College tennis is one of the most exciting forms of tennis competition in the world. Aside from Davis Cup, there is no better place to witness the excitement of team camaraderie in tennis.
Coupled with the extremely high level of play and school pride that’s involved, personally I find few events throughout the world as exciting as a college tennis match. Having been involved in college tennis as a player and a coach, I think it is one of the best forms of tennis competition. It is as exciting as tennis can get.
However, there’s a problem in college tennis. “I think we have a great product, but we need to get it out there,” current Florida State head men’s tennis coach Dwayne Hultquist said. “We have to get it on TV.”
The NCAA tennis finals used to be played on ESPN, but they haven’t been shown since 2008. Dual matches can last upwards of five hours in length, making them very unfriendly for media and television networks to cover.
Without TV exposure, college tennis is losing interest. Less and less tennis fans are watching college tennis and realizing it’s excitement. As fan support drops, the top juniors in the world lose interest in attending universities and using college tennis to develop their game for the pros. Without the best players, we’ll lose great coaches who desire to work with the world’s best.
The NCAA has proposed, among other changes to the NCAA Championship format, to shorten the length of doubles matches from 8-game pro-sets to a standard 6-game set, and singles matches from a full 2 out of 3 sets to a super-tiebreak to 10 points in replace of a deciding third set. These changes to the format of dual matches will shorten their length to under three hours, supposedly making it more appealing to media as well as fans.
According to the official report from the NCAA meeting on the matter, the proposed changes by the NCAA are designed to “[bring] greater excitement to the dual match‚ [which] will attract fan support and attention to tennis.” The NCAA goes on to say, “The format is a compromise to the current format and it keeps the integrity of the game in place. It does not lessen participation and preserves doubles play, which is a priority for student-athletes and coaches alike.”
As soon as the proposed changes were introduced, coaches as well as current and former players rose up almost instantly in protest. In a matter of a couple days, the “*OFFICIAL* Against the changes to NCAA tennis” group on Facebook (started by current players Evan King of Michigan and Johannes Robert Van Overbeek of Florida) has grown to over 3,600 members. A Twitter event has been called for noon EST on Saturday, August 18th in an attempt to get the topic “trending” and raise awareness of how unhappy these proposed changes are making people involved with college tennis.
In my opinion, the NCAA fails in both their attempt to bring greater excitement to the dual matches as well as protect the integrity of the sport. By shortening both the singles and doubles matches, there’s far more volatility, allowing for a lot more luck and eliminating the importance of the fitness level and physicality of the players. “You train hard to win deep in the third set,” an elite-level coach told me. With the new format, “you only have to try hard for one set.” Former Stanford standout and now touring pro Ryan Thacher shared his opinion via Facebook. “Third set tiebreakers are not a reliable way to determine the outcome of a match,” he said. “One of the beauties of tennis is that after the first set, everything resets. A player knows he/she must do it all over again in order to win the match. With the new rules, it takes one good set and some lucky shots to win a match. That is not, and never will be, tennis.”
In addition, these new rule changes don’t even GUARANTEE a TV contract. This is an attempt to make college tennis more appealing to television networks, but there’s no promise that it will lead to coverage. I think a contract needs to be in place with television networks first, and then make the changes accordingly if they suggest shortening the matches. If there’s no promise of television coverage, we could be making these undesirable changes for no reason.
This is a call for action to the NCAA. Listen to the players and the coaches who participate and provide you with the product that you’re trying to sell! Without the players and coaches you don’t have a desirable product. If you make the proposed changes, you arguably lose the integrity of the college game instead of maintaining it. You’re going to lose the interest of top juniors who want to go to college in order to develop their games for the pro tour after college. You’ll lose the best players and coaches, and then in turn your product suffers. Listen to the experts of the game. Listen to the outpouring of opposition from the people that you will directly affect. As ATP top 10 player and former University of Georgia standout John Isner said in a recent “tweet”, “I got where I am [because] of college tennis. The new proposed rule changes will b detrimental 2 player development.” Please NCAA, listen!
PS. Here’s an idea that I’ve heard bounced around that maintains the integrity of the game and shortens the format at the same time: Four singles matches and two doubles matches, two out of three sets, played at the same time. Not only does this not lessen participation, but it increases it by increasing the number of “starters” from 6 to 8. If the match is tied at 3-3, then each team gets to select one player to play a super-tiebreak (to 10) to decide the match. This format would be exciting, shorter, and very appealing to everyone involved.