As more top players opt for college, Virginia emerges as a tennis dynasty
IN CHARLOTTESVILLE The country's top tennis pros struggled Down Under, with no American reaching the quarterfinals of last month's Australian Open. But down the road from Washington, a new wave of Grand Slam prospects is being cultivated at the University of Virginia, which has become a force in men's college tennis on the belief that a well-grounded young man - complete with social skills, problem-solving ability and, ideally, a diploma - is better positioned for on-court success than a ball-pummeling machine.
That has been Brian Boland's approach since he took charge of the Virginia men's team in 2002. In the years since, the Cavaliers have won nine ACC championships (including the last seven), three national team indoor titles and seven NCAA and ITA individual titles. In January, Virginia opened the 2011 season ranked No. 1 in the nation for the third time in the past six years.
It's not the most likely setting for a tennis dynasty, here amid the snow-dusted hills of horse country as opposed to sun-drenched Southern California.
Nor is college tennis universally regarded as the most prudent path to the pros - traditionally viewed instead as a needless detour that, if anything, retards the development of top juniors.
But that thinking is changing as the sport has changed, becoming more physically demanding with the advent of high-tech rackets and string, the influx of top-flight athletes from around the world and more sophisticated training methods.
As a result, Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain who also leads the U.S. Tennis Association's pro player development efforts, believes that 99 percent of junior players should aspire to college tennis, which he views as a tremendously beneficial step, rather than leap to the pros directly.
"Even if you're the absolute, very best junior in the world, the days of going pro and all of a sudden getting to the semifinals of a major or winning Wimbledon like Boris Becker did or [Mats] Wilander winning the French Open - those days appear to be over," said McEnroe, who followed his elder brother John to Stanford.
Boland, Virginia's coach, agrees.
"The game is a game of men who are competing in the top 100; clearly, this is not a boy's game," Boland says. "I don't believe that these young men really need to be in the kind of hurry that so many think they need to. If you put them out there when they're not mature physically and mentally, they're going to regress and lose their love and passion for the game."
To be sure, every generation has its phenoms, such as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer - neither of whom played college tennis. A generation earlier, Andre Agassi turned pro at 16 and went on to a Hall of Fame career.
But the power, pace and relentless grind of men's tennis today make it all but impossible for tousle-headed teens to survive.
According to figures compiled by the USTA, the average age of the top 100 men's tennis players today hovers between 25 and 26. And cracking the top 100 hardly guarantees a livable wage.