Like most NFL greats, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning distinguished themselves first in college—Brady in Michigan, Manning at Tennessee—before reaching the highest levels of achievement in the pros. In the NBA, college success is likewise a good barometer of professional potential, though its relevance has been diminished somewhat by straight-out-of-high-school phenoms such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and the game’s fast-growing European and South American contingents.
In the United States, college tennis is a big-time undertaking. Players around the globe compete for D-1 scholarships. Each year, the NCAA’s singles champion is granted automatic entry into the U.S. Open’s main draw.
Compared with other professional sports, however, college tennis seems to have almost no relevance to the pro game. Of the top 30 men as of August 31, 2009, only 23rd-ranked James Blake spent any time at the academy, two years at Harvard, where he was the NCAA’s top-ranked tennis player. Fellow top-30 Americans Andy Roddick (5), Sam Querrey (22), and Mardy Fish (26) stepped straight from the podiums at their high school graduations to life on the pro tour.
The high and low roads
College players do have success on the pro tour. On Saturday night, University of Georgia standout John Isner took out Andy Roddick in a thrilling third round clash at the U.S. Open. In general, however, they don’t succeed at the highest levels. They might be found hovering near the top 50, at best, or scratching out a living on the sidecourts as doubles specialists.
What makes tennis so different from football, basketball, and even lower-profile sports such as track and field? The explanation, most likely, is that tennis players begin to peak in their early 20s, four or five years earlier than basketball and football players. In tennis, 30 is close to the end of the road; in basketball, it’s prosperous middle age. Tennis players can’t afford to spend their years of apprenticeship outside the masters’ workshop. They need to adapt to the rigors of touring life and the torments of a Federer forehand at the time when they’re most physically able to absorb the lessons.
College becomes a parallel track for players who most likely will never battle for the game’s biggest trophies. Their skills are formidable. Their athleticism is freakish. But it’s just not quite enough. Unlike a young Michael Jordan, a future tennis great can’t afford to spend three years at the University of North Carolina.
College standouts at the 2009 Open
College tennis had a number of representatives at the 2009 U.S. Open. In addition to Isner and journeymen such as University of Illinois alumnus Rajeev Ram and Virginia standout Somdev Devvarman, Devin Britton, the 2009 NCAA singles champion, played Roger Federer in the first round. The 1,370th-ranked 18-year-old lost, as expected, in his first tour-level match, but pushed Federer in the third set. Final score: 6-1, 6-3, 7-5.
On the second day of the U.S. Open, fellow 18-year-old Chase Buchanan, who plays for Ohio State, faced 7th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Grandstand. The 920th-ranked Buchanan got a wild card into the tournament for winning the USTA Boys’ 18 National Hard Courts in Kalamazoo, Michigan last year.
In the first set, Tsonga kept Buchanan off balance with a mix of sliced backhands, floating forehands, and pistol shots off that seemed to tear the Decoturf off the asphalt. Buchanan struggled with the variety, batting his groundstrokes long. He placed his first serve well, but the power wasn’t there, especially on the second delivery, which routinely clocked in at about 80 mph. Buchanan dropped the first set 0-6, 12 unforced errors to just 4 winners.
Hints of what might be
Tsonga took the first game of the second set. “New balls, please,” the chair umpire said. Buchanan hadn’t yet put a game on the board. His moment on the big stage was racing away from him. The chair’s announcement seemed to shock him into consciousness. He held serve easily, finishing the game with a half-volley winner that could have come from Andy Murray’s playbook. In the next game, Buchanan stunned the crowd by breaking Tsonga, winning an acrobatic exchange at net with the big man. Buchanan went up 2-1.
But that was pretty much it. Tsonga broke back and took the second set, then cruised through the third to take the match 6-0, 6-2, 6-1. Buchanan is young. He looks it. His emotions play across his face. According to the Ohio State’s roster, Buchanan is roughly the same size as Tsonga, 6′ 2″ and 180 pounds. But Buchanan looks much smaller.
Stories to watch
Do these apparent physical and emotional differences tell us anything about the differences between college tennis and the tour? Is an 18-year-old such as Buchanan playing for the Buckeyes, and not on the tour, because he doesn’t have the same mental toughness and physicality as his professional peers? Or does college limit a player’s ability to develop these qualities?
We’ll see. Maybe Buchanan and Britton will follow in the footsteps of John McEnroe or James Blake, who thrived in college before establishing themselves, respectively, as an all-time great and a solid professional with 10 career singles titles. But such success would be an exception to the typical relationship between high-level college tennis and the pro game.