March 2017 -- For most people who grew up playing tennis, it seemed there were only two paths to take: (1) Work your tail off in the hopes of getting a college scholarship to a university, large or small, or whoever would take you, or (2) Play as much as you could through high school and then hang up the racquet for a future of recreational tennis to concentrate on studying for your future career in the main stream work force.
Those two scenarios are still alive and well, but there is another very viable option – playing a club sport called Tennis on Campus (TOC) at the university of your choice. The USTA came up with this program in 2000. Tennis on Campus also uses the World TeamTennis format. A typical match consists of five no-ad sets and includes men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and one set of mixed doubles. Teams add up the cumulative number of games won to determine a winner. There is also an opportunity for the trailing team to come back in the mixed doubles and get into overtime. College-aged players love the drama where every game counts.
Under the watchful eye of Glenn Arrington, the program has continued to flourish. While not as rigorous as varsity tennis, it is often nearly as competitive. Now a prospective student has the option to concentrate on their future career and maybe even go to that large university they wanted and play competitive tennis on a club team using those finely tuned skills honed in USTA junior competition. However, TOC doesn’t require all the travel, time away from school and long practices. It is co-ed, too, and students love to have fun with a meal or two together, lots of laughter, and a whole lot less stress.
Oftentimes you see teams who just played against each other in very aggressive matches, eating together after their competition. What varsity teams do that? There is so much excitement and energy at their matches and tournaments. Many of the players could play for very solid university varsity programs, but they choose to keep their competition when and where they want it. As a matter of fact, recently two Tennis on Campus female players on the University of Georgia Club Team were recruited to play on the varsity women’s team. That shows you the level of play these players have accomplished.
What does all of this mean for tennis professionals and directors in our industry? We all have a responsibility to train those who will take our place and keep the industry solid and growing. Where are these professionals coming from? The large majority of current tennis professionals are aging up and there is not the large influx of professionals and coaches that there used to be. Often varsity tennis players aren’t ready to stop playing right after college and have not had the training time to jump into a tennis teaching or tennis professional position. Because they have spent so much time on their own game and playing skills, they have not learned how to do what we do as tennis professionals. If they keep playing for a while, they don’t always come back to the game as the stress on the tour and challenger/lower pro levels is very high, and they might want to do something else.
What can we do to help? By creating Tennis on Campus, the USTA has taken the first step in an effort to retain junior tennis players by providing an outlet such as club tennis in college. This might be a very good answer to the problem of keeping more high school players in the game. Tennis on Campus players have not had that stress that varsity players have juggling schoolwork, homework, practices, road trips, strange travel hours and worrying about keeping your scholarship with new players coming in each year. These TOC players have spent lots of time gaining experience in organization, planning, fundraising, people skills, networking, managing travel and developing relationships. The very skills we would like our future tennis professionals to have might have already been taught or learned by these outgoing students through this valuable USTA tennis program. In addition, if the TOC player has spent any time as a captain, co-captain or any part of helping organize the club team, they have developed these skills and have a head start in the areas we need them to have. I have heard from many of those who have hired a former TOC player for their tennis staff who said, “I look to see if they have played TOC on their resume first, and if they do, they go to the top or at least make the short list. There is less they have to be trained to do and can jump right into job-ready positions. They also have great attitudes and love to come to work every day and are hungry to be a part of tennis.” It appears that the service aspect of our industry that is so important is already embodied within them from the start. Helping each other and those around them is part of their personality and passion.
However, don’t forget the other important side of TOC that we all need to be a part of. We should direct those we teach and coach who may not be able to make university varsity teams to consider TOC. This will keep tennis as a big part of their lives in college. We can encourage them to play for an established club team or start a team on their future college campus. Many schools have as many as 80-100 players on their club teams. They often help support varsity teams and organize grassroots programs for kids on their campuses and even host high school teams to play in fun events with them. Everything they do helps keep or introduce players to this game we all love.
Other areas that some rec departments and clubs have taken advantage of makes use of open court time for these players. This team effort is a win-win for all as they can fill empty courts and provide some financial benefits, not to mention that it shows the tennis facility has more activity during those slow times. They say, “activity breeds more activity.” Sometimes those facilities even benefit from seeing how the TOC players manage their teams, react to regular players at the facility, interact and can easily see them working there in the future in kind of an exploratory way. In addition, many facilities need extra support staff for their own events and when schedules permit, the TOC players are usually ready to step up and help.
There are quite a few new under-30 tennis programs that have started from this same group of TOC players after they graduate. Some of these include one that started in Atlanta called Sets in the City and has since spread all over the country. Others include Casual Sets, Fireball, Sip and Serve, as well as many others. You may have heard about the missing link in tennis between high school and 40+ year old players. These TOC players give high school players a chance to stay in our game longer and hopefully never take a break from the game or leave altogether. This could have a far-reaching effect and fill our young adult leagues across the country. Who knows, they may come up with a format many never thought of. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that they help fuel the next tennis boom in the U.S. and maybe the world.
Dave Neuhart is the Director of Tennis at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga. He is also the North America East Regional Manager for Peter Burwash International. He is President of USTA GA, Chairman of USTA Southern Collegiate Tennis Committee, serves on USTA National High School Committee and recently Tennis on Campus Committee. Neuhart has coached high school and collegiate teams and visiting tour-level professionals. He is an industry speaker, USRSA Master Racquet Technician and tester, and recipient of USTA Facility of the Year and Professional of the Year awards.