first time to the US to represent Spain at the Orange Bowl. I arrived beforehand and was told to participate at the Eddie Herr tournament. I took a bus from Miami to Bradenton and had an incredible experience. I competed and had fun, but what I remember the most is Eddie Herr on one side, who was like Santa Claus. He was all around, knew every player, and cared for every one of us that came from so far away. On the other side obviously was Nick, who was always looking to connect with all talented kids to convince them to come to train there. The reality was that I was so impressed by them and they made me feel so good, that the tournament was so special I even tried to convince my parents to send me there. But with the economic situation of my family that was impossible. Mr. Eddie Herr was an incredible person, who loved tennis and built an incredible event with the love and passion he had for the sport.
Now let’s go back to last week. The kids left with the illusion of going to a top event. The qualies gathered 128 kids per category, times 6 categories in the 12-16 ages, which equaled more than a thousand players including the 18’s. Out of the 60 courts, only 33 hardcourts were used to play the tournament. The sign-in for the event started at 10 a.m. for kids under 12, then it was the turn for the under 14 and finally the 16, with the sign-in finishing around 4 p.m. Schedule of play came out later than 10:30 p.m., making it very difficult to plan ahead. Many of the kids didn’t play the next day and there was no chance to practice unless they signed up for a camp on site. Valentina played around noon and lost. Emilio was supposed to play at 4p.m., but apparently the organizers made some mistakes in the draw and they had to redo it. As a result, they put him in one of the last matches and he ended up entering the court at 11:20 p.m. He complained and they told him, “You guys have to play now, like that you guys can spend the holiday with your parents.” They made the same comment to two other players from Mexico and China, who obviously didn’t care much about that since their parents are thousands of kilometers away. They put another ASC player in the 16’s category instead of the 14’s, and at the end they replaced him, took him out for another of our players that they also forgotten to add in the draw. We complained to USTA, they blamed UTR, UTR sent us to IMG, and IMG to USTA; this was the perfect triangle. My coaches tried to help, but the treatment they received made them feel like they had nothing to do with the issue; this happened instead of overcoming rivalries and thinking about the athletes to make them feel great about their experience and have a nice memory of the event and the place.
I even called the USTA and they told me to call IMG. I called, left a voice mail, but they never called back. I just want to make them aware of the problem, but they had such a mess that they never called back. I’m so sad. I miss Eddie Herr and his spirit, his way of taking care of kids, of inspiring them to persevere in this great career and to make a tournament that would stay in their memories like it happened to me. Instead, today you go to this amazing facility, you pay $145 to play a match, $15 a day to park 15 minutes away from the facility, and $20 for a meal. They force you to book a hotel with their agency, paying at least 10-20% more than the normal price, and overall they make you feel like a number. What a pity.
I just want to remind everyone that we’re all responsible to wake-up the passion to love this sport and that these kids independent of their level arrive there with a dream and that we need to keep their dream alive. My kids arrived home saying, “I never want to go back to that place.” In my case, that is not a problem, but how many kids will feel so disappointed that they will leave our sport? There is a lot of talk about the problem of keeping players in competition, and Eddie Herr is just the tip of the iceberg, because in many other events they do the same, turning this sport into just a business. Here is where we really need to analyze what is happening and the USTA should really improve the requirements to the organizers. We should all try to make the tournaments become an experience, be much more fun, offer courts for practice, have a well done schedule, and help kids enjoy rivalries and love to be the best version that they can be in everything, but mainly having fun and competing. Until we recover that spirit, the spirit that Eddie Herr imprinted on me and many others, we will not solve the problem. We can’t continue having such a terrible environment for kids who should be enjoying the ride and not suffering because of the inability of the organizers. Until we find a pyramid that makes competition fun and desirable, we will lack many talented kids that will choose other sports that are more friendly in competition and are more fun.
CEO and Co-Founder of the Academia Sánchez-Casal