New School: College tennis is setting a course for the sport's future

by: Steve Tignor | May 03, 2018

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email

College tennis has always been seen as a pathway to the pros, but the game has changed a lot in recent years. (AP)

All eyes were on us,” Luca Corinteli remembers. It was the spring of 2016, and the University of Virginia junior was playing in the final of the Division I NCAA Championships in Tulsa, OK. Two of the three doubles matches between Virginia and its opponent, the University of Oklahoma, had finished; each team had won one. Now the packed house at the Case Tennis Center turned its attention to Corinteli and his partner, Ryan Shane. It was up to them to bring home an all-important doubles point for the Cavaliers.

“We knew it could be the deciding factor in who won the title,” Corinteli says, “and there was an insane amount of energy across all the courts.”

Making the moment a little more insane was the score: it was 5–5 and deuce. In this case, deuce wasn’t a haven; it was a tightrope that both teams were trying to walk. In 2016, Division I began using no-ad scoring as part of a series of changes designed to speed up the college game. Those changes also included reducing doubles matches to a six-game set.

All of which meant that, as Corinteli began his service motion, he knew he needed to come up with something special.

“I hit an unreturned serve and felt an immediate swing in momentum,” Corinteli says, “and we ended up breaking in the next game to win. That had a huge impact on the rest of the match.”

Virginia would beat Oklahoma, 4–1, for its third Division I tennis title in four years.

“Points like that make no-ad so great for college tennis,” Corinteli says with a smile.

Danielle Collins, two-time NCAA champion at Virginia, beats Venus Williams at this year's Miami Open:

Corinteli may be slightly biased about that particular no-ad point, but his words are music to the ears of Timothy Russell, the CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association since 2015. With backing from the USTA and approval from the NCAA, Russell and the ITA have tried to reduce the lengths of dual matches, make playing the sport more manageable for players while turning college tennis into a spectator-friendly experience that could interest TV and Internet broadcasters.

With many university tennis programs being shuttered over the previous two decades, and with more resources going to revenue-producing college sports like football and basketball, there was a sense that collegiate tennis needed to be modernized.

“What are the time demands of student-athletes, and how do we maintain excitement in the sport? These were questions we wanted to address,” Russell says.

Those concerns dovetailed with the USTA’s commitment to shortening the time it takes to play and watch tennis at all levels.

The first of the ITA’s goals was to get dual matches to finish in under three hours, down from the four- or even five-hour marks of years past. No-ad scoring was instituted; doubles matches were reduced to six-game sets; dead rubbers were shortened; time between doubles and singles was cut; even the warm-up was eliminated.

Pushback was expected, and at first it was received.

“I don’t agree with it,” John Isner, who played for the University of Georgia, told USTA.com.

“Sometimes college matches can go long, but tennis in general can go long, as I’ve proven many times. I just don’t think it would be good for the development of players.”

Fast forward two years, though, and it’s harder to find a dissenting voice among those who play and coach in Division I.

“The changes have been great,” says Peter Smith, head men’s coach at USC. “I love no warm-up. No-ad has made the matches shorter, but more importantly, it has made them more exciting. Crowds are bigger, and they’re staying the whole time.”

“The experience has been positive,” says Roland Thornqvist, head women’s coach at the University of Florida. “You see more upsets now; there are about 10 teams that can win a national title, which I think is bullish for college tennis going forward.”

The new rules have also changed the way Thornqvist recruits, and the playing style he tries to instill.

“You want players who can dictate points,” he says. “Big hitters tend to succeed in shorter formats more than players who run and defend. Encouraging an aggressive style is a positive for players.”

How do the athletes feel about serving as guinea pigs for this turbo version of tennis? The scoring system teaches valuable lessons, but it has also frayed a few nerves.

“There’s no going back with no-ad, no second chance,” says Katarina Adamovic, a native of Serbia who became an All-American at Oklahoma State. “On deciding points, you have to be disciplined and stick to your game plan.”

In the 2016 NCAA finals, one of Adamovic’s teammates had a match point that was also a deciding point. She missed a shot by “two centimeters,” and Oklahoma State eventually lost to Stanford, 4–3.

While Adamovic laments the loss of the warm-up—“without it, you feel like you rush into the match,” she says—she’s come around to the scoring changes. “There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s fun.”

Russell hopes that sense of slam-bang fun will translate to larger audiences. The ITA has negotiated streaming deals for its national tournaments, and Oracle is sponsoring its rankings and its Fall National Championships at Indian Wells. In 2018, Tennis Channel began broadcasting dual matches from the USTA’s National Campus.

Ultimately, the ITA would like college tennis to take a leading role in reshaping the sport.

“We think the collegiate game can help promote new ideas that can be used elsewhere in tennis,” Russell says.

That agenda includes another perennial source of youth-tennis controversy: sportsmanship. In 2018 the ITA introduced PlayFair, a challenge system that uses PlaySight replay technology, at two events in California in January and at nearly 40 dual matches during the season. The system allows players to challenge line calls. But instead of challenging the judgment of an official, these players are challenging a call made by their opponents.

“We had seen a decline in sportsmanship and the treatment of opponents,” Russell says.

“PlayFair will be a deterrent to bad calls. We’ve heard from players who say that using it makes them more careful about calling lines.”

If there’s a cloud on the college-tennis horizon, it has come from the ITF’s announcement that it will begin a “transition tour” in 2019. A new, mini pro circuit will be created, with its own set of $15,000 tournaments and its own rankings.

“The transition tour will provide a more effective pathway linking the junior circuit and the senior professional game,” the ITF stated.

College tennis has been, and hopes to be, a similar pathway. In recent years, Isner, James Blake, Steve Johnson and Nicole Gibbs used their time at school as a springboard to the big show. This spring, Danielle Collins, a four-year standout at Virginia, upset Madison Keys in Indian Wells and reached the fourth round of the WTA Premier Mandatory event. But the ITF’s transition tour can offer something universities can’t: a paycheck.

Danielle Collins, at Virginia:

“We hope this won’t be an impediment for the collegiate game,” says Russell. “Most people agree that college is the way to go.”

Ultimately, as much as the ITA would like college tennis to serve as a pro-tour pipeline, its primary mission is to do what’s best for the athletes on campus.

“It’s still about higher education, and about finding ways to make tennis part of that education,” Russell says. “We want the emphasis to stay on the student part of student-athlete.”

According to Mackenzie McDonald, who won Division I singles and doubles titles in 2016 for UCLA, it’s possible for the athlete to thrive alongside the student.

“A developing player can gain a lot from college tennis,” says the 22-year-old, who calls the new scoring system “awesome.”

“Along with getting an education, being on a team, creating moments and competing along with some of your best friends,” McDonald adds, “it can make a player more mentally tough by playing for something bigger than themselves.”

“Competing along with some of your best friends” will always be at the heart of the college game’s appeal. The energy and emotion created in the team format—whether it’s joyful, like Corinteli’s, or bittersweet, like Adamovic’s—is something that only seems to have been heightened by its scoring changes. Whether or not college tennis continues to produce top pros, and whether or not its sped-up style catches on, the game’s mix of competition and camaraderie off-ers lessons for all levels of tennis.

“In college you can grow,” McDonald says.

That’s something we should want for all students, and for all athletes.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email

More Stories

French Open Memories, #9: Andre Agassi d. Andrei Medvedev, 1999 final

Agassi’s 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win was an end and a beginning for the tennis legend. 

French Open Memories, #10: Yannick Noah d. Mats Wilander, 1983 final

The Frenchman won 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (3) in what was truly an emotional rollercoaster. 

Should Serena be seeded at the French Open? Her rivals think so

Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep spoke on the new mother's behalf.