An international flavor
A longtime observer of junior and college tennis says limiting foreign players at U.S. colleges is a bad idea.
Jay Cunningham of Edmond, Okla., a red-shirt sophomore on the University of Tulsa’s tennis team, has a résumé typical of many top American juniors. He won the Oklahoma state high school singles title twice, topped his section’s 16s ranking, and was recruited by several high-profile Division 1 programs. Deciding to stay near home, he joined a team with six foreign players and two other Oklahoma juniors. From his perspective, the current outrage over foreigners in the collegiate game is difficult to comprehend.
“Having the foreign players levels the playing field,” says Cunningham, 21. “The bigger schools, the Stanfords, the UCLAs, they can get top Americans, but for schools like us, it helps us to get good foreigners to come in and see our program and facility, and they’ll come to Oklahoma.”
Cunningham touches on just one of the many ways the influx of foreign players has created a sea change in college tennis. Like Tulsa, many college teams have more international players than Americans, resulting in calls for scholarship limits and quotas. But here are a few reasons affirmative action for U.S. juniors is a bad idea:
- Foreign players have raised the level of competition: “We want the best competition we can have,” says Peter Wright, head coach of the University of California-Berkeley men’s tennis team. “At the top of Division I tennis, we want guys who have goals and aspirations of playing professional tennis.”
“Our level of tennis, our depth, has gotten so much better,” says Manny Diaz, men’s head coach at the University of Georgia since 1989. “I think it does help the American kids. It raises everybody’s game.”
To play tennis on this level regularly, without sacrificing higher education, is an option available only in the U.S., a key reason why so many players from other countries seek the opportunity. Shielding U.S. juniors from foreign competition only fosters the conviction that we are entitled to success by virtue of our citizenship. Whether it’s cars, cell phones, or tennis players, it’s competition that produces excellence.
- Sports is the ultimate meritocracy: If a U.S. player has the talent, the ambition and the heart, no college coach would bench him or her in favor of a foreign player.
- The world is flat: Understanding other cultures is an important step in anticipating the post-college world where tennis is hardly the only industry that’s gone global.
“The cultural differences are definitely tough at first,” says Cunningham. “But it’s made me a better person. We have a really close team, they’re like my brothers now. Getting to know the different cultures and learning to deal with different people helps you grow up as a person and a tennis player.”
- We want the best and brightest from other countries at our universities: Not only do these motivated, disciplined young people have an opportunity to see the U.S. from the inside, but they may choose to stay and work, perhaps even seek citizenship. If they do return to their countries, certainly their experiences and friendships in the U.S. will have had a profound impact on their world view.
- U.S. juniors can learn about appreciating opportunities from those who have less privilege: “Some of the foreign players don’t come from the most affluent backgrounds,” says Wright. “So they come to America and see these wonderful facilities — the training room, the weight room, the staff to help them in school — and say, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ They’re incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to pursue their tennis at the highest level and to pursue their academics.”
- Maturity is a process, not a number: No one advocates scholarships for former professionals or teams made up of 23-year-old sophomores. But age restrictions in tennis aren’t relevant after 18. College is an appropriate time to start getting used to that.
- It’s not us vs. them: That attitude ignores the regard we all have for the game. A conversation with your local college or university’s international players will reveal they are not mercenaries or hired guns, but student-athletes who love the sport and are willing to give back. California’s Wright, for instance, has instituted a pilot program for Bay Area juniors that gets them interacting with local college players.
“If we tackle this well, hopefully those foreign guys at your locale are helping your kid get better,” Wright says. “Instead of saying, ‘Damn foreigners, I hate these guys’, you’re saying, ‘Hey, that guy’s from Serbia and he’s hitting with my kid, playing sets with him on weekends.’”
The U.S. should be proud of the reputation of its higher education system. If we are truly committed to excellence, we have nothing to fear from competition — we recognize that it makes us better. Our ideals, admittedly not always achieved, remain dedicated to equal opportunity. Protecting college tennis from those outside the U.S. simply doesn’t fit that framework.
See all articles by Colette Lewis
About the Author
Colette Lewis is freelance tennis writer who has covered topflight college and junior events for The Tennis Channel, Smash Magazine, Tennis Magazine, and The Tennis Recruiting Network. She serves as editor of the USTA Boys 18s & 16s National Championships' website in her hometown of Kalamazoo, and maintains a website devoted to college and junior tennis -- zootennis.com.