Right now if you were to take a look at the college tennis rosters across the country you would see great portions of team rosters filled with players whose names are mostly hard to pronounce and even harder to understand. This strikes some people as totally wrong and if I were able to get back into college coaching I would try my level best to do it with the American sounding names and not the foreign names. Names like Tsukamoto, Melian, Skogeng, Lutjen and Bogaerts could belong to Americans but they do not. These players come from all over the world to play tennis here in the United States. And I think they should be free to do so. But the scholarships pool is constricting and there are less and less opportunities for young Americans–especially on the Men’s side of the equation. I would like to see more incentives in place to encourage more collegiate coaches to search the American landscape for their players.
Here are the steps I would take to change the way in which collegiate coaches choose to fill out their rosters and award their scholarships for tennis:
- First, I would not ask for a roster mandate or limit on visas to effect the ratios of foreign players to American Players run by the NCAA, USTA or the ITA. Mandates are bad and especially mandates put forth by the NCAA or the USTA. When you get their mandates you get all sorts of baggage and unintended consequences. I know many of my colleagues would like to see a rule in place for only a certain number of foreign athletes on any given team at any given time but the enforcement of this would create increasingly more over site from the NCAA.
- The USTA needs to become involved very heavily on every level but one of the best ways they could promote tennis in the USA would be rewarding teams whose coaches and programs are primarily made up of Americans with cash $$. For example, to play a collegiate tennis match you need to have at least six players on the court for doubles and six players on the court for singles. So teams generally carry between 8-10 players. We should give coaches incentives to do the right thing. Peter Smith at the University of Southern California is not going to be as motivated by $10,000 cash as is the Head Coach of the Men’s Tennis Team Eric Hayes at Troy University but that is ok! The creme will rise and as a result the status of American tennis will get better with the influx of the incentive monies. I used the figure of $10,000 cash and there is plenty where that came from in the USTA’s coffers! The USTA can spend it and should do it every opportunity outside of the USTA bureaucracy. At the end of the season reward the coach or the school with cash where they were playing American kids with a minimum number of times in their dual and tournament matches. Where would the USTA get the cash you might ask? Well, one way they could find it would be to open up the non-sanctioned events on TennisLink for more people to use. Right now the USTA District Heads strongly control the usage of this functionality. They consider non-sanctioned events to be competing events and this is exactly the wrong way to approach those tournaments. Each event that registers through the USTA’s site pays $100.00 per tournament for the privilege. This would alone raise megabucks!!
- I would like to see a return to defining the difference in this country between amateurs and professionals. Because that is the real issue and you can hear that comments on that aspect on the Bruce Lipka Show. This would need several steps to be done but I would want to see the NCAA make sure to define this better. Today administrators and coaches are continually working to erode the distinction between the amateur and professional athlete. A second step would be to bring back the “Amateur Circuit”. In 1995 the Amateur circuit’s name changed and it is now called the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Summer Championships and the word “amateur” has been dropped from the title. Have the “Amateur” circuit travel around to different colleges and universities and held on a variety of surfaces. Bring back the US Amateur Claycourts, the US Amateur Hardcourts, The US Amateur Grasscourts and a variety of other events could be connected to these to form a circuit. Have the circuit consist of 10-15 tournaments throughout the summer and the USTA would create a situation at each tournament stop where the housing and food for the players would be paid for by the USTA. The USTA would rent out the dormitories from the schools for the players and allow them a chance to compete and play in an inexpensive way. For the main events they could go back to awarding the USTA’s coveted “gold and silver balls”.
- I would like to see the writers of blogs, websites, radio hosts and all the other people who are inclined to speak up to really do it when it comes to college tennis. I would like to see them mention names and highlight the teams that do it with American kids and spotlight those teams that do it with the foreign athletes. Do it whether they win or not. The ITA and the USTA should take it upon themselves to do it as well. This is in no way a step adverse to the mission of the USTA. In football or basketball if a coach loses on the high school level that coach is going to get his fair share of criticism. So the big boys and girls coaching in the collegiate tennis coaching ranks should be able to handle the criticisms of whether they choose to do the job with American kids or foreign kids. It is tougher to do it with the American kids because the coach is going to have to take kids from their backyards and work to develop them. If a foreign athlete shows up from across the Atlantic there is not as much pressure to be exerted on the coach’s reputation.
- I want to see an effort made to turn back many of the inane mandates the NCAA has put forth for all sports over the past 20 years and do not really apply in the same manner for the sport of tennis. One example I heard from Chuck Kriese was a very good one which allows teams that have high GPA’s to practice more hours in a week. You reward teams for doing well and they can practice more. This is important. Back in the early 1990’s the NCAA began to apply rules to take back over the athletic departments. Most of it is smoke and mirrors. For different sports they set limits on the hours a team can practice throughout the year. I believe it remains that during the meat of the year a team can practice for 26 weeks and for a maximum of 20 hours a week. This is one of many rules that can be modified to fit each sport better. If a team is able to keep its team GPA above a certain level then they should be able to get work around the maximum allowable practice hours. This would now give a team–the coaches and the players a chance to make the kinds of improvement strides they are really looking for when competing against other schools. Coaches could then outwork other teams as it should be. Next, common sense needs to be applied to the Title 9 and gender equity applications for certain sports. For instance, incentives need to be for the schools to keep their men’s programs instead of the inclination to get rid of them. End the difference in numbers of scholarships awarded between men and women. This is especially true in tennis in the USA when you look at the fact there are more than twice as many junior boys actively playing and competing when they reach college age than girls. Right now, the men’s teams can offer a maximum of 4.5 scholarships. The women’s teams can offer eight and there are less than half as many young women desiring to play the sport on campus. Finally, it is further complicated when you add to it the NCAA’s proportionality rules which can hurt men’s teams roster numbers. Coaches were at one time able to keep large rosters of competing male players and these teams loved to fight it out amongst one another to get better. The scholarships were not important to the players–it was the chance to compete that drove them.
- Our junior tennis tournaments and circuits in the USA need to become the most competitive and rigorous in the world. This is not going to happen with tiebreakers for the third, one match a day tournaments, flipping coins for the championships and all the other softening measures the USTA has taken to make the game appeal to a broader audience. If tournaments in the USA are robust and rigorous then our players will be more independent and robust and they will be better prepared to compete with the best players from these countries.
- The USTA can help much more in creating specific events for prospective collegiate athletes (have them approved by the NCAA) and then assist the coaches from across the country to get to the events. If the coaches and schools lack the funds then subsidize their efforts to make it out to the tournaments and get these coaches interested in American players.
- Finally, Bruce Lipka from the Woodmont Country Club in Maryland has a great idea. He points out other sports have determined that players who play at a certain level or enter this or that sort of league are not eligible to enter into playing collegiate sports. In this case we could look at simply having a an ATP Tour ranking threshold. If the players get to a certain point with their ranking (Say Top 700 in the world) they have to decide if they want to go on and pursue professional tennis or they would rather go to college.
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