Break Point in College Tennis

May 31, 2009

In the folksyreaches of Terre Haute—where Larry Bird became a star and the Coca-Cola bottlewas designed—understanding the native tongues of Indiana State's top tennisplayers this year all but required those clunky headphones mothballed in aUnited Nations closet.

A Swede, a Serb anda South African wore the Sycamores' royal blue, a reflection of the globalreach of collegiate tennis. Of the top 25 men's and 25 women's players inDivision I, as ranked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), morethan half were born outside the U.S. That's led to more than a few jingoisticremarks from the moms and dads of American tennis hopefuls who have watchedprecious scholarships go to foreigners, many of whom enter college in their20s. "If parents invest $50,000 a year into their child's tennis career,some feel they're owed," says David Benjamin, executive director of theITA. "But it's not in the Constitution that if you spend a certain amount,you'll get a scholarship to the school of your choice. Intellectually, a familyunderstands this, but emotionally it's difficult to accept. That's where youget the anger."

It's the land ofopportunity—why wouldn't there be an open casting call?

Chris Finney, forone, didn't have to go all Patriot Act. Rather than feel squeezed out, Finney,a freshman from Scranton, Pa., nudged his way into the Benetton ad, determinedto play among the best in the world. The top player at Wallenpaupack Area Highand a district doubles champion, he walked on to an Indiana State team thatimproved as the season progressed. College is where the Bryan brothers got onthe fast track to doubles fame. Where James Blake developed a swashbucklingforehand straight out of a Johnny Depp scene. Where the landscape is morecompetitive than ever, but increasingly threatened too.

Around 7 p.m. onMay 14, Finney, having just finished his semester, was dining out with hisfamily when he picked up a call from his coach, Malik Tabet. The signal wasclear; the words were a jolt: The men's and women's tennis programs had beenthe first casualties of budget cuts in what athletic director Ron Prettymancalled a "difficult" but "necessary" decision. "Everyonewas left high and dry," says Finney. "What am I going to do now? That'sthe question we have. I don't know if I want to go back to Indiana State. Idon't know what I'd do without tennis. It's been my life."

Tennis careercrises are an NCAA epidemic. The international stars are handy when schoolsneed to fill the trophy cases, but they make teams vulnerable when money getstight; boosters aren't likely to phone in protests from Barcelona. Since April,the men's programs have been slashed at Southeastern Louisiana (nine of 10players were foreign-born), Tennessee-Martin (four of seven) and Southern (fiveof five) on top of a half-dozen Division I programs cut in 2008. "What ishappening now," says Benjamin, "is like going from a normal flu seasonto a pandemic."

AD's don't merelyshutter tennis programs because of Title IX (the old excuse) or foreign players(the new excuse). They do it to preach the gospel of revenue-producing sportswithout disclosing the secret—that few of them turn a profit—tofootball-obsessed boosters. "We've got kids who are completelydisgusted," says Tabet, who was born in France and played at NAIA Mobile(Ala.). He was the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 2008 afterthe Indiana State women's team, composed entirely of foreign players, wentundefeated in conference and won the title. This year he coached the men, too.While they struggled to rebuild, they have been dominant in the past, winning60 straight conference matches from 1999 through 2004 with largelyinternational talent.

"We weregetting closer as the year went on," Finney says of his teammates. "I'dmade plans to share an apartment with [Serbian] Milos Pavlovic next year."Isn't this what the modern college experience is all about? Networking in aglobal marketplace?

There is a paradoxto the purging: Tennis is in a recession-era revival. In March The Wall StreetJournal ran a story—IS TENNIS HIP AGAIN?—that was almost as stunning as thenumbers to back it up. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association ratedtennis as the fastest-growing sport in the country, with participation jumping9.6% in 2008 while golf, baseball and football lost bodies. The sport iscathartic to play ("People in these hard times have found hitting a balltherapeutic," says Benjamin) and cheap to start (Wilson's Roger Federersignature beginner's racket retails for $19.99 at Target).

Even on the collegelevel tennis is a bargain. Average operational cost (equipment, travel,insurance, etc.) of a men's or women's team: $15,000 a year. Cost of competingin a football arms race (air travel, spa tubs, flat screens, etc.):endless.

These days in TerreHaute, there is talk of upgrading the locker room for the Sycamores' footballteam, which has gone 1--44 since 2005. So here's a question, in plain English:Which sport was ripe for the ax?

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With its global reach, the sport is more competitivethan ever but increasingly threatened too. Four Division I programs have beencut since April.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KAGAN MCLEOD

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)