In a United States loudly wondering whether to reduce foreign influx and build a border wall visible from Mars, the state of Georgia just wrapped up a 12-day competition both distinctively American and so wildly international that it could have fit on the grounds of the Statue of Liberty.
A stunning 41 nationalities crammed into the 128 slots in the men’s and women’s singles draws at the NCAA Division I tennis championships in Athens, except it’s not so stunning. Nobody even considers it particularly newsworthy anymore. It’s barely different from the 38 nationalities of 10 years ago, or a bracket of 1998, when 48 of the 64 male qualifiers hailed from abroad.
Everyone knows the age of U.S. tennis supremacy left with the 20th century. Everyone knows the big ball-maulers hail from all over, including countries that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Told that Americans produced 24 of the 64 men and 35 of the 64 women this year, Dick Gould, the Rushmore figure of the sport who directs tennis at Stanford after coaching the men there for 38 seasons (1966-2004), said, “I’m really surprised it’s that high. I think, ‘Good for America.’ ”
The foreign wave in college tennis used to cause occasional flare-ups of concern, as in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. It led to tweaks in NCAA eligibility rules, largely to diminish the concept of, say, the 25-year-old European with big-time experience who suddenly alights on an American campus. But by now, here’s a sport that may have settled on one of life’s great truths: Xenophobia, nationalism, patriotism, protectionism and sheer earnest concern all bow to another force.
In English, that force is known as “winning.”
“Obviously it’s very global. You cannot win a championship now, I don’t think, with all American players,” said Chris Woodruff, the native Tennessean whose pro career saw him reach No. 29 in the world in 2000, who just began as head coach at Tennessee after 15 seasons as assistant, whose roster brims with seven foreign players out of nine and who never overhears any misgivings about it anymore. “I think that attitude now has gravitated away from it,” he said.
You’re more likely to hear “the antithesis,” he said — that foreign players have upgraded the level of the college game.
He spoke from that bastion of internationalism, the Southeastern Conference. That’s where Andy Jackson, nowadays the coach at Arkansas and previously the coach at Florida and Mississippi State, tends to come up in conversations as a pioneer in the internationalizing. In the 1990s, Jackson notched the novelty of a Mississippi State roster that brimmed with French players, then brimmed up the rankings.
That kind of thing never addled Gould over on the West Coast. His royal program benefited from another adage: Who in a right mind wouldn’t want to go to Stanford? It lured the top Americans and won 17 national titles. It forged the nutshell statistic of the American crest in the 20th century: Half — half! — of the 1983 Wimbledon men’s quarterfinalists had played for Gould at Stanford. (A further quarterfinalist, Kathy Jordan, had played also at Stanford, for Gould’s wife, Anne.)
“My own opinion?” Gould said. “I have not seen a foreign player bastardize the system. Most are serious about school.” He added: “If the American coaches are complaining about it, then maybe American coaches should go about making better American players.” And, more broadly: “It’s interesting to me to see how foreigners from all countries mesh on a single team. They’re all teammates, and I think the world needs that.”
Establishment and non-establishment programs did quibble, of course. This might have crystallized in a single coaches’ meeting in the 1990s, recounted by Bob Bayliss, who helmed Notre Dame from 1987 till 2013. Bayliss, no xenophobe, no protectionist and no killjoy, just wished to consider American kids who might not dream of Wimbledon or the U.S. Open but of a scholarship at a parent’s alma mater. (Only two of the nine American males in the present-day top 100 stopped off to play college tennis.) Such kids might find that dream blocked by the numbers churning in from abroad, especially on the male side, with its annual scholarship limit of 4 1/2, compared with eight on the women’s side.
A coach at one of the nontraditional SEC programs chimed in, “That’s easy for you to say.”
Agreeing that the issue had settled largely, Bayliss said: “I think you get tired of beating down a door all day long. I know those of us who were trying to fight for American players, there were a lot of coaches that treated us pretty badly. We were considered snobbish, I guess, or elitist.” Yet he said also, “But it’s hard to fault the guy who’s going to get fired if his team isn’t very successful.”
By the late 1990s, Alex Kim, the 2000 NCAA men’s singles champion, who played at Churchill High in Potomac, Md., and then at Stanford, could feel the internationalism intensifying. (“Absolutely,” he wrote in an email.) But he relished it all the same, finding it educational and even nuanced. “While foreigners often had impressive backgrounds and skills,” Kim wrote, “some did not really get into the unique spirit that differentiated college tennis from normal, individual events. They were far from home, and perhaps had less pride than a Texas-born kid who had dreamed of playing for the University of Texas all his life, for example. So at times, playing against a team that had mostly foreigners was sometimes an advantage; you’d get a sense they would more easily fold, taking a ‘who-cares’ attitude.”
For nine years, Kim was the last American to win the NCAA men’s singles title. Since 2009, Americans have gone 8 for 9, including Virginia’s Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, who triumphed on Monday, to join the fellow American women’s champion, Brienne Minor of Michigan.
By 2017, winning has won. Men’s rosters at Virginia Commonwealth, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss are either entirely or almost entirely foreign. The rosters of the men’s team final four in Athens had 13 foreign players out of 42, the women’s nine of 38, with the men’s champion (Virginia) at three of nine and the women’s champion (Florida) at two of eight. Wake Forest, the No. 1 team at the top of May, had five foreign players of the nine on its roster.
This all occurs in a tennis world shifted off these shores. Europeans have won all 29 male Grand Slam singles tournaments so far this decade. The United States has won more female singles Grand Slams than any other country this decade, but all of those (12) have gone to one person (Serena Williams). No American male has won a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick in 2003, and none has reached a final since Roddick in 2009.
Importing the world can always help. “Game styles are very different, aren’t they?” Woodruff said. “A South American might be more apt to lift the ball up. So now you’re playing the ball over your shoulder. If you’re playing a guy from, say, Southern California, they might be more apt to hit the ball flat.”
Then, for anyone left wishing for more American flavor in the American college game, another force has reared its win-win head.
In the 1990s, colleges started giving out cups for aggregate performance across all sports, giving athletic directors a fresh chance to feel chesty — or to feel pressure. “It used to be that to get fired as a tennis coach, when I first started in 1970 at Navy,” Bayliss said, “you had to be guilty of four felonies, had to be on drugs, and running a brothel out of your office, because they just didn’t care.”
Bayliss then mentioned Sam Winterbotham, whose job of coaxing Colorado through the thin air and into the top 25 in 2006 Bayliss found remarkable to the point of “unthinkable.” Winterbotham went from there to Tennessee where, with four Tennessean players as mainstays, he coached the Vols into the national-title match of 2010, as part of his 217-104 overall record.
That record included the 3-21 SEC mark of the last two seasons, after which Tennessee fired him, on May 4. It’s rough out there. The world can help.