On a chilly day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York this month, Jackie Tang, a sophomore at Columbia University, was embroiled in a tight match in the NCAA men’s tennis tournament. Tang needed help against his University of Virginia opponent, so he did something professional tennis players normally cannot.
Unhappy with what he thought was lackluster support, Tang, who also plays Davis Cup for Hong Kong, turned to a Columbia teammate watching at courtside and told him emphatically, “I want you cheering after every point I win.”
Riding the support of a teammate is one of the many perks college tennis players enjoy over their professional counterparts, and in the last couple of decades many aspiring pros like Tang have chosen the college route because of all its built-in advantages: free coaching, conditioning, meals and travel; ample camaraderie; and a college degree in case a pro career never materializes.
College tennis’ profile has been rising with increasing coverage on television and live streams, and the recent success of former college stars like John Isner, Danielle Collins, Kevin Anderson, Nicole Gibbs and Steve Johnson has highlighted college as an increasingly viable option on the road to a professional career.
Even little Columbia has ridden the wave, entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed and becoming the first Ivy League team to host the opening rounds. In Queens, the Lions beat the three-time defending champion Cavaliers and, for the third time in the last five years, reached the Sweet 16, where they lost to top-seeded Wake Forest.
But even as talent is rising through the ranks, Timothy Russell, the chief executive of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, which governs college tennis, fears new rules at the professional level will encourage young players to skip college and turn pro before they are ready.
“We could lose a whole generation of players who don’t know how to navigate their way into the pros,” Russell said.
The new rules announced by the International Tennis Federation last year will reorganize tournaments at the lower levels of the sport, creating a new Transition Tour by — among other things — limiting the number of spots available to enter smaller tournaments. The rules are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1.
Russell fears that good college players like Tang and others currently playing in the NCAA Tournament will suffer the most by being excluded from tournaments that, in recent years, many have used as a pathway to the top 100.
The ITF, one of the seven governing bodies in professional tennis, organizes the Pro Circuit with hundreds of tournaments for juniors and professionals on five continents, many contested by players with little or no hope of ever earning a living at tennis. The ITF aims to eliminate roughly 90 percent of the players from those ranks, or about 12,000 men and women.
Currently, low-level events, known as Futures tournaments, have qualifying draws with as many as 128 or 64 spots. Under the new guidelines, qualifying draws will be reduced to 20 to 24 players with a few more wild cards, and five spots in the main draw will be reserved for highly ranked ITF juniors — even if a good college player could easily beat those juniors.
“The Transition Tour events should have the best players in them,” Russell said, “and the current proposal does not guarantee that.”
The ITF said in a statement that it has “long recognized the importance of college tennis in the U.S.,” and has worked closely with the U.S. Tennis Association to develop the new tour, noting that the increased number of wild cards should help offset the smaller qualifying draws.
Many college players, even those who had high rankings as juniors, tend to drop significantly in the professional rankings once they enter college. That is because they play fewer professional tournaments while in school and therefore lose ranking points.
Axel Geller, 19, is an example. Geller, who is from Buenos Aires, was the No. 1-ranked junior in the world last year. But when he played for Stanford this season, he saw his ATP ranking fall to 1,416 — likely not high enough to get into next year’s Transition Tour events.
Geller said he agreed with the ITF plan. At one tournament last year, he was forced to play four qualifying matches to get into the main draw, where he promptly beat the No. 1 seed — a result that suggested he should have been in the main draw from the beginning.
“You will win matches if you are good enough,” Geller said. “The problem is when you are not able to get into the tournament.”
A complex system
Tang, also 19, was ranked No. 59 in the world as a junior. But since going to college and playing fewer ITF events, his ranking has fallen to 1,514, a figure that probably does not represent his true ability.
Like most college players, Tang was uncertain of the details of the complex new rules and what they will mean for him.
“It’s definitely something every tennis player should learn about,” he said, “because it is going to change the entire game, how people travel and how federations develop players.”
Russell said most college coaches were not up to speed yet, either. His concern is that high school players in the United States and abroad (most top intercollegiate rosters are stacked with foreign players) soon could see college players struggling to get into Transition Tour events. Once they experience that, Russell said, they may turn pro while their junior rankings are still high enough to gain entry into more events.
And if a pro career does not work out, they most likely will have lost the opportunity to play in college. Players who hire an agent, sign a contract or earn a certain amount of money (usually more than $10,000) forfeit their college eligibility.
Russell said that the ITF has demonstrated a willingness to hear some of his concerns before final implementation of the Transition Tour in seven months, and he said the USTA came up with one idea — for colleges to host more Transition Tour events so they can dole out wild cards to their own players.
Navigating both worlds
To get the best of both worlds, college players can enter Pro Circuit events in the summer and even during the academic year; the problem is they usually cannot play enough tournaments to maintain a high ranking.
Some teams like Wake Forest, which defeated Ohio State in Tuesday’s NCAA final, travel en masse to Pro Circuit events, where the NCAA allows players to earn up to $10,000 a year to cover expenses.
Bid Goswami, the longtime Columbia coach, said that many recruits want assurances that they will be allowed to play in Futures events during the season. A few even expect a college coach to go with them.
“The first thing they ask me is, ‘How many Futures will I be able to play during the school year?'” Goswami said. “I had a kid tell me, ‘I’ll come if you send me to eight Futures.’ That’s what’s happening.”
Tang, Columbia’s No. 2 player, left the Lions in February to play for Hong Kong in the Davis Cup against Iran. It was the second time he played for Hong Kong, and he said he got goose bumps when fans were chanting “Hong Kong” and his name.
But he longed for the same feeling with his Columbia teammates, who beat Vanderbilt while he was away.
“I was up at 5:30 a.m. in Hong Kong checking the scores,” Tang said. “If they didn’t win, I would have felt so bad. I have an obligation to both Columbia and Hong Kong, so I was happy they beat Vanderbilt and that Hong Kong beat Iran.”
Gianni Ross, a freshman on the Virginia team that lost to Columbia in Queens, is another player who could be affected by the new rules. He was ranked 13th in the world as a junior and was part of the USTA high school development program. After graduating from high school, he dipped a toe into the pro ranks during the fall before enrolling at Virginia in January.
Ross said he was not clear how the new rules would affect him, but he knows how much he enjoys college.
“If I were to change anything, I would not have deferred and instead I would have come to Virginia in the fall,” he said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”