In an interview with Barranquilla Life, Antonio Cordonnier, the head coach of the Atlántico Tennis League, gave us a snapshot of this growing sport. An Argentinian instructor who came thirteen years ago to “La Arenosa”, he also spoke about the new promises, our panorama for the upcoming Central American and Caribbean Games, and more.
How did you end up in Barranquilla?
I came to Barranquilla to work on the development of tennis as a main sport for the department. I’ve always worked in places with a lack of resources and weak tennis structures, so my job here is to make the sport grow and to maximize each new find.
How do you develop Tennis?
We start with children and work on a 20-year development plan. Regularly, the top 100 players have an average of 27 years old; and the top 10 an average of 29, so we focus on this period because we know producing strong professionals takes from 20 to 25 years.
Could you explain how the plan works?
Our labor is pyramidal. We build a huge basis of tennis skill, and we add particular emphasis on mini tennis. We play it in small spaces that can be over any surface. We want to expand tennis as much as possible, reaching places that don’t have easy access to the sport. With these strategies, we only need the balls to practice a sport that is usually reserved for the people who can afford to own all the equipment and special spaces. Mini Tennis is also an excellent way to identify talent in early stages. We also created structures for the tennis institute and between public parks, schools, universities and private clubs, we have 25 in the department that work well in the development of players.
So, with 25 tennis schools in the city, we could say that infrastructure grew a lot?
(Laughs)… No, in these 13 years of work we didn’t grow much in infrastructure. When I came there were 82 full-size courts, today we have 102, only 20 more. What we focused on was in professionalizing the coaches. At that same moment, there was only one with the basic certification of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to teach, while now we are proud to say that the league has 49 instructors with that same accreditation, and 15 with higher degrees. We also have doctors, psychologists, and former professional players doing training with the instructors to offer the best products to our athletes.
On the same page, we’ve developed a competitive structure; this is a key part of the formation process because if the players have a regular competition rhythm when they arrive at international tournaments, they have the experience required to be successful. With this, we avoid the stage fright and give them the memories necessary to anticipate what a high-level rival might try.
How many Tournaments do we have?
In Barranquilla, we have ten mini tennis tournaments per year, for kids starting from 6 years old. We play them with a format a bit different than the original but that works as a good foundation for the professional game. We also have several selection competitions with adapted rules for beginners. We have ten national tournaments. We play here one high-level ITF grade two, and one ITF grade one. All of this is in addition to a South American Confederation of Tennis tournament (COSAT) for 14 and 16 years olds that give points to the COSAT rank.
We even have a handicap calendar and here in the city there are 17 players with these conditions and we play two wheelchair tournaments as well. One of them is professional with prizes up to 13,000 USD. With these tournaments, we create a filter process that leads them through all the formation stages. If a player excels in a lot of them, we upgrade his competing level. So it’s possible to see a little kid playing in full-size courts against rivals who are several categories above.
What about our talents, who have the most promise?
In women, María Fernanda Herazo is our biggest prospect, and at 19 years old she is the best in the city. There are also the Pérez twins who started practicing at Eugenio Macias Park and now train here in the league. In men’s, José René Mejia, just 18 years’ old is the Colombian champion in his category.
So we do need more courts in the department?
We don’t have enough tennis courts; in Atlántico, we have just one per every 25,000 people. If we were to compare that to my country (Argentina), let’s say in my home town we have one court for every 2,000 people. And France has one court affiliated to the national tennis federation for every 1,000 people, and to that, you have to add all the ones that aren’t affiliated. That’s why those countries are more developed in the sport than here. That’s why France has 14 players in the top 100, and their 5th best player (which means he can’t be part of the national team) is ranked 22 in the world, far better than the best France or the best Colombian.
Do we also need different surfaces to practice?
Here in the city, we don’t have any indoor or grass courts. Despite having terrible conditions to have clay, we do own a couple. We don’t train in mud because the players would rather train on hard surfaces, but the good thing is that if we want to train in clay in any of the private clubs we always have their support. It’s important to say that we still work as a family, both with Country Club and Caujaral, but especially with the last one, if we need to practice there, they always give us a hand.
The most important issue is to expand the sport across the whole department and not just focusing in Barranquilla. We want five complexes with let’s say five courts each in Baranoa, Sabana Larga, Santo Tomás, Tubará, and Usiacurí. If that investment of 25 courts happens, I’m sure that I’ll send five coaches who in a matter of four years can give the department at least five players each, ranked in the Top 20 of the country in different categories.
How many athletes will we have for the Central American and Caribbean Games?
I would say that in the CA&C Games we will have at least two tennis players from our department. For sure we will have one girl that can be Mafe Herazo or one of the Perez twins. In the men’s, José Bendeck, Felipe Rojas and José René Mejia also have chances.
What about the place, do we have a Tennis complex for fans?
A tennis stadium will be built for the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games in the Atlántico Tennis League section located in La Castellana, Calle 100 between 51b and 53. At the moment, we have nine courts there, all of them are hard courts, and they are in excellent condition. Nevertheless, that is all that there is, and that’s not enough to host that type of event. Right now that complex lacks dressing rooms, a gym, offices, and resting areas for the players. The future stadium will have all these features under the grandstands, in addition to a headquarters office that they will build in a separate building.
Right now they are in the design process and last week a judge from ODECABE came to check the complex and the architects have been there a couple of times, there is just a matter of time for the final design to come.