There was a time when teenage stars were ten-a-penny. Not everyone was a Martina Hingis and a Wimbledon (singles) champion at 16 but there were plenty of starlets in both the men’s and women’s game. They, we were told, were the future.
Well, in the past few years, the average age for breaking through on the Tours has risen steadily to the point where in the men’s game, the average age of the top 100 at the end of August was 27 (up from 24.6 in 2002). On the women’s Tour, it was 25.1, up from 22.0 in 2002.
The increasingly physical nature of the game is almost certainly the reason, as well as the fact that the good players hang around at the top for longer because they take better care of themselves. But there is also another way of looking it; because breaking through to the top takes longer, players outside the top 100 (who struggle to make a living) are spending a lot of money, time and effort for little reward, until they finally make it, if they do.
For every Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, there are hundreds of young players who try to make it as a professional and fail. Some do well for themselves but many fall by the wayside and with little or no education, find themselves in dead-end jobs that they hate.
But things are changing. At the US Open this year there were 17 players in the singles draws (13 men and four women) who had been to college in the United States. Add in doubles and mixed doubles and you have 30 ex-college players plying their trade at a grand slam event, including the men’s doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan.
In its 2010 Guide to College Tennis, the general manager of player development at the USTA, Patrick McEnroe. said it was his priority to “integrate the college tennis experience into the development of American tennis players. “Regardless of whether you plan to compete at the varsity level or choose to seek out recreational opportunities, playing tennis in college is a decision that will create a number of wonderful opportunities for your future. Tennis is unique in that its lessons transcend the sport. It teaches life skills such as sportsmanship, teamwork, discipline, and time management that carry over into any future profession.”
John Isner, the world No 11, was a late developer in tennis terms and swears that had he not been to college he would never have made it, certainly not as high in the rankings as he has done. Mallory Burdette achieved her breakthrough at the US Open this year. The apparent dearth of American talent on the Tour in 2012 omits the fact that its colleges contain plenty of players who could become household names at some stage.
Of course, it’s not just Americans who benefit from the country’s collegiate programme. South Africa’s Kevin Anderson and Germany’s Benjamin Becker were just two overseas players at Flushing Meadows this year who attended US college and an influx of players from a number of nations makes college tennis teams very international places to be.
Getting a scholarship to the US to play tennis is an attractive proposition for many players, especially Britain, which currently has 200 players at American universities. Ken Skupski, now ranked 51 in doubles, went to Louisiana State University while rising star Heather Watson was among those considering college before breaking through on the WTA Tour.
Sarah Borwell, the former British doubles No 1, was a graduate of the University of Houston and quickly realised that college was a good choice for many, many players. To that end and using her own money, Borwell founded Tennis Smart, an organisation designed to help aspiring young players have the right direction and training, while staying in education all the way to getting a scholarship to the US.
“College tennis has always been the perfect bridge for 99.9 percent of British players wanting to make the jump into senior tennis,” Borwell told The Tennis Space. “However, in the past, few have dared to believe it. With such a strong showing by college players at the US Open this year, we now have stats to back up the facts.
“Although the numbers are at an all-time high for Brits either in or heading out to college, we still have too many Brits failing to follow the academic timelines, preventing them from qualifying for American college tennis.
“Perhaps the most important stage is placement, especially for those players who have aspirations to go pro. Too many Brits are failing to make the college teams and this simply comes down to lack of research. Coaches are all good at selling their programs, but they might not be the best fit for you in terms of developing your talent.
“Although the registration stage is important, the most vital stage which a player must get right is choosing their team. The only way to do this is to ask people in the know, people who understand the ins and outs of college tennis, where the best developmental coaches are, the best schedules, the best locations, is it better to play high or low on the team? These questions must be answered and sometimes the first choice you had based on a team’s prestige or ranking might end up being the worst.”
The temptation is always to get on the Tour as soon as possible, so big are the rewards if you make it big. But the example of John Isner, Kevin Anderson and the Bryan brothers shows the college route can work too. The strength of the men’s college circuit may be stronger than the women’s right now but that can change, too. And when their careers are done, perhaps they will be in a better position to move on to the next stage of their lives.
For more information on Tennis Smart, see www.tennissmart.net or follow them on Twitter @tennissmart