NEW HAVEN, Conn.–Placed on opposite sides of the draw at the 2014 NCAA Men’s Singles Championship, UCLA's Marcos Giron and the University of North Carolina’s Brayden Schnur didn’t meet along Giron’s path to the title.
The two did link up just last week, though, at the Oracle Challenger Series here where Giron was able to exact a small amount of revenge from their first encounter as professionals two years ago. On his way to the final, Giron defeated Schnur in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
Those two were part of a larger group of players from both the men’s and women’s sides of the tournament who would’ve found the campus backdrop of Yale University familiar. All-Americans; NCAA champions and student athletes, past and present, are banking on their collegiate experience to help them as they work their way through the life of a touring professional.
For Giron, the transition to the ATP Tour was one he was eager to make. However, that readiness to get out there didn’t stop him from experiencing a shock to the system at the beginning of his journey.
“I think at the time, I was really excited because growing up I always dreamed of going professional, playing the big tournaments and winning. I was really excited,” he said. “But I also don’t think I knew what to expect: the week in and week out traveling around the world.”
Marcos Giron- Getty Images
Having done much of his play in the juniors around the Southern California area, which featured some strong competition, kept him closer to home. Playing at UCLA helped him with facing an array of different players and being part of a successful program also aided in boosting his confidence. After winning the NCAA singles title, Giron received a wild card into the US Open.
“I was like ‘all right, it’s go time,’ ” he said. “I had won NCAA's so I was feeling really good about it. I played four Futures around that time during my last year at UCLA and had won three out of four, and so I was in a good place. I was like, ‘You know what? This is really exciting, let’s see what I can do.’ ”
Nicole Gibbs, who starred at perennial powerhouse Stanford University before hitting the WTA Tour, felt her time on campus also prepared her for the life of a pro while also allowing her to work on her game.
“I think the biggest thing that it gave me was loads and loads of match play, which can be really hard to get at that transitional age, when you’re first coming on the tour, when you can’t play juniors anymore, which used to be where you’d get the matches and the confidence,” she said.
“So Instead of going to tournaments every week and losing first round or second round, I was consistently playing matches every single week and also learning doubles, which was something I never really worked on before,” she added.
Nicole Gibbs- Getty Images
Like Giron, Gibbs also won an NCAA singles title, but didn’t turn pro right away after her sophomore season, despite the people around her thinking it was time.
“I felt like I had more to do,” she said. “I really wanted the team title, and came back my junior year and got the team title—and the NCAAs in singles, too. And at that point, I felt I could squeeze everything from college tennis in regard to development.”
Though he missed out on a NCAA singles title, Noah Rubin reached the final of the 2015 singles championship and decided to turn pro after his freshman season, continuing a steady progression from top national player to junior Grand Slam champion to collegiate All-American, representing Wake Forest University. For the New Yorker, Wake Forest offered a welcome change of pace—and the way his offer to the school was structured, he can return at any time.
“I have a mother who’s a teacher: she loves that!” he said. “To have that opportunity just in case, God forbid, I do get injured I can go back. Having that, it was tough to turn down and I really was getting complacent in the situation I was in in New York. I had been there for 18 years: I was getting bored of that. And I wanted a new system, and Wake Forest was great for that.”
Noah Rubin- Getty Images
While he’s been ranked as high as 125 in the world, Rubin does look back on the college experience—however brief it was for him—with some fondness.
“It was a lot of fun, and I miss it. I didn’t have enough of the college atmosphere, I wanted more of that and I do miss that, especially dealing with what I’ve dealt with lately” in regard to injuries, he said. “If I had another year or two of that, what would that’ve done for my career? Would it have hindered my career in any way? I don’t think so. I think it would’ve actually added to some happiness.”
Giron, who’s at a career-high 126 in the world after his runner-up finish in New Haven, knows it’s a constant battle out there.
“Everybody that you play is giving it their all every day,” he said. “The level is consistently there, the hunger, because this is a livelihood. It is professional, whereas in college there are a lot more things that are distracting. At the pro level, you have to beat guys who are very good day in and day out.
Still, despite the difficulties that come from making adjustments to being away from the team atmosphere and traveling on your own, along with the depth of the competition, Gibbs recommends college for most young players—with exceptions, of course.
“I think it’s definitely case by case,” she said. “I would never recommend someone like Coco Gauff to go to school because she’s just really mature for her age, she has a really good team around her already, she’s kind of insulated in this nice way where she has this built-in support system.
“But I would recommend college to nearly every player, especially on the women’s side, with some exceptions.”
And Rubin says the experience of college can definitely be an enjoyable one, adding that players should “have some fun” as tennis can be taxing at times. “So I think if you can get that in any way, shape or form, stick with it a little while, since you can be 30 years old, 32, 33. Some of these guys are winning their first ATP tournaments at 33.
“There’s a lot to be said for both sides” on playing tennis in college or leaping to the pros, he added.