They are all on the brink of a Grand Slam breakthrough. And they took the road less traveled to get there.
The endorsements, celebrity and prize money that go along with professional tennis often entice players to turn pro before they’ve graduated high school. But for 14 players in the US Open men’s singles draw, college proved to be excellent preparation for the ATP. Seven have advanced to the second round.
“College tennis made me the player I am,” said Becker, who ended Andre Agassi’s career at the 2006 US Open just 15 months following his senior year at Baylor University.
American Jesse Witten split his two collegiate matches against Becker. He doesn’t regret spending four years playing and studying at the University of Kentucky. Witten earned his degree in kinesiology in 2005 and his first win on the ATP World Tour Tuesday, routing No. 29 Igor Andreev, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2.
“I'd go back to college right now if I could,” said Witten. “It's just a great atmosphere. I got a lot better at college. I had a lot of offers to bypass college and go right into playing and traveling, but I didn't want to do that 30‑some weeks a year.”
Witten said that he received offers for coaching and financial assistance after he reached the NCAA individual final as a freshman. The decision to stay in school wasn’t a hard one.
“I didn't want to let the team down,” Witten said. “Just had too much fun. I was playing well and I wanted to finish out and get my degree because you never know what's going to happen with tennis. One ankle injury, you're done.”
Roommates and teammates from Lexington chanted “J-Dub” on changeovers Tuesday and gave the Wildcat Witten a standing ovation when he reached match point, creating an atmosphere more akin to Kentucky basketball games than the first round of the US Open.
The Southeastern Conference is well-represented in the men’s field. Levine and Ryan Sweeting played at Florida, Isner led Georgia to the 2007 NCAA team title and Devin Britton needed just one semester at Ole Miss to net this year’s NCAA individual championship.
Levine dominated college tennis as a Gator, finishing his freshman season 24-1 in singles before turning pro in 2007. He said it was a much tougher decision to leave college than enroll.
“My coaches still talk to me on a constant basis and they come to tournaments whenever they can,” said Levine, who counts Tim Tebow among his fans from UF. “I definitely advise going to college for at least a year.”
Levine said that his short time at Florida provided him with tough competition while allowing him to mature and grow physically stronger. Though he and Britton each played only one college tennis season, another college tennis alum feels one is better than none.
“It makes their decision a lot easier,” said James Blake, who played for two years at Harvard. “If they go to college for a year and they dominate there, then great. You didn’t lose a year. You still got better. You still got a lot of confidence in winning matches. And you got a year of education.”
Virginia alum Somdev Devvarman joined Witten in winning three qualifying matches to gain entrance into the US Open. Devvarman, born and bred in India, made the most of his journey from Chennai to Charlottesville. He took home a sociology degree after winning back-to-back NCAA individual titles in 2007 and 2008.
Like Devvarman, the German Becker was attracted to America’s university system, which allows athletes to play sports at a high level while continuing their studies. Were it not for the four years he spent in Waco, Texas, Becker doesn’t think he’d be in Flushing today.
“I would have played soccer mostly and studied. That’s all,” said Becker. “I don’t think I would have played any tennis – for sure not professional. Before I went to college I said, ‘That’s done. I don’t want to do it anymore.’”
Becker maintained a 3.4 GPA as a finance major at Baylor, earning Academic All-Big 12 honors three times to go along with the 2004 individual and team titles.
“Most of the guys think that foreign players come to the states and just play tennis and don’t study and don’t do anything,” said Becker. “But we are also here for an education, for opportunities. We want to come learn about the country and language and culture. It was important to me.”
Becker’s former rival Witten believes that college tennis isn’t for everyone. Sam Querrey, who turned down a scholarship offer from USC, won the 2009 Olympus US Open Series. But more often than not, college can serve a young tennis player well.
“There are a couple of guys, obviously, that can skip college and get away with it,” said Witten. “But, I mean, there are so many guys that are at the mediocre level... who skipped college, and I know 'em now and they kind of regret it. Actually there are a couple of my friends going back.”
Of the 14 former collegiate players in the men’s draw, Isner, Levine, Kendrick, Witten, Devvarman, Blake and Kevin Kim have advanced to the second round.