Join Date: May 2007
Perhaps something for you to pass along to Sharko or another keeper of sundry tennis stats: Of, say, the top 50 or 100 college tennis teams, the percentage of their players that come from countries other than the US? -- Dave Anderson, Waikiki, HawaiiHere's some more links where Wertheim discusses the influx of foreigners in US college tennis:
We'll spare the Sharko the work. Just go here and look for yourself. Wait. What's that you say? Someone carted in a soapbox. Why, let me climb aboard and rant:
I think the influx of foreign players is a serious -- potentially fatal, even -- problem in college tennis. And no one seems to have the courage to take a principled stand. Let's get this out of the way first: should NCAA coaches be allowed to recruit foreign players? Absolutely, especially in these global times, the same way the Sorbonne should (and does) accommodate Americans abroad. It would be immoral (and illegal) to assert otherwise.
But there is a line here. And many coaches don't so much cross the line as they bound over it as if catapulted by flubber. When a program fields a roster almost entirely from abroad, at a bare minimum it subverts the spirit of college sports. You could do this with dozens of programs, but let's make an illustrative example out of Mississippi State. Here is its men's tennis roster.
Its top player, Ivan Bjelica, is a 24-year-old senior. (Move over, Frank the Tank!) According the ATP website, Bjelica was playing low level professional events -- he once lost to Novak Djokovic -- as early as 2003. Even if a school can get its compliance office to sign off on this guy, I think you're hard-pressed to defend recruiting a 24-year-old former pro to play on your college team. Again, this is just one illustrative example. Just for fun, I checked out the roster for Mississippi State's rival, Ole Miss, one of the nation's top teams. See for yourself.
And it's not just Division I. A few years ago an editor asked me to look into this dynasty program at Lander University, a small Division II school in South Carolina. We naively thought that there was a cool story to be written about an unlikely tennis hotbed. Sadly, it turned out that the team was simply importing all its best players from overseas. Check out the Bearcats' current roster and it's no wonder Lander can beat the daylights out of the small school down the road that recruits from nearby high schools.
The offending coaches will quietly tell you that they are under pressure from their bosses to win titles; that can't be achieved when they restrict recruiting to the local talent pool. But this "everyone-else-is-doing-it" logic is cowardly.
First, there ARE successful programs that manage to field teams without bending the rules. Note, for instance, the perennial success of Stanford (granted, an easy recruiting sell) or Ty Tucker's program at Ohio State.
Second, this "logic" is self-fulfilling. If it becomes clear to every local kid that his odds of getting a college scholarship are nil because the spots are all going to some 23-year-old ringer from Slovenia, you're begging kids to switch away from tennis. Then the local talent pool really will be as shallow as a wading pool.
One wonders what role this unfortunate trend plays in the recent eliminations of college tennis programs. The budget axe swings at State U. and the athletic director needs to cut a (men's, invariably) non-revenue sport. The wrestling team or the diving team is comprised of local kids, whose parents paid taxes and know legislators. The tennis team is a collection of Venezuelan ringers who played futures events, couldn't cut it and decided to get a U.S. college scholarship instead. Pretty easy decision, I'd think.
Again, this is not meant as a jingoistic Lou Dobbs tirade. Coaches are entitled, if not obligated, to recruit globally. But the coaches filling their entire team with overseas players, particularly with old-timers who've already tried their hand on the pro circuit? That's indefensible. Next time we enumerate the causes of the sport's stunted growth here in the U.S., don't forget to include these guys.
And finally, Jon Wertheim, who has always railed against foreign players in college tennis, does it again today in his mailbag at SI.com. I too wish the majority of players in U.S. colleges were from the United States, and that the sport of tennis was popular enough and produced enough revenue to assure its continued existence on the college level. I admire coaches who can find and develop talent here in the United States and also incorporate talented players from other countries into a team that broadens the cultural perspective of all its members. That is certainly the ideal and Jon is within his rights to call out programs that don't find that happy medium. If he uses his column as a soapbox/bully pulpit, that's fine. But I notice he did stop short of suggesting a solution, because, in this flattened world, I think he knows there isn't one--at least one that will keep college tennis as a viable option for those who want to use it as another developmental tool. My complete response to his earlier Tennis Magazine column two years ago (sorry, no link available) is here, and it, and my Racquet Sports Industry column from last year, thoroughly covers my thoughts on the topic.
Jon, enjoyed your feature on college tennis. I can see both sides of the coin here, but the situation at many places, similar to your examples, is ridiculous and, frankly, unacceptable! Do you think that some sort of a limit on foreign players (let's say no more than three out of eight and two out of six scholarships to non-US players) should and could be implemented? That way the rules are set upfront, the playing field is fairer and it still offers reasonable opportunities to kids from all over.
-- Bob S., Redwood City, CA
I do think a limit would be logical and fair. Two "internationals" per team, perhaps, which is essentially the way overseas basketball leagues operate with respect to Americans. Would this survive a legal challenge? Good question. Maybe there's a summer associate in search of some busy work who could research this.
But again -- and I hope this point didn't get lost -- this isn't simply about a player's passport. It's also about context and playing history. The best player at Princeton, for instance, is Peter Capkovic, a 25-year-old junior who, according to his bio, once beat Radek Stepanek and former Wimbledon semifinalist Vladamir Voltchkov.
"He brings a wealth of experience from his years competing against the world's best professional player" [sic] we're told.
Sorry, this is not a recruiting coup. It's a dishonorable farce that completely runs counter to the spirit of college athletics. Doesn't matter if you're from Bratislava or Bala Cynwyd: a 25-year-old junior with years of experience playing pro events has no business competing in intercollegiate athletics. Even if your hard-charging A.D. is demanding Ivy League titles. I can only hope that when Princeton wins matches, the adults feel the same level of fulfillment I do when I beat my six-year-old in chess. What a joke. What a shame.