It took about an hour for the final round of the NCAA Division I men’s tennis championship to get underway.
The top doubles teams from Virginia and Kentucky were locked in an epic tiebreak that would determine who would score the crucial doubles points in the singles portion of the matchup. The Cavaliers and Wildcats took turns defending match point with clutch volleys and gutsy passing shots while teammates and fans yelled and jeered at every win or error.
Virginia’s final forehand went wide and Kentucky won the tiebreaker, 11-9, giving them an early advantage in the team game. The howling grew louder and the taunting became more violent. The All England Club was not.
The collegiate version of this supposedly graceful sport, especially the competition that unfolds in the final segment of the NCAA Championship, turns tennis into something closer to the spectacle of professional wrestling.
Players roar after almost every point. The coach will periodically walk around the court during the game to give quick encouragement and strategy tips. Crowds cheer on double faults and mis-hits, and fans yell for action on one court when someone tries to serve on another court just a few feet away. School colors like Texas Christian Purple, Texas Longhorn Burnt Orange, North Carolina Baby Blue, and Stanford Cardinal burst off the court, offering a welcome respite from the corporate apparel seen during professional matches.
This is tennis turned up to 11, something a steady, stagnant Pro Tour should learn.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than here,” said Fiona Crowley, a top-ranked woman in the nation who plays for the nation’s top-ranked team, and a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. “This is my life.”
Originally from San Antonio, Crowley majored in English and Comparative Literature. After he graduates, his plan is to “go on tour for two years because I love to travel” and then become a teacher.
The top-ranked University of Texas men’s team also has the number one player in the sport, with junior Elliott Spitzili leading the top-ranked Longhorns to the quarter-finals. He’s thrilled he hasn’t hit the back roads of Pro Circuit yet.
“It’s like a different sport,” Spizigli said of college tennis. “I look left and right and my best friends are competing right next to me, and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
A sea away from all this, Madrid, Rome and Paris are hot spots for professional matches in the European clay court swing this month. But for pure, high-octane intensity from first ball to last, nothing beats a match played on the humid courts here at the USTA National Campus.
This year, the USTA will host the final rounds of 14 major college championships in Divisions I, II and III. This is part of the USTA’s proposal to the NCAA for the Orlando training center to be the permanent home for the final stages of the Division I tournament, after each team’s quarterfinals and for individual singles and doubles matches. .
The idea is to make going to Orlando for tennis the same as going to Omaha for the Men’s College World Series, which has been held annually by Division I baseball teams since 1950.
“This is an opportunity to step up the college game,” USTA Chief Executive Lou Shah said.
One of the arguments for the sprawling campus is the bleachers that cut through the back of the court to make it easier to watch simultaneous games that affect each other.
But the weather may be a stumbling block. Playing tennis in Orlando in May can sometimes feel like you’re playing on the surface of the sun, but rain interrupted the game. Thursday’s thunderstorms forced the cancellation of Division 1 night games, but there aren’t enough indoor courts to offer a backup plan.
But regardless of the venue, college tennis has seen a bit of a buzz in the sport lately, claiming it’s a strong option for young up-and-coming players.
Cameron Norrie, who played for Texas Christian University, is ranked 13th in the world. Last year’s NCAA champion Ben Shelton wowed at the Australian Open. In recent years, Jennifer Brady (UCLA) and Daniel Collins (Virginia) have reached the Australian Open singles finals.
The ATP Top 100 includes more than a dozen former collegiate players, and the men’s tour has partnered with collegiate tennis to guarantee higher-ranking collegiate players slots to lower-tier professional tournaments.
This season, North Carolina State has Diana Schneider, a 19-year-old Russian who reached the second round at the Australian Open. She has already won a small WTA tournament.
For Schneider, attending college for at least one year was a precautionary measure against professional tennis, where the Ukrainian war could ban Russians from competing. It was also much cheaper than paying for coaching and court hours in Moscow. After her team final, she turned pro and headed to Paris for the French Open.
“It made me better,” Schneider said of his college tennis experience.
Still, much of the tennis world has long neglected the collegiate sports world, which is big in the United States but not in other countries. For critics, campus life, which includes parties, reports and exams, can distract from sports and soften players’ minds compared to the rigors of the minor leagues of professional gaming.
Former tour pro David Roditi, who has coached the Texas Christians for the past 13 seasons, said college tennis has a uniquely rough and pressured practice field that players can’t understand without experience. Plus, he said most players don’t peak until they’re in their 20s anyway, so what’s the rush to turn pro? He’s seen too many players burn out on the lonely tour long before their prime.
“They quit before they realized how good they could be,” Roditi said. “University guarantees four years of security.”
Of course, scholarships are limited and the competition is generally not as tough as Pro Circuit. Still, Roditi has spent the last few years successfully promoting the ideals of collegiate athletics abroad. His team includes players from Scotland, England, France, Holland and the Czech Republic. His top player, Jacob Fernley, grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Fernley said she was small as a teenager and needed time to grow and get stronger. He says he was foolish to turn pro after high school. Texas star Spizigli tells a similar story. Both are now long, lean and powerful.
Fernley said playing in low-level professional tournaments compared to what he learned in college was like a nap. In a road match against Michigan, at the beginning of his college career, the crowd yelled at him after every double fault, telling him he was a hopeless tennis player. Then he collapsed, but he didn’t collapse anymore.
“It’s just noise,” Fernley said last week before the rematch with Michigan. “That’s what our coach told us. All that matters is you and your opponent and what’s happening on the court.”