I hadn't seen much college tennis until the NCAA tournament came to my area (Stanford) last month, and it was a revelation. It struck me that a lot of talented young players have no idea what they're missing, and that current trends on the women's pro tour could affect significant change.
Specifically: If maturity is the theme in today's game -- Li Na, Francesca Schiavone, Kim Clijsters, Samantha Stosur, you get the idea -- why wouldn't up-and-coming teenagers benefit from the collegiate experience?
If the notion sounds crazy, it's because there isn't a single player in the WTA's Top 100 who went to college. That's a stone-cold fact that should act as a major deterrent. But Patrick McEnroe, who heads up the USTA's development program, thinks college tennis is poised for a comeback.
Let me first explain the benefits. From a societal and educational standpoint, the collegiate experience speaks for itself. But I was amazed and delighted at the spectacle of team tennis, and this goes way beyond World Team Tennis (little more than an amusing sideshow since its glory days in the 1970s) and even the prestigious Davis Cup. The NCAA spectacle represents "team" in every sense of the word.
As the women's championship came down to the host Stanford Cardinal against Florida -- a rematch of last year's final -- six singles matches were being played simultaneously, in a pair of three-court stadiums. The crowd noise was a constant brand of bedlam, coming from all directions. Forget that wave of silence when you're about to serve; a few hundred people might be going crazy, above a nearby court, in the middle of your toss.
One by one, the results came in, posted on a scoreboard so everyone knew where the competition stood. As the matches finished, players lined up courtside to cheer on teammates still in action. Including the doubles point awarded earlier in the day, it came down to a 3-3 tie with Stanford's Mallory Burdette facing Florida's Lauren Embree, and the tension was excruciating. It went to a third-set tiebreaker, and a 6-6 deadlock, before Embree won a couple of points to close it out.
As the Florida players wildly celebrated so many miles from home, I tried to imagine the feeling of coming through in the clutch with a group of teammates poised to share the glory. That's something you just don't find on tour. There are huge lessons in defeat, as well, and Stanford showed the utmost in class as sympathetic players gathered around the crestfallen Burdette and let her know she wasn't alone.
Nothing trumps the element of money when it comes to turning pro, but the days of teenage "phenoms" are gone, on both tours. Since the WTA changed its eligibility rules in 1995, there have been limits on the number of tournaments played by girls aged 14-17. So nobody's rising to the top at that stage. More than ever, though, tournaments are being won by mature, experienced players with massive power (or pure finesse, in Schiavone's case). Careers are being validated by heroic, later-in-life feats. The same goes on the men's side, where fabled young talents routinely get schooled by the older set until, years later, their time arrives.
"Years ago, players were incredibly successful at a young age because they hit the ball as hard as the best in the world," said noted coach/TV analyst Darren Cahill. "The young kids coming through today don't. It's as simple as that. You've got to develop more physical strength now, and that only comes with years of training."
All of which completely invalidates a comment by highly respected coach Robert Landsdorp some 10 years ago, explaining why he felt a certain female player would never reach No. 1: "In women's tennis, you have to have made a mark by the time you're 16 -- won a Slam, a big tournament or beaten the No. 1. If you haven't, you will never become No. 1."
That's simply not the case any longer (the last teenager to win a major was Maria Sharapova, 19, at the 2006 U.S. Open), and here's where McEnroe comes in. He's fully aware of the collegiate experience, having played on two NCAA championship teams at Stanford in the late 1980s, and he admits that the USTA has "made mistakes," in some cases, by pushing kids to turn pro too early.
"We're making more of an effort to encourage kids to go to college, or to stay in school once they get there," McEnroe said in a telephone interview. "If you get someone as talented as Andy Roddick or Sam Querrey, it's pretty clear they're going to make a move to the pros, and rightly so. But over the last 15 years, I think we probably lost about a hundred potential top-100 players because they went pro too early. They were too young for a life on the road, they were lonely, and they got crushed by the competition. Next thing you know, they're completely out of the game.
"The reality is that college tennis is like Double-A ball, for the most part," said McEnroe. "You won't see many players who are going to wind up in the Top 10. But here in America, we could use more people in the top 30-50. We're really hurting in that department. In a lot of cases, I don't feel a player would lose any ground by playing in college. I'd be happy to see more of our young players take this road. It's a smart decision for tennis reasons, and also for life reasons."
John Isner is a good example of a player who went to college (Georgia) for four years, experienced the thrill of competing in the NCAA tournament, then hit the tour with a brand of maturity he hadn't known before. "Isner still talks about that, all the intangibles of the collegiate experience," said McEnroe. "There's a really talented kid, Michael Shabaz, who wasn't mentally prepared to turn pro three or four years ago. He just wasn't ready for that kind of grind, that kind of pressure. So he went to Virginia, where he's just wrapping up a great career, and we brought him down to our last Davis Cup match, in Chile, as a practice player. He was totally blown away by what Roddick, Mardy Fish and the Bryan brothers do on a daily basis. And he's as gung-ho as ever. He's going to come out of college at 21, 22 years old with a lot more positive energy."
We'll never return to the glory days of collegiate tennis, when the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith won NCAA singles championships.
But maturity was a major theme at the recent French Open, on both the men's and women's side, with a lot of powerful voices in chorus. Martina Navratilova called it "full-on insane" for kids to be driven to win before they even reach their teenage years. Enthralled by the all-court spectacle of the Li-Schiavone women's final, John McEnroe said on the NBC telecast, "The way the women's game is going, players can maximize their potential later on and not burn out so early. There's a lesson to be learned out there for parents who are pushing their kids too soon to turn pro."
Expecting immediate change would be something like waiting for the tours to cut two months off their schedules, or for the Davis Cup calendar to make sense. Isner's enviable career path doesn't seem to have had much impact. But what if a handful of bright, worldly teenagers decided to attend college, squared off routinely in the big events, then emerged as mature young women capable of making some Grand Slam noise? It just might start a trend.