Playing College Tennis Before Turning Pro
by Emma Peetz.
With any big dream comes obstacles -- the tennis world is no exception
For many talented junior players around the world today, breaking into the professional ranks can be overwhelming. It takes a whole lot more than just hitting a good ball to make the transition into pro tennis and, of course, if any of these young players do have holes in their games, you can bet that the bigger tennis sharks out there are going to find them.
In other words, even a solid career in junior tennis -- no matter how great the results -- is not always enough to make it on the pro circuit. Tournament schedules, travel itineraries, cutting costs, and deep second serves, are only a handful of the things that must be considered.
In an attempt to solve these transitional problems, graduating junior players have been turning in increasing numbers to the collegiate system to find professional success -- and it's working. In fact, the majority of today's top-ranked collegiate players, and their coaches, will all tell you that it's one of the smartest decisions any young player can make.
"It was an easy choice for me," said Stanford's No. 1 player, Geoff Salzenstein. "I was not physically, mentally, or emotionally ready to play pro tennis."
Salzenstein, was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally in the 18s age group. However, compared to other top-ranked junior players like him, he didn't have a lot of overseas playing experience. International junior events -- like Wimbledon or the French Open -- he hadn't played.
For this 22-year-old from Englewood, Colo., now ranked No. 5 on the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's (ITA) Rolex Collegiate Rankings poll in singles, college has been an opportunity to mature, and to prepare for a life on the circuit.
"I've been able to grow up a lot in college," Salzenstein said. "I haven't had to worry about growing up so fast because I was on the pro tour."
In fact, Salzenstein has the best of both worlds.
At the beginning of the 1995-96 season he took time off from the collegiate calendar to play in a number of USTA Satellite events as an amateur. Upon his return to collegiate tennis in the spring, he won the 1996 Rolex Intercollegiate Indoor Singles Championship, the third leg of the ITA's Collegiate Grand Slam.
Obviously, because collegiate players are offered a test run on the professional circuit, college seems to be a sensible option for young players who don't want to turn pro right away.
In other words, players at the collegiate level can afford a few losses at the pro level. They've got more tennis matches and coaching waiting for them back at the college courts -- and should they decide that pro tennis is not for them -- these student-athletes can look to their academic credentials for new direction.
In regard to turning professional, UCLA's head women's tennis coach Stella Sampras said, "So many young players think that the circuit is so glamorous, but once they're there, there's no turning back -- you can't go back to college and play."
Sampras knows what she's talking about.
Before coming to the UCLA program four years ago, she played on the circuit for a year. However, her own struggle with the world rankings -- 240 in singles and 150 in doubles -- hasn't stopped her from encouraging her players to go out there and try it.
Under her wing are top players Keri Phebus and Jane Chi, ranked No. 4 and No. 27 respectively on the Rolex Collegiate Rankings poll. To help them make the transition into pro tennis, Sampras monitors their progress daily.
However, when it comes to competition in the collegiate arena, Sampras says that even at this level it's tough to get a win.
"In college," she said, "players are really good. They can't just go out there and hit ground strokes. We concentrate on developing a transition game to make them more aggressive."
Thus, while junior players need to have fairly developed games to earn themselves a full tennis scholarship, there's always more to work on.
"A college coach," Sampras said, "is someone to help them work on their game. Jane and Keri always want extra hours on the court -- you can always tell the one's who are more serious."
According to Stanford's Salzenstein, his head coach Dick Gould also promotes an aggressive style of play.
"He teaches us to serve and volley right from the start as freshman, " Salzenstein said. "This intensive work on serve and volley has helped a lot players to make the transition into the pros."
And often, it's for reasons related to Gould's coaching ability that top junior players decide to enter his program.
Freshman Ryan Wolters, also Salzenstein's doubles partner, arrived at Stanford with an impressive record. He was a representative on the U.S. Junior National Team, a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open Junior Singles Championship, and a finalist at the French Open Juniors.
However, in spite of his world junior singles ranking of No. 20, and No. 4 in doubles, Wolters felt that his game still needed work.
"Before I came to college I wanted to go pro," Wolters said, "but I knew that there were some holes in my game -- I knew that I could get good coaching and good matches in college."
He's right. Aside from the coaching court, collegiate tennis can schedule up to 50 matches in any given season.
For Wolters, his approach to college is kept simple. "As long as I'm getting better -- I'll keep coming back," he said.
Georgia's No. 1 player Stephen Baldas, a 21-year-old sophomore from Australia, is another player who entered the collegiate ranks with an impressive international junior record. As a former Junior Wimbledon Doubles winner (1992), he offers good insight into the pros and cons of the professional circuit.
"When you're just out of high school, it's very difficult to leave home and start traveling by yourself," Baldas said. "In college there's a lot of supervision and freedom at the same time."
More importantly, Baldas believes that college gives players a realistic view of life.
"When I was only playing tennis, I could feel myself getting very stale," Baldas said, "The advantage of college tennis is that you have a full-time coach, you get good matches, and an education.
"Getting another view of things is really important and education gives that to you."
In three years, Baldas expects to graduate with an economics degree but, for now, he plans to turn professional upon leaving the Georgia program.
In a lot of cases; however, players come to college without any exceptional results in the junior ranks. Kylie Hunt, for example, now ranked No. 2 in the nation in singles, hoped that her collegiate coaches could build her game up to professional standards.
Since she began her collegiate career in the 1993-94 academic year, Hunt has transferred from N.C. State University to Kansas, played a handful of satellites as an amateur in Mexico, and won the 1996 Rolex Intercollegiate Indoor Singles Championship.
"I was hoping that my game would mature, and it has," said Hunt, another native of Australia. "I was only an average player in the juniors -- I did nothing great."
Like Salzenstein, Wolters, and Baldas, Hunt also didn't feel ready to handle the pro circuit.
"I'd only played a few satellites at home and I knew that I wasn't ready -- I also didn't have the money," Hunt added.
As an international recruit, Hunt points out that the opportunities to play tennis in the United States has been the main reason behind her collegiate success.
"My coach has given me a different perspective," Hunt said. "I also have a lot more people to hit with now. At home, back in Australia, I had no one to hit with. I had to travel two hours from my town to practice."
Her Kansas coach, Chuck Merzbacher, believes that she still has a lot to learn before turning professional after the NCAA Championships next year.
"Kylie is a serve and volley, chip and charge type of player," Merzbacher said. "I'm so familiar with her game because our playing styles are very similar - she's like a female Chuck Merzbacher. I know what she needs to work on."
Like Baldas, Hunt also looks beyond a career in professional tennis. After she has played on the pro tour, she plans to return to university for an M.A. in sports psychology.
"I'd like to put something back into tennis since it has been so good to me," Hunt said.
Head coach for the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, University of Florida's Andy Brandi, also believes that college is a great training ground for the professional ranks. For seven years, Brandi traveled on the pro tour as a full-time coach, and he draws on this experience to help his collegiate players find international success. The most notable examples of players who have turned professional under his guidance are Nicole Arendt and Lisa Raymond.
Arendt was a mixed doubles finalist in the 1996 Ford Australian Open with Luke Jenson (another former collegiate player -- from UCLA in the late 1980s). And Raymond, who entered the pro circuit at the end of her sophomore year in 1993, is currently ranked No. 20 on the Corel WTA Rankings poll.
"College stresses independence, responsibility, and discipline," Brandi said. "These things are very important for the pros.
"When Lisa won the NCAAs in 1993, she was 99.9 percent ready to turn pro, but I still said 'no.' She was not ready emotionally or mentally to handle it."
Here, Brandi is refering to the added responsibilities that come with being a top player. Pro tennis asks its players to cope with a lot more than just tournament schedules. Media, interviews, contracts, and sponsors all have to be considered.
"We give the girls a total package," Brandi said. "We develop their games, do a lot of physical training, and teach them to handle the media, and interviews. Basically we tutor them to cope with the pro circuit."
With a college career record of over 300 team wins -- the best winning percentage (.900) of any Division 1 women's tennis coach ever -- and several NCAA titles (1992 and 1993 back-to-back) under his belt, with another one anticipated in Florida this May, Brandi finds that most of his players are used to winning all of the time.
Thus, to his players who want to make a living out of tennis, he says that the plan has to be long-term. He stresses that everyone is good at the pro level and only one player can win every week.
However, perhaps the best comment to bring justice to the college arena comes from Salzenstein, a young player who's about to turn professional after the upcoming NCAA Championships in May.
"College is a unique experience because tennis is an individual sport," he said. "I get the opportunity to play for a team, I enjoy it, and it's something to look back on."