To the College Tennis Fan:
I have spent my entire adult life involved in college tennis. It began when I flunked the draft physical in the spring of 1966 and realized I was not going to Vietnam. I told my coach, Leonard McNeil, and the next day he told me that he wanted to take a sabbatical leave and turn the program over to me for a year at age 21. What a career defining opportunity! Quickly, in 1968 I was named men’s tennis coach at the US Naval Academy and served for 44 years as a head coach at Navy, MIT and from 1987-2013 here at Notre Dame. It is all I have ever done and all I ever wanted to do. The reason for recounting this is to establish that I have, as the saying goes, “some skin in the game”. I live, love, and eat college tennis. Because of my love affair with this great game of ours I hate to see college tennis damaged and that is what has been happening in the last year or so. As we know, some people have been openly and highly critical of the recent decision to adopt no-ad scoring and shorten doubles from 8 games to 6. Everyone has the right to express criticism, particularly if they too have “skin in the game”, but the time has come to jump back on the train before it leaves the station.
What critics of the newly adopted format (hereafter known as the ITA format) don’t realize is that they are doing damage, perhaps irrevocably, to our great game. Why did the ITA go down this path? Herein lies the key to understanding how and why we ar5rived at our current destination. Forces far beyond the scope of college tennis and financial in nature are rapidly descending upon the world of college sports. Litigation, an amped-up arms race, and an out-of-control economic climate are creating a landscape that, by all responsible accounts, will change the face of college athletics forever. There certainly is not room in this discussion for the litany of factors creating this financial crisis. They include costs under the names of unionization, cost of attendance, financial profit from players’ likenesses, concussion study, additional nutritional supplements, and many more. The result: revenue sports are going to get bigger and bigger pieces of the pie than heretofore allocated. College athletic programs are headed, Katy bar the door, for gigantic shortfalls of money. The likely answer to this increasing call for more financial support for the revenue sports: dropping non-revenue sports. These facts are beyond deniability and rapidly becoming reality. Legislation is being proposed to drop the required number of sports significantly. The battle for the survival of Olympic sports is at hand. Game on!
If the veracity of this scenario was in question, it has been confirmed and re-confirmed by a group of 12 college athletic directors and administrators from significant and diverse universities who met with the ITA Board and Operating Committee in December at the ITA Convention in Naples, FL. We were advised that if we did not shorten our format and make it more fan friendly that our sport would be one likely led to the chopping block. We heard similar advice from the USTA and the NCAA Tennis Committee. It was time to face the music, and the ITA worked through a very painstaking and transparent process to find ways to make our game fit into the changing prism of 21st century life. Actively seeking input from our membership, the process worked its way through “town hall” meetings in each ITA Regional event, questionnaires, and straw votes at our convention and the NCAA championships, among other ways of seeking workable solutions. Naturally some of our membership preferred the status quo and no change, but many of these coaches had not been the beneficiary of the advice and warnings passed our way. I, too would have voted for no change had I not been convinced of the catastrophic consequences facing college tennis. It is in this spirit that I try to understand the critics. As I have tried to explain to some of my good friends who are strongly opposed to change, “No-ad tennis is far better than NO tennis”. No one with current knowledge denies the coming train-wreck that will cause many sports to be dropped.
How do we save college tennis? We have been told, time and again, that college tennis must be relevant on our campuses, relevant in our community, and attractive to fans, both within the campus and outside its borders. Much needs to be said about these topics and how they can be achieved, but the significance of my words here applies only to how we make it more fan-friendly while still holding fast to our traditions. The ITA Format slightly reduces the length of a dual match and guarantees that there will be more big points played [“no pressure, no diamonds”]. It also holds onto doubles, something most coaches wanted. Certainly more drama will be enticing to fans. As for the added pressure, it would seem that this will enable players to handle pressure in a better way. So my thought is that we all need to be on the same bus. We all love and advocate for college tennis. Let’s work together to make this sport one of the most popular on the campus. There is no place for negativity if we want to survive the coming colossus. We need to send the message loud and clear to our administrators that we hear you and are on board. Traditionalists fought the 3 point shot, the 35 (men) and 25 (women) second shot clock, but basketball thrives today. Similarly they said the designated hitter would be the ruin of baseball. Defensive backs can no longer be physical with wide receivers, creating more offense for fans. All of these sports adapted and are more successful. We can take our product – the college dual match – into the 21st century and give it the place it deserves, or we can continue to air our dirty laundry and do it even more harm. I stand for the survival and future of college tennis. Join me!