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Neal Abrams looks at the NCAA Tennis Tournament. 
Neal Abrams looks at the NCAA Tennis Tournament. |ncaa.com
Tennis

Opinion: What’s wrong with collegiate tennis? Everything

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

I was just watching two young women battle it out through the heat and humidity in the Round of 16. One was from Bosnia and the other was from Russia. Two courts down two young warriors tested each other to see who would move into the quarters. In that one, one guy hailed from Italy and the other was Canadian. Guess what tournament it was.

Unless you already knew that American college tennis today is almost exclusively the domain of foreigners, you’d be hard pressed to guess that this was the NCAA Tennis Championships currently being played at the USTA home in Lake Nona, Florida, outside of Orlando. In the Men’s team championships, which came to a close last weekend and featured Texas over Wake Forest in the finals, twelve men played the six singles matches. One was American. Texas’ team featured players from Brazil, Denmark, Japan, and Bolivia, and three from Canada. Wake’s team was comprised of players from India, Israel, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Uzbekistan, Croatia, and two from Cyprus. And for those of you who are anxiously waiting for The French Open to begin this Sunday, and are wondering why, out of 32 Men’s seeds, none (NONE!!) are Americans, there’s the reason.

College tennis has gone through many, many changes since Title IX went into effect in the middle ‘70’s. The best, and most noticeable change, of course, is the wholesale recruitment of women to play. But other changes that were implemented I wouldn’t necessarily call positive for the college game. Back in the early ‘70’s college matches consisted of nine points: 6 singles matches, each worth a point, and 3 doubles matches, each worth a point. In order to win a team match one school would have to win five individual matches. Typically, the singles matches were played first, followed by the doubles matches. This was terrific, because it put a premium on doubles---a team event, and matches often reached their climaxes when the doubles came down to the end. Rooting for a team, not for an individual, made college tennis much like other sports on the collegiate level. But the NCAA decided that matches were taking too long (as if an extra-inning baseball game didn’t take 3.5 hours) so they started to experiment with different scoring methods and then different scoring formats.

The first big change in scoring came in the early ’70’s when men’s matches started utilizing no-ad scoring. Every game became a tiebreaker, with the winner of four points given the game. If a game got to 3-all (traditionally that would be known as “deuce”), the receiving player got to pick which side, deuce or ad, he wanted to receive serve in, and the winner of that point won the game. At that time, 9-point tiebreakers, where the first player who won five points won the breaker, were used at the end of any set tied at six. Needless to say, it added excitement when an individual match was tied one set apiece and 6 games all, 4 points all and both players faced simultaneous match point. And if this occurred when the team tally was 4-all, with the deciding doubles match coming down to simultaneous match point, the pressure and the excitement reached cataclysmic levels.

But that wasn’t good enough for the NCAA. Further fiddling with the scoring proved futile, so they started to fiddle with the format of the team match itself. In order to shorten the length of the match further, the powers that be de-emphasized doubles both in length and importance. They changed the three doubles matches to one set apiece, with the team that wins two of the three doubles sets, now played first before the singles, awarded only a single point. A team match was shortened to best of 7 points instead of best of 9, and lets (serves that hit the net) were considered playable. When one team won either it’s one doubles point or it’s fourth overall points, all matches in progress were stopped and not finished, further shortening matches but depriving players of important experience.

Therefore, if one team won two of the three doubles sets on the court, the third doubles match was stopped. Likewise, if a team won the doubles point and three of the singles matches, the remaining singles matches were stopped mid-match, as their finish was seen as unnecessary to the outcome. So they’re having an NCAA doubles tournament right now in which the teams chosen to play never actually played a full doubles match in college. They played sets, and some of them were not even completed! How do you pick teams to populate the draw, that is supposed to be made of the most elite players and doubles teams in the nation and then how do you seed them? It’s a crapshoot. And therein lies the rub.

The media, often mimicking the official NCAA party line, keeps putting forth the argument that playing college tennis is a reasonable pathway to the pros, as it is for other collegiate sports. But they’re so wrong it’s laughable.

First of all, they don’t play no-ad tennis in the pros. So a professional tennis player must learn how to fight through a game that might take 15 to 20 minutes, as he/she fights from deuce to ad, and back to deuce again, for an indeterminable period of time. Second, professionals do not play let serves. When a serve hits the net, the server is given another chance at that shot, whether it’s his first serve or second. In college tennis, I’ve seen a player win a game with a serve that hit the net and dribbled over into the receiver’s court. I’ve even seen that happen to decide a match, when the winner’s teammates come rushing in celebration onto the court before the receiver even realized that the match was over! That is certainly NOT a path to professional tennis.

And how about the players calling their own lines? Could you imagine two pros, say, at the U.S. Open, calling their own lines? How many arguments do you think they’d get into playing for the top prize of $3 Million? Hell, they get into arguments as it is when the lines are called by professional linesmen and they have the MacCam technology to make a definitive line calls. How many times do you see the camera showing that a part of the ball landed, or touched the line, or landed tangent to the line? And how often do you see a shot just missing, but so close that if not for the camera it would be impossible to detect it’s true spot of landing? Furthermore, could you imagine any other college sport where the participants are also the umpires or referees? I’ve never seen a baseball or basketball game without professional officiating. I can’t imagine ice hockey players calling their own penalties, or swimmers deciding who won a really close race. Heck, even squash has a spotter and an umpire, and that’s a CSA sport, not sanctioned by the NCAA! But in tennis, each player calls his own lines. And that, often, leads to a mess. Let’s go back to a game, or a match where the players are playing a “deciding point” at 3-all in a game. What’s to keep the receiver from catching both the first and second serve and calling them both faults? I’ve seen it happen. Furthermore, what’s keeping players from doing that in a third set tiebreaker? Exactly: Nothing!

And this is the path to becoming a professional tennis player?

Okay, let me pick on one other aspect of today’s college tennis. I’ve mentioned that there are foreign players on almost all of the college rosters. So, let’s now determine the influence these foreigners have made on college tennis as it pertains to it’s pathway to a career as a professional, particularly for Americans.

Back in the Golden Age of tennis, the 1970’s and 1980’s, Americans populated the college tennis rosters and the best of them moved on to the professional ranks. They played a best-of-five set match for the NCAA championship back then, just like the pros do at the Grand Slam events. Doubles matches were at least the best of three sets. In 1979, the Men’s draw at the U.S. Open, which is and was comprised of 128 spots, had 64 Americans in it. And if you go back and check the draw, as I have done, every single American had at least one year of college tennis experience to his name. The very few who only had one year (Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe) won the NCAA tournament as freshmen and simply turned pro after than one year. But even the Junior Champion (the guy who wins the National Juniors gets a spot in the main draw of the Open, to offer further development to the best American Junior) went on to play college tennis after the Open.

Now, guess how many Americans were in the U.S. Open draw last September? How about 18, of which five were Wild Cards---players who didn’t qualify to play but were given a spot in the draw by the USTA. So in forty years we went from having 50% of the players (all of whom played college tennis) to between 12%--14% (some of whom played college tennis) representing the United States at the U.S. Open. If this suggests that college tennis today is a pathway to a career as a professional tennis player, I’ve got some swamp land to sell you.

I will continue to watch the NCAA’s, and I encourage you to also. There’s some good tennis there with some excellent players, and they are providing both entertainment and excitement. But if you think you’re going to be watching the future of American tennis, as in the past, you’ve got another thing coming. But now you’ll be able to think for yourself when the announcers tell you that those Championships provide a reasonable pathway to the professional Tour.