The Not-So-Genteel Side of Tennis Is in the College Playoffs
It took roughly an hour for the last rounds of the NCAA Division I men’s tennis championships to get real.
The top doubles teams from Virginia and Kentucky were locked in an epic tiebreaker to decide who would take the often crucial doubles point into the singles portion of their matchup. The Cavaliers and the Wildcats took turns saving match points with clutch volleys and gutsy passing shots, as their teammates and fans howled and taunted after every winner and error.
One last Virginia forehand sailed long and wide, giving Kentucky the tiebreaker, 11-9, and the early advantage in the team competition. The howls got louder and the taunts more rowdy. The All England Club this was not.
The college version of this supposedly genteel sport — especially the competition that unfolds in the final segment of the NCAA championships — is where tennis morphs into something more like the spectacle of pro wrestling.
Players roar after nearly every point. Coaches regularly wander across the courts mid-game for quick pep talks and to give strategy tips. The crowds cheer double faults and mis-hits, and the fans scream for action on one court when someone is about to serve on another court just a few feet away. The school colors pop off the courts — Texas Christian purple, Texas Longhorn burnt orange, North Carolina baby blue, Stanford cardinal — and provide a welcome respite from the corporate apparel seen throughout the pro game.
It is tennis with the volume turned up to 11, something the often staid and stale pro tours could learn from.
“No place else I’d rather be,” said Fiona Crawley, a junior at the University of North Carolina, who is the top-ranked woman in the country playing for the top-ranked team. “This is my life.”
Crawley, from San Antonio, is majoring in English and comparative literature. Her plan after graduation involves getting her “butt kicked on the tour for two years because I love to travel,” then becoming a teacher.
The top-ranked University of Texas men’s team also has the No. 1 player on its side of the sport, with junior Eliot Spizzirri leading the top-ranked Longhorns into the final eight. He is thrilled to not be grinding the back roads of the pro circuit just yet.
“It almost feels like a different sport,” Spizzirri said of college tennis. “You look to your left and your right and your best friends are competing right next to you and you don’t want to let them down.”
An ocean away from all of this, Madrid, Rome and Paris are serving as the hot spots in the pro game this month during the European clay court swing. Yet for pure, high-octane intensity from the first ball to the last, it is hard to beat what is unfolding here on the steamy courts of the USTA National Campus.
This year the USTA is hosting the final rounds of 14 major collegiate championship competitions from Division I, II and III. It’s part of a pitch the USTA is making to the NCAA to make the training center in Orlando the permanent home of the final phase of the Division I tournaments, which means the quarterfinals onward for the teams, plus separate singles and doubles competitions.
The idea is to make getting to Orlando for tennis akin to getting to Omaha for the men’s College World Series, an annual destination for Division I baseball teams since 1950.
“This is an opportunity to enhance the college game,” said Lew Sherr, the chief executive of the USTA.
One argument for the sprawling campus is its seating for spectators, which cuts through the spine of the courts and makes it easier to watch simultaneous matches that have implications for each other.
But a hurdle may be the weather. Playing tennis in Orlando in May can sometimes feel like playing on the surface of the sun, and matches have been suspended because of rain. A thunderstorm on Thursday meant the suspension of Division I play for the night, and there aren’t enough indoor courts to offer a backup plan.
No matter the venue, though, college tennis has been having a bit of a moment lately within the sport, making a case as a viable option for young prospects.
Cameron Norrie, who played at Texas Christian, is ranked 13th in the world. Ben Shelton, an NCAA champion last year, wowed at the Australian Open. Jennifer Brady (UCLA) and Danielle Collins (Virginia) have made the Australian Open singles final in recent years.
The ATP top 100 includes a dozen former college players, and the men’s tour even joined forces with collegiate tennis to guarantee top-ranked college players spots in lower-tier pro tournaments.
This season, North Carolina State has featured Diana Shnaider, a 19-year-old Russian who made the second round of the Australian Open. She has already won a minor WTA tournament.
Attending college, if only for a year, was Shnaider’s hedge against professional tennis potentially banning Russians from competing because of the war in Ukraine. It was also a lot cheaper than paying for coaching and court time in Moscow. After the team finals, she will turn professional and head to Paris for the French Open.
“It’s made me better,” Schneider said of the college tennis experience.
Still, much of the tennis establishment has long looked down at its version in college sports, an institution that is large in the United States but not in other countries. For critics, campus life that can include parties and papers and exams can distract from the focus on the sport, softening players compared with the rigors of the minor leagues of the pro game.
David Roditi, a former tour pro who has coached Texas Christian the past 13 seasons, said college tennis has a uniquely rowdy and pressurized proving ground that players can only understand with experience. Plus, most players don’t peak until their 20s anyway, he said, so what’s the rush to go pro? He’s seen too many players burn out on the lonely tour life long before their prime.
“They quit before they can find out how good they could be,” Roditi said. “In college you get four years of security.”
There are limits to scholarships, of course, and the competition is generally not as rigorous as on the pro circuits. Still, Roditi has been successfully selling the ideals of college athletics abroad for several years. His team has players from Scotland, England, France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Jacob Fearnley, his top player, grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Fearnley said he was small as a teenager and needed time to develop and get stronger. Turning professional after high school would have been foolish, he said. Spizzirri, the Texas star, has a similar tale. Both are now tall, lean and powerful.
Fearnley said he has played low-level pro tournaments that were a snooze compared with what he has learned to deal with in college. During an early road match against Michigan near the beginning of his college career, the crowd yelled at him after every double fault and told him he was a hopeless tennis player. He crumbled then, but not anymore.
“It’s just noise,” Fearnley said the other day ahead of another showdown with Michigan. “That’s what our coach tells us. You learn the only thing that matters is you and your opponent and what’s happening on the court.”