Pioneers in Tennis: David Benjamin — College Tennis’s Leading Man
If the definition of success is leaving something better than you found it, David Benjamin can walk away from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association feeling very satisfied.
Benjamin, the ITA’s longtime executive director and CEO who retired July 1, is credited with taking a fledgling group of college tennis coaches and transforming that group into a modern, fully functioning national governing body for intercollegiate tennis. The ITA not only sanctions college tournaments and sponsors multiple national championships, but also works with corporate sponsors to offer a host of awards and honors. It also compiles and produces national and regional rankings for teams, singles and doubles for all classifications.
In fact, there have been so many changes over the years, Benjamin will be the first to admit he isn’t sure where to start when describing them.
The organization known as the Intercollegiate Tennis Coaches Association was in its infancy when Benjamin, then the tennis coach at Princeton University, became involved in 1975, doing project work for the group. “It was kind of a jungle when I started coaching,” he recalls. “We had no rules about college tennis. There was nothing about what balls you should use, which scoring system — there was nothing. If you were playing a team you got along with, it was usually all right. But if two teams did not get along, you could have a lot of problems.” In fact, when he himself was a college player, there was one national championship a year and no ranking system for schools or players.
By 1979, Benjamin had been elected president of the organization. In 1981, he took the position of executive director. His sole mission for the group, he noted, was “growing and promoting college tennis at all levels.”
Under Benjamin’s guidance during the course of more than three decades, the group grew from a membership of less than 80 NCAA Men’s Division I coaches to its current organizational structure that includes more than 1,500 men’s and women’s varsity coaches and close to 20,000 varsity student-athletes from over 1,200 NCAA Division I, II and III, NAIA, and junior/community colleges. And, of course, now there is the ranking system.
“We worked on that,” he says, pride lacing his voice. “We created it, and now a player can look himself or herself up and say, ‘I’m ranked fifth’ or ‘I’m ranked 10th,’ or anything else.”
Benjamin is also pleased with the sense of camaraderie he has seen develop among college teams that routinely meet one another in regional and national competition, as opposed to the one tournament a year he used to experience. “When we played other schools, we kind viewed them as the enemy. But the more you play another team, the more things you realize you have in common.”
He believes strongly that tennis has the potential to shape a student’s character. “One of the things that is most important to all coaches is not just to coach the players, but to help them to develop as people. Tennis is a fantastic vehicle for that.”
Unlike today’s pro players who often forgo a college education in order to turn pro, their counterparts in the time of Arthur Ashe or Stan Smith continued their college education while competing. The ITA, he notes, has outstanding athletes but is realistic enough to want them to complete their education. “In order to play college tennis, you have to take school seriously. Very few people are going to be world-class pros. But our hope is to make them into world-class citizens, and we know tennis is part of that process.”
This might be a clue as to why he says his proudest accomplishment is the development of the annual ITA Achievement Award, which pays tribute to past varsity tennis players who have achieved excellence in their chosen careers.
“The award recognizes people who have had wonderful achievements and who have given a lot back. I have an extra fond spot for that.” He pauses. “I’d really be glad to stay involved with it.”
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.
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