Tennis Industry magazine

 

Open the Door to College Players

A longtime college tennis advocate says it’s time the USTA and US Open stop shutting out top amateurs.

By Marcia Frost

As I finish my coverage of the 2005 NCAA Championships for CollegeAndJuniorTennis.com, I can’t help but wonder if I will see any of these talented players at the US Open. Until three years ago, the winners of the NCAA Division I Championships received wildcards into the main draw. It was also likely that the finalists and a handful of other top college players would receive wildcards into at least the US Open Qualifying event.

But all that changed with one memo four years ago, which seems to have closed the door to great opportunity for talented college players. Just before the 2001 NCAA Championships, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association received the following:

“The USTA and the US Open have made several changes in our wildcard policies this year. …The US Open Wildcard Committee will seriously consider offering wildcards to singles and doubles winners of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Championship. That offer, however, will no longer be automatic.”

Though many college tennis advocates, including myself, were disappointed in this loss, we were still satisfied that in 2001 there was an abundance of amateur players given entrance into the Open. Unfortunately, the number of those players decreased each year, and by last year, college tennis had nearly no representation at America’s Grand Slam. Two-time NCAA champ Amber Liu was the only college player given a wildcard in 2004. Even the qualifying event did not have a single college tennis player.

So where did the American wildcards go? They were all given to the new crop of teen professionals and another handful of teens who were on the brink of turning pro. These kids, a few as young as 14, were talented indeed, but not able to play with the world’s greatest. Almost all fell in the first round. And while 17-year-old Brendan Evans (who had already been a pro for two years) won two rounds, a dozen others didn’t advance at all.

One of the college players noticeably absent last year was the University of Kentucky’s Jesse Witten, a top-five collegian who made the finals of the NCAAs, played the USTA Pro Circuit during his breaks from school, and had actually won two events. He was thought to be a shoo-in for at least a wildcard into qualifying.

But Witten had something against him: He was set on going back to school in the fall and he did not want to turn pro yet. (He has since finished his degree and joined the circuit.) “We really thought that he would get stronger consideration than he got,” said a disappointed Dennis Emery, Witten’s coach at Kentucky.

The college community has been vocal in its disappointment over last year’s lack of wildcards, but there has thus far been no word from the USTA that things will change this summer. The remaining set wildcards for the US Open main draw are for the USTA National Hardcourt Boys’ and Girls’ 18s winners. Last year, for the first time, the USTA passed a call item allowing professionals under age 18 to play the 18s National Hardcourts, and play they did. The winners — Scoville Jenkins and Jessica Kirkland, each a professional — were put into spots previously reserved for our nation’s most talented amateurs.

While I do not wish to discourage the upcoming group of talented Americans in our professional ranks, we need to recognize and reward players in our collegiate system. In prior years, draws were filled with many of these players. In 2003, most of these players came from the spectacular University of Illinois team that captured the singles, doubles, and team event at the NCAAs that year. Three players from that team were given the opportunity to showcase their talent without having to give away their amateur status.

Craig Tiley, former head coach of that winning team and former vice chair of the High Performance Committee for the USTA/ITA, says, “I agree with the USTA that the wildcards should be evaluated on a year-to-year basis. I would like to see a wildcard set aside for a U.S. college player who has had success in the previous year, not only in college, but also in Futures and Challengers. Wildcards must be given to players who are serious about pursuing a career in tennis and have the skills to be able to take advantage of the wildcard.”

It’s our Grand Slam event. US Open wildcards need to be given out based on talent. The fact is that many of the most talented players in this country are training on college campuses. Let’s not punish them for retaining their amateur status and getting an education. It’s time to re-Open the door.

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About the Author

Marcia Frost  is the editor of CollegeAndJuniorTennis.com, published by the non-profit Port Washington Tennis Academy. In her role as a college tennis advocate, she is the editor/manager of CollegeTennisConnect.com, owned by PWTA and Sports Marketplace, where she writes the Monthly Guide To College Planning. She is also a member of the USTA Eastern Section College Tennis Committee.

 

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