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USTA develops Net Generation program to power future of American tennis

Kids participate in a USTA fan experience at the Seaport District in New York, where the Net Generation program was promoted. Aishwarya Kumar/ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Kayla Day, the 2016 US Open junior champion, was driven daily by her mother two hours each way from her Southern California home in Santa Barbara to the USTA Training Center in Carson. Tommy Paul, a 2017 Citi Open quarterfinalist, had to move from North Carolina to Boca Raton, Florida, to train at a USTA facility when he was just 13. Jennifer Brady, ranked No. 91 in the world, struggled to find people to hit balls with in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The travel, expenditures and other sacrifices made by American tennis prospects might be a thing of the past with USTA's new youth initiative, Net Generation. The program will act as the pathway between coaches and trainers and kids ages 5-18 who want to take up the sport.

Coaches, schools and clubs all over the country will be able to sign up and get approved by USTA after a background check. Parents then will be able to get in touch with the approved clubs, clinics and coaches on the Net Generation website and app and get their kids enrolled in programs. The initiative will also roll out smaller rackets, balls and courts for the younger kids to ensure they understand the basics of tennis with equipment appropriate for their age.

"I am a parent, and for the longest time I didn't know how to get in touch with coaches and trainers for my children, and I am from the tennis world," said Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez, Net Generation's ambassador, at a fan experience event in New York's Seaport District on Thursday. "This will act as a one-stop place to find talented kids and help them understand tennis is a viable career option."

For the past decade, USTA has worked toward finding potential talent at a young age and assigning them to coaches and trainers to develop their all-around game. This is a step further in the effort to find the next wave of players who will make U.S. a tennis powerhouse, said Net Generation general manager Craig Morris.

Instead of finding one Claire Liu (this year's Wimbledon junior champion) to develop into a future star, the USTA will now be able to find 50 Claire Lius, one in each state, and hone their skills, Fernandez said.

Up-and-coming players such as Day agreed that being able to stay close to home and train will be invaluable for kids in the future.

"That element takes away so much financial and physical pressure off of you," Day said. "You can focus on tennis, and with the right equipment for your age, learn skills early on and get better quickly."

Noting the transformation of tennis in America in the past two decades, Fernandez said players used to be able to "dabble in the sport and make a decision to go pro even during or after college," but that approach doesn't work anymore. The top players start training at age 8 or 9 now, and by 14 they know if they have it in them to go pro. This means the USTA needs to start targeting talent as young as 7, and Net Generation is a great initiative for that timeline, she said.

When there is direct access to coaches and clinics, kids will be less likely to move from tennis to other sports at age 10 or 11, and they will start looking at tennis as a viable career option.

"When they see more kids playing it, they'll also realize tennis can get them to the top, unlike with soccer and basketball, where most of them stop playing after high school or college," said Fernandez, who, in addition to taking part in USTA's youth initiatives, conducts virtual tennis courses online.

Women's tennis is a step ahead of men's tennis in the U.S. at this point, and Fernandez and Day think there will be an American female Grand Slam champion other than Serena or Venus Williams in the next five years.

"I have my eyes on Madison Keys," Fernandez said. "Lindsay Davenport is training her, and that's going to help her game a lot."

The ultimate dream of Net Generation is to find the next Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and to help the U.S. stay at the top of the women's tennis world after Venus and Serena Williams are done playing.

"There are more American players in the top 100 now than there've been in the last decade," Fernandez said. "USA is in the Fed Cup final, which they haven't won since 2000, so this is an opportune time to keep the momentum going."