As the proverbial saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
And for tennis players seeking a pathway to the top, there’s no truer saying. Be it Ash Barty’s self-imposed exile and stint in the WBBL or Sam Stosur’s bursting onto the scene as a doubles specialist before becoming a grand slam singles champion, there’s more than one way for a player to develop their game before reaching the apex of the sport.
Some, of course, simply dominate junior tennis and quickly find themselves in the top 20 before they leave their teenage years (see: Carlos Alcaraz or Coco Gauff).
Players of yesteryear such as Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, and Michael Chang even went a step further than our modern day young guns; each earning grand slam glory while most mere mortals are enjoying 16th and 17th birthday parties.
However, for the most part, teenage grand slam champions seem to be a thing of the past. At least or until one of Alcaraz or Gauff prove otherwise.
Be it due to improved sports science, data analytics, or technological advancements, the average age in the men’s top 100 is now 28 years old. In 2007, it was 24. Similarly in the women’s game the average age of a top 100 player is now up to 26.
The consequences of this are two-fold. The first is that players generally take longer to break through and “make it”. The second is that players have more time to do so. There is less urgency.
As a result, utilising the US college pathway to professional tennis has become increasingly attractive to players leaving high school. That’s not to say this is a new trend, however it is certainly more commonplace (and perhaps effective) nowadays.
It’s not hard to see why, the benefits are immense.
If nothing else, players on a tennis scholarship are rewarded with a free education and great life experience. Equally, young players are able to hone their craft under the watchful eye of leading coaches and take advantage of the infrastructure and services that college teams offer instead of grinding the ITF Futures tour potentially earning less than minimum wage.
Moreover, players are not locked in to four years of college. Players have the freedom to leave the program early should they believe they are ready for the rigours of full-time professional tennis. Players like John McEnroe (Stanford), Lisa Raymond (University of Florida), Todd Martin (Northwestern University) and Jennifer Brady (UCLA) all played college tennis yet elected not to see out the full four year term.
To illustrate the success of the college tennis system, the 2020 US Open men’s singles draw included 14 former college players.
Likewise, the 2022 Australian Open included 41 former college players across all men’s events including Cam Norrie (Texas Christian University), John Isner (University of Georgia) and John Peers (Middle Tennessee State).
On the women’s side, there were 19 players with collegiate experience including Danielle Collins (University of Virginia) and Aussies Astra Sharma (Vanderbilt University) and Ellen Perez (University of Georgia).
Former All-American and NCAA doubles champion and UCLA star Maxime Cressy, who recently broke into the top 100 after making the final of the Melbourne Summer Set and the fourth round of the Australian Open, spoke glowingly when asked by The First Serve in January of the impact of his time at UCLA on his career to date.
“The college experience has helped me so much to deal with a lot of stressful situations, and playing for a school, playing for my team at UCLA is definitely something very big, and it can get very stressful in handling these kind of situations, especially playing in places like in Georgia, University of Georgia, where it was packed at night with a lot of drunk people. Playing these kind of conditions helps so much”, Cressy opined.
“I built some very strong bonds, and the coaching staff helped me a lot there. They helped me believe that I can get to the next level on the professional tour, especially being surrounded by players like Mackie McDonald and Billy Martin, who was a phenomenal player, as well. It was great being surrounded – also with Marcos Giron. He was the volunteer assistant coach there my freshman year.
“It was phenomenal for me to experience UCLA, and it definitely helped me build a strong self-esteem for the tour.”
Similarly, Australian Aleksander Vukic (a three time All-American from the University of Illinois) who earned his maiden grand slam win at the Australian Open this year against 31st seed Lloyd Harris, told The First Serve how his collegiate experience hardened him for battle in the grand slam environment.
“College is indoor as well a lot of times. So I was quite used to it and I loved it. I don’t think anyone doesn’t love it when you’ve got that many people cheering for you. It’s not something that I wasn’t exposed to but it’s obviously different.” Vukic said.
Another Aussie, 21 year-old Rinky Hijikata (University of North Carolina) who is on a ten-match winning streak having won back-to-back futures titles in America, and whose ranking has already improved this year from 375 to 258, spoke to The First Serve after his round 1 qualifying win at the Australian Open earlier this year and echoed Cressy’s thoughts on the benefits of the college experience.
“For sure, it helps. I think you can see that with a lot of the college players, they love the big moment and they love playing with a crowd. It’s kind of what you’re use to because every match you play at college, especially with a school like UNC, like, if you’re playing away you’re going to have a lot of people kind of coming after you, heckling you a little bit. So if you’re not going to be able to play under pressure you’re going to struggle in college.
“It’s been massive for me, I’ve kind of had to learn how to deal with the pressure and kind of play in the environment like that. So when I come to a tournament like [the Australian Open] I feel very comfortable.”
Notably, Hijikata was due to return to UNC this year but elected to commit to the tour full-time instead.
That these three individuals all speak so glowingly of their college experience says it all.
The offerings of the college system, while they may take time, are indeed crucial to the all-round growth of these players. Be that accessing full-time physiotherapy, full-time coaching or honing academic discipline, players leaving US college tend to have the benefits that the maturity of these life experiences provides.
Of course, it may seem daunting to take the collegiate route while others jump straight into tour life, however, if there is a player that’s made it to the top of the game after starting in college that doesn’t believe their time in the system was essential for their development, we are yet to find them.
For a more detailed analysis into the US college system, take a listen to The First Serve’s new monthly podcast Play USA hosted by former Australian college player Lachlan Puyol as he speaks to other Aussies in the college system delving deep into all things college life.