The backdrop and characters may change, but the story remains the same: a promising young tennis player picks up a racket and falls in love with the game. The family makes sacrifices, driving to junior tournaments across the country, tracking rankings and tournament wins. Eventually, they head for warmer climates, a tennis academy, and the chance to play the sport year-round to develop their game. When tennis is all you think about, it’s easy to encourage dreams about playing with the pros, taking the court with stars like Venus Williams and Andy Roddick. And so at a young age, these young adults forgo college and make the choice to turn pro. But the reality is that those same young players rarely make an impact at pro tournaments. There is increasing pressure on young athletes to seek out competition on a professional level, whether they are ready to or not. And many junior players think that their only road to the big leagues is a direct one, opting to go pro directly out of high school. But there are again an increasing number of professional tennis players who are making a stop along the way: college. And college tennis has helped some of today’s brightest young stars bring their game up to the next level, where they are finding success they would otherwise have not attained.
“Kids playing tennis should go to college and stay there for four years,” former Georgia star John Isner has said. “At 17, 18 years old, they’re not strong enough to compete with these 25-year-old pros.”
Professional players have made the wise decision to develop their game in college before heading for the professional ranks for years. And they are following in the footsteps of some of the best competitors the game has ever seen. Tennis legends like Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors took to the courts at UCLA. John McEnroe perfected his angry outbursts in his time at Stanford, on the way to an NCAA singles title. Althea Gibson played at Florida A&M, while Stan Smith and Billie Jean King opted for the West Coast, attending Southern California and Cal State Los Angeles, respectively.
On the men’s side, up until the mid-1980’s, virtually every professional American player of significance went the college route. Times have changed due, in part, to the legendary group of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, who turned pro at a young age. But the college flag has still been carried by the likes of Grand Slam finalists Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington, to today’s latest crop of alums.
Doubles partners and identical twins Mike and Bob Bryan are two of the most fan-friendly players on the circuit. They won multiple championships in their time at Stanford, including back-to-back NCAA team titles in 1997 and 1998. As a pair, they also won an NCAA doubles title in 1998. Bob Bryan joined an elite group that year, when he won the “triple crown” of college tennis, with the NCAA singles, doubles and team titles. Since leaving Stanford to turn pro, the brothers have become the best doubles team in professional tennis. Currently ranked No. 1, they have 45 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) titles and five Grand Slam doubles titles under their belt, including the French Open (’04), the U.S. Open (’05), the Australian Open (’06, ‘07), and Wimbledon (’06). In 2007, the Bryan brothers, along with two other former collegiate players, James Blake and team captain Patrick McEnroe, helped the U.S. to its first Davis Cup title since 1995.
On the women’s side, the history has been to turn pro at a much younger age, much like Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, and Lindsay Davenport. But college tennis has also made its mark at various times on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. Lisa Raymond is one of the best doubles players in the WTA today. Enshrined at the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, Raymond became the first player to win three collegiate Grand Slam titles in a singles season (1992). The two-time NCAA singles champion received practically every award imaginable in her time at Florida: the ‘92 ITA Rookie of the Year award, the ‘92 ITA National Player of the Year award, and the ‘92 and ‘93 Broderick Award. Since her playing days at Florida, Raymond has won 66 Sony Ericsson WTA Tour doubles titles, and reached the No. 1 doubles ranking in 2000. As of April 2008, she held the No. 12 spot in doubles, and has been ranked as high as No. 15 in singles.
The most recognizable and most successful former college player in the pros today is none other than Blake. Blake spent two years at Harvard before making his pro debut. He became Harvard's first-ever freshman All-American, and was the ITA National Player of the Year his sophomore year. Since then, Blake has slowly been working his way up the rankings, reaching as high as No. 4. He has 10 ATP singles titles to his name, as well as a best-selling book about his life and tennis career, and was named the 2005 ATP Comeback Player of the Year. Blake credits Harvard for helping him to establish a solid foundation before heading into the pros.
“If I had to do it again, I would definitely attend Harvard all over,” Blake said. “I learned so much in the classroom and outside of it; that the experience will always be invaluable to me. I also felt like I grew as a person so much in those two years that it prepared me for an independent lifestyle. I would not trade those two years for anything, even more success on tour.”
Amer Delic echoes Blake’s sentiment about his college experience. The three-time All-American at Illinois led his team to the school’s first-ever NCAA team title in 2003, and became the first player from Illinois to capture an NCAA singles crown that same year. Delic has been ranked as high as No. 60 in the ATP singles rankings, and was glad he ignored the pressure to turn pro early.
“For me, [college] was great, obviously,” Delic said. “I wasn't mature enough to go out there and play. Right now, because a lot of the guys are seeing [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic, all these guys turning pro early, they're like, ‘If they're doing it, we have to do it, too.’”
But not everyone is turning pro early. The following players all played NCAA tennis, and are have been recently ranked in the top 100 in the world: Peter Luczak (Fresno State), Bobby Reynolds (Vanderbilt), Benjamin Becker (Baylor), Laura Granville (Stanford), Jill Craybas (Florida), Lilia Osterloh (Stanford), Tzipora Obziler (Old Dominion) and Julie Ditty (Vanderbilt). And more former college players are on their way there: Jesse Levine, who finished No. 3 in the ITA’s 2007 singles rankings, and was named ITA National Rookie of the Year while at Florida, has reached a career-high ranking of No. 161 so far this year. And it seems like he’s aiming to break into the top 100 as well: his ranking has improved nearly 400 spots over the last six months, and continues to rise.
Levine isn’t the only younger player who is making a strong case for going to college before going to the pros. Two of his former opponents are making waves on the pro circuit: Georgia’s John Isner and Illinois’ Kevin Anderson. Isner, who was named the 2007 Farnsworth/ITA National Senior Player of the Year, finished his senior year ranked No. 2 in the nation. Before leaving his Bulldog teammates, Isner helped lead them to a perfect 32-0 season, and two national team titles (the ITA National Indoor Team Championship and the NCAA team title) in 2007. Isner also racked up one national singles title, three national doubles titles, and was named an ITA All-American four times in his career at UGA. Since turning pro in June of 2007, he has climbed more than 600 spots in the ATP Rankings and recently broke into the top 100. Isner burst onto the pro scene last summer, when he advanced to his first ATP finals appearance at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington D.C. Despite a loss to Andy Roddick, he followed that up with a much talked-about performance at the U.S. Open, where reached the third round before falling to Roger Federer in four sets.
After his semifinal win in Washington, Isner reflected on how his college career helped him to reach his first ATP final.
“For me, to tell you the truth, I never even thought about going pro [after high school],” Isner said. “If I didn’t go to college, I really don’t even know if I would be playing tennis now. A lot of players leave high school and go straight to the pros, and they don’t make it and don’t have success, so they burn out after two or three years. For sure, if I hadn’t played for four years at Georgia, I don’t think I would be where I was now, making the finals of an ATP tournament.”
Isner also drew on his time at Georgia to help him prepare for the biggest match of his career. While he admitted that winning a lot of matches in college gave him confidence to take on the toughest professional players in the world, Isner recalled that it was the pressure-packed situations that helped him keep his cool on Center Court.
“Playing at Georgia, we’ve always played in front of huge crowds, especially in May,” Isner said. “There was a lot of pressure on us as a team to play well because we were expected to win. Obviously playing Andy [Roddick] in an ATP final, there’s a lot of pressure, but I don’t think it compares at all to playing in NCAA’s at Georgia, with five or six thousand people watching you play. I really think that helped me while I was playing at Legg Mason. Every match was pressure packed, and I was able to stay calm and play my game. Playing at Georgia helped out because that was playing for the team, and that’s a lot more pressure to succeed: you don’t want to let your team down.”
While at Georgia, Isner underwent a lot of physical changes as well. The 6’9” right-hander admits that his time at as a Bulldog helped him become less of a beanpole, and more of the physical force we see on the court today, as he put on over 40 lbs.
“[College] was the best preparation in could have ever asked for,” Isner said. “In those four years [at Georgia], I had unbelievable coaching with Coach Diaz. I learned so much mentally, and I got so much stronger physically. Coming out of high school I was tall, skinny, and gangly, not strong and not mature. I was none of that. I had to go to college and get stronger. I had to start growing out instead of up.”
Anderson is no stranger to Isner’s height, or his strength: in 2007, Anderson led Illinois to the NCAA team final, where it lost to Isner’s Bulldogs. But recently, the three-time All-American and NCAA doubles champion got to taste a little bit of professional revenge, as he beat Isner at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas.
That tournament also happened to be the highlight of Anderson’s young professional career: less than a year removed from a successful stint at Illinois, he reached his first ATP singles final in Las Vegas. Anderson, a qualifier, fell in a close final to American Sam Querrey, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Anderson’s surprising run to the Las Vegas final improved his ATP ranking to a career-high No. 102.
This trend doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon: while Isner, Levine and Anderson finished the rankings at Nos. 2, 3 and 4 last season, it’s the player who was at No. 1 that indicates the wave of success from college to the pros won’t be slowing down. The top-ranked men’s player from 2007 and the ITA National Player of the Year, Virginia’s Somdev Devvarman was the only one of the top four who returned to play college tennis in 2008. Devvarman spent the entire season at No. 1 in the ITA’s singles and doubles rankings, led UVA to the top team ranking for the entire regular season and an ITA National Team Indoor Championship. During his run to the 2007 NCAA singles title, he beat Anderson in the semifinals and Isner in the final. Easily recapturing the title in 2008, Devvarman became the first player in 40 years to reach three straight NCAA singles finals, and just the fourth in the last 50 years to win back-to-back NCAA titles.
With Devvarman’s success at the collegiate level in 2008, and the recent success of young pros like Isner and Anderson, as well as legends like McEnroe and Ashe, it’s clear that young players are building on the rich history that exists between college programs and professional tennis. And that history only helps to prove the point that entering a collegiate tennis program can benefit a young adult who has hopes of playing professionally.
By Casey Snedecor, ITA