The US College Pathway has been a big addition to The First Serve this year where we have been following the journey of many of our Aussies who have gone down the college pathway playing across all of the five divisions: D1, D2, D3, NAIA and Junior College. The US College pathway is now becoming a more dominant pathway onto the ATP and WTA Tour for our Aussies with the likes of Aleksander Vukic (The University of Illinois), Adam Walton (The University of Tennessee), Ellen Perez (The University of Georgia) and Astra Sharma (Vanderbilt University).
Adam Walton, who did not have a ranking after graduating in May of 2022 is now in the top 200 on the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and is another Australian success story after going down the college pathway. “For me going to college was massive for my tennis, I know I wasn’t ready as an 18 year old to go on tour”, said Walton. “I needed to grow mentally, physically and putting five years at college I did feel like I was more ready at 23 and ready in so many ways.”
Walton was a guest on our college segment back in June, as was Aleksander Vukic who has recently broken into the top 100 and has seen his best result as of late at the Atlanta Open where he reached the final (L. to T. Fritz). “It kind of gives you a place to mature, and also there’s not as much pressure to demand results as the tour can give players and it can demoralize players in a way if they start losing a lot”, said Vukic. “So I think it gives you a bit of breathing room to kind of develop, mature your game, mature yourself probably more importantly”.
Sydney’s Jeremy Zhang is hoping to follow in Vukic’ footsteps where he has just started his Freshman Year at the University of Illinois under Coach Brad Dancer who is entering his 19th season as head coach and was the Assistant Coach under Craig Tiley. Coach Dancer has helped the likes of Kevin Anderson, Aleksander Kovacevic and Rajeev Ram make their way onto the ATP Tour. “It was a really big part of it (choosing Illinois), especially kind of knowing Vukic a little bit, he’s been in Sydney here and there for pre-season,” said Zhang on The First Serve’s weekly College Segment. “Especially having Vukic as well, having an Australian specifically, I think on top of the facilities I think it was kind of a clear option for me”. Zhang will be a part of an 11 player roster and will play against some of the biggest schools in NCAA Division 1 tennis.
Jeremy Jin, who is also from Sydney is another Aussie who has chosen to go down the college pathway. At the age of 19, Jin is currently ranked 748 in the Pepperstone ATP World Tour Singles rankings and was granted a wildcard into qualifying at the Australian Open earlier this year. Jin has signed with the University of Florida, a top school where American Ben Shelton graduated last year and since then, has made a rapid rise on the ATP World Tour to a singles career high of 35. “For me I personally believe I'm not ready to be traveling full time and actually winning these future (ITF) events and climbing up the rankings,” said Jin on the First Serve’s College Segment. “I need to develop physically and mentally, just get a little bit more match play and consistent matchplay as well”.
A drawback to the college system is that when players travel to ITF and Challenger tournaments, they may not have a ranking or if they do, it isn’t a true reflection of their level simply because they are playing college matches rather than tournaments.
Jin said “In college you know what you’re doing, you might not be getting any ranking points but you are developing the right way”.
To bridge this gap, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) which is the governing body of all divisions of collegiate tennis has partnered with the ATP to create the ‘Accelerator Programme’. This means that any player that finishes in the top 10 or between 11-20 in the NCAA singles rankings at the end of the year will receive direct entry into the main draw and qualifying of Challenger tournaments (50 & 75 level) respectively. Any player that falls out of this range can still qualify as long as they reach the quarter-finals or better of the NCAA Singles tournament at the end of the year. If a player has graduated, they can receive up to eight spots, although if an athlete is still in school, they can receive up to six spots within a 6 month period while they are out of school for the US break.
We also have many Aussies returning to college; Geelong’s Amy Stevens has returned to Vanderbilt University where she will enter her Junior (3rd) Year where she played a vital role at #5 and #6 in the singles line-up last season with a 30-13 record in singles play. “The fall season’s great”, said Stevens. “Not a lot of people are excited for the fall season because it’s so individualized but I personally really enjoy it, it's a chance to work on your game”.
Also returning to college is Enzo Aguiard at the University of Alabama and Stefani Webb at the University of Central Florida who are both from Melbourne. Sydney’s Catherine Aulia will return to the University of Tennessee where she adds to the strong history of Australians making their mark in Knoxville. Also keep an eye out for three Queenslanders: Casey Hoole at the University of South Carolina, Eric Padgham at the University of Arizona who was on our most recent episode of Play USA, and Chen Dong at Louisiana State University who will be one of our featured guests on Septembers edition of Play USA along with his coach Danny Bryan who also played at LSU alongside ATP Doubles stars Michael Venus (NZL) and Neal Skupski (GBR).
As the fall season commences, make sure to follow us on our social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) where we post college highlights and interviews of all of our Aussies playing college tennis. You can even tune into our college segment which is part of our weekly show, broadcasted on an SEN AM Frequency throughout Australia and New Zealand each Monday from 8:00-10:00 PM AEST or you can listen online at sen.com.au or via the SEN APP which you can download to your phone. If you have any questions or feedback you can reach out to us over our social media pages or you can send us an email at email@example.com