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Wall Street Journal Article on Dover Tennis Player Madison Brengle
A 'Soviet' Plan to Save U.S. Tennis

Why a 17-year-old, ranked 277th, will be center stage in the sport come Tuesday

By RUSSELL ADAMS May 19, 2007; Page P5

When the French Open begins May 27, American tennis fans will fixate on Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters. Come Tuesday, however, tennis insiders will be watching the qualifying-round chops of the player who ranks 277th in the world hierarchy of women's tennis.

Madison Brengle, a 17-year-old from Delaware, is a test case for a new approach to producing American tennis stars. Under the guidance of U.S. tennis's not-for-profit overseer, a team of coaches and trainers have focused on her for the past seven months. She goes weeks without seeing her parents, trains six hours a day and runs until it hurts.Madison Brengle in Australia

"I don't do treadmills well," she says.

Prompted by a dearth of emerging stars, the U.S. Tennis Association's new tack emulates intensive athletic programs elsewhere, including France and Spain. The USTA long had left such work to private academies, which critics say rob prodigies of their youth and downplay academics, and the governing body's involvement evokes Soviet-bloc Olympic tactics that run counter to the American ideal of organically growing athletes on playgrounds, rather than manufacturing them. Sensitive to such perceptions, the USTA says it won't train preteens and will emphasize life outside of tennis, including academics.

Ms. Brengle's tournament results have improved, propelling her up an extraordinary 231 ranking spots since January. She challenged a top player in the Australian Open and reached its junior finals. She recently secured the U.S.'s lone women's "wild card" entry in the French Open qualifying round; she'll be one of 96 women vying for 12 slots.

Though more Americans play tennis these days, experts say the best young athletes increasingly choose other sports, and private tennis academies, which charge up to $60,000 a year, now focus on more dedicated overseas youngsters.

Now the U.S. has reached new lows competitively, notwithstanding Andre Agassi's late-career success and Venus and Serena Williams's dominance. Ten years ago, nine of the tennis world's top 50 men were American, compared with four today and Argentina's six.

The bottom fell out last summer at Wimbledon. No American reached the singles quarterfinals for the first time in nearly a century. That left the U.S. with just one man and one woman in the top 10. In junior rankings, the U.S. then had just one boy and one girl in the top 20.

More than Yankee pride is at stake: Television ratings, the key revenue driver in U.S. sports, depend on Americans making tournament finals.

"Our kids are a little soft nowadays," says former tennis tour professional John Evert, who runs the for-profit Evert Tennis Academy with his tennis-legend sister, Chris. "There's a sense of urgency because our kids are going to be competing against a lot of Eastern Europeans [who] are just hungrier."

In January construction started in Boca Raton, Fla., on the USTA training program's $3.5 million, 18,000-square-foot facility, including living quarters for 24 teenagers, offices for coaches and other employees, a fitness center and a video-analysis room. The building, to be completed in September, was financed by the Evert academy, which will lease it to the USTA and help run the program. Chosen students will attend free, but families will pay academic expenses.

The USTA picked Ms. Brengle and Ashley Weinhold, also 17, to test the program, starting last November.

Ms. Brengle's tennis-instructor mom had been her coach. But Ms. Brengle rarely ran or lifted weights and only played challenging partners when she could cajole matches with Delaware State University men's team players.

"It was such a struggle," she says. "There was no structure."

Ms. Weinhold previously had trained under conditions typical of a teenager with pro potential, at the Austin Tennis Academy in Texas. She spent 20 hours a week on her game, including sessions with a mental-toughness coach. But she lacked a regular playing partner and spent weeks away from her coach while competing.

Now the two girls live together on the third floor of the Evert academy's dorm. They sleep on the bottom of separate bunk beds, stashing clothes up top. They usually awaken to the sound of workers building the facility they'll soon occupy.

There are morning and afternoon two-hour practices and workouts that include squats, dead-lifts and 400-meter sprints. They study for an hour and a half a night. Both are home-schooled long distance, Ms. Brengle by her dad, Ms. Weinhold via a Texas Tech University program. (Other students will attend an online or nearby private school.)

Friday is movie night, and they hit the mall some Saturdays. Their coach takes them out to dinner or to play putt-putt. The local Panera Bread bakery -- "that's our excitement," Ms. Brengle says.

The rigorous schedule takes a toll. A string of injuries bedeviled Ms. Weinhold, and she has dropped 11 slots from her year-end ranking of No. 381.

The girls have friends from touring and don't feel they're skipping their youths. Still, says Ms. Weinhold, "you've got to make sacrifices."

Ms. Brengle's coach says she has a fair shot at getting into the French Open. The teenager is blasé: "I'm a little nervous, but it's a good opportunity. We'll see what happens."

Write to Russell Adams at russell.adams@wsj.com
 

 
 
 
 
 
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