WIMBLEDON -- This has been a disappointing Wimbledon for the wave of U.S. women competing in the Girls' Singles. Eleven of them populated the draw, including top-seed Whitney Osuigwe and 14-year-old sensation Cori Gauff -- already a French Open junior singles champion.
But all waves break, and by the end of play Thursday, no U.S. women were left in the final four.
The comedown was, if not overdue, at least understandable. The U.S. junior women have been a juggernaut in recent majors. The USTA's Player Development leadership strategically puts little emphasis on the Australian Open (although it supports players who choose to compete), but it makes a big push at the other three majors -- with great recent success.
Both finalists at the past four majors (Australian excluded) were from the U.S. The honor roll: Gauff, Caty McNally, Amanda Anisimova, Claire liu, Ann Li and Osuigwe. Only three of those women were in the Wimbledon Girls' draw this year, but that's expected. Unlike the main draws, the junior events don't always attract a full complement of the world's top 18-and-under players anymore, but draw enough to keep the results relevant.
Much of the success the U.S. girls have experienced owes to the USTA's Player Development program. The head of that division for the past decade is one of the most successful, yet least visible persons of influence in tennis, Ola Malmqvist. A lean, 6-foot-6, 59-year-old Swede with a mane of silver hair that gives him a professorial air, Malmqvist has been in the U.S. since he earned All-American honors at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s.
"Ola has really mastered the process," Katrina Adams, the Chairman of the Board and President of the USTA, told ESPN.com. "His philosophy of using training blocks, focusing on tournaments by levels, getting players to understand that development is a process, not something that happens overnight, is something we completely support."
Said Malmqvist: "About 10 years ago, we started with a plan to organize tennis so that players would have a clear pathway to success. We wanted to change the culture, see if we could take better care of the base. Then, we felt, everything would follow."
The culture at the time certainly needed changing. The relationship between aspiring pros and the USTA consisted mostly of parents and coaches firing accusations at the USTA, claiming a lack of support and demanding financial support. The USTA had no clear established plan for serially developing players -- and no real response to the criticism.
Under the direction of ESPN analyst and former pro Patrick McEnroe (the head of Player Development at the time, since succeeded by Martin Blackman) and together with the head of men's tennis, Jose Higueras, Malmqvist came up a strategy:
"We set up a pyramid plan that we've been following tightly, with regional training centers (initially 23, now fewer) at the base," Malmqvist said. "We also improved our relationship with the private sector, where coaches and parents were often worried that we were trying to take over their kids."
The USTA did a comprehensive study on the pathway to the top 100 and has followed the conclusions religiously. The USTA gives out very little money. Players who hit certain clearly defined -- and challenging -- targets in their age groups are eligible for annual cash grants of up to $9,000, but the most valuable thing the USTA offers these days is comprehensive services ranging from coaching to on-campus lodging and full-on supervised training blocks at its various training centers.
Attending national tournaments some years ago, Malmqvist and his colleagues also noticed that there was a lot of "pushing" going on. Many juniors had poorly developed games designed mainly, it seemed, to keep them from losing to similar players. It would keep them highly ranked in the cozy USTA biosphere, but they would get crushed in international play outside that bubble.
In response, the PD program began to emphasize all-around development and accountability on the part of the coaches all the way up the line to Malmqvist. "If we see that a player can't hit a slice, we point that out to our [USTA] coach, or her coach if we work in conjunction with him, and say that we'd like to see that element addressed next time."
That's part of Malmqvist's commitment to making sure the players don't outkick their coverage. The USTA also created "transitional" teams consisting of a coach and two or three women who travel and train together as they try the pro tour. The USTA pays their expenses, but the money is repaid out of any prize money a player earns. "We have a budget," Malmqvist said, "One thing we won't do is put money in a player's pocket."
The pro division of PD has 13 national coaches and three national training centers (Orlando, Florida; Carson, California; and Queens, New York). If a player reaches a good pro ranking of, say, No. 50, the USTA will continue to support her as long as she keeps improving. But if she goes "stale," the USTA will back away -- but still help the player assemble a new team and welcome her at the training centers. "That way, we can take that original coach and put him somewhere else," Malmqvist said. "It's circular."
The training base and Orlando has been a hit, not least because Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens -- role models for many of the younger girls -- have spent significant amounts of time there. "Sloane has really taken an active interest in Claire Liu's progress," Malmqvist said. "That kind of support is invaluable."
The looming question is, "Why haven't the men enjoyed comparable success?" Adams, the USTA President, asked. "[The women are] stronger and smarter earlier. Guys have to get stronger. It could happen for them at 16, or 21. Women, at 14, 16 they're pretty much mature."
Also, boys have many more options when it comes to pursuing careers in pro sports. For women, tennis is the queen of sports -- especially in the U.S., where Serena Williams is a towering cultural icon. And how would Malmqvist feel about a USTA coach guiding the next Serena?
"To me, that's not our role," Malmqvist said. "Once they get great and they can afford it, they should have their own team. For me, there are three things that count: Take care of the base, make sure our coaches get better, and when it comes to your most talented players, do whatever you can that makes sense to make it work for them."
The formula seems to be working.