If my knowledge about coaching college tennis were judged on what two topics I was most often asked to speak on, it would be (1) How to get on a college team and (2) Doubles.
The United States Tennis Association produces a document for prospective student atheletes. I’d like to emphasize a few points:
1) If you really want to play, go where you can play.
2) Its been said that many athletes gravitate to one level beyond their ability. There’s never been a “happy substitute.”
3) In college tennis if you don’t get to play your first year, you probably won’t get to play. This is not always true but do you want to gamble?
4) When tryouts were allowed, I’d have my #4 player play a set with the prospect. If the prospect played closely with #4, he had a chance at our school. It was amazing to me how many times a prospect, having just lost 6-1, would tell a parent, “I’m better than that guy.”
5) Transferring, if you make a mistake, is not always easy to do.
6) The single most important issue in college tennis is the international issue.
I would like to state firmly that I believe tennis players who want to play college tennis should play high school tennis. Many talented players (and their parents) think this is a waste of time. I disagree. “Prima Donnas” sometimes haven’t learned the team concept, and don’t function well in college tennis. College tennis requires personal sacrifice. You can learn a lot about that on even a limited high school team. Plus you are playing for your school.
Having coached fifty plus international tennis players, I have this strong comparison to make with American junior tennis: the American player can fire the American teaching pro! If the pro makes the player work too hard the junior will tell the parent, “I don’t like him/her.” New Pro! Internationals beat these kids like a “borrowed mule.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in junior girls. The pro hits easy balls left to right and collects the check from a happy client. That girl, confronted with an awkward mis-hit or a good drop shot has no clue. Most act if some tennis etiquette has been broached. The girl’s national 14’s was held in neighboring Greensboro, NC for several years. I can tell you that the winner almost always: (1) had the best drop shot and (2) had done a lot of work defending against the drop shot.
A strong piece of advice I have for freshmen, once they have selected a school, is to be match ready on day one of September. Many players take the summer after graduation off, having fought the junior tennis and high school wars for years. They assume they’ll go to college, get in shape again, and work their way in the lineup. Wrong.
College tennis today is essentially year round — it often features individual tournaments in the fall, team matches in the spring, and personal competition in the summer. Some schools play in tournaments as early as the second week of September. Very often challenge matches for positions on the team happen almost immediately upon arrival.
Challenge matches are perhaps the most important college matches you will play. Early fall and cold February matches can determine your college career. Challenge match policies are also extremely important. My essential guidelines were:
1) Challenge matches earn you a spot in the lineup, match play preserves the spot. These are perhaps the most grim matches in college tennis.
2) The two most important challenge matches were between: #6 and #7, as this determines if a player starts; and #8 and #9, as this determines if a player travels with the team. The coach should always witness these matches.
I always felt eight players was the ideal number for a team. This does vary. Two seasons in my 35 year career, I played the same lineup every match with no subs on the team. One of these years we were undefeated — pure luck. Girls teams need more players. But too many gets “testy.” I never cut any team I had until NCAA rules on squad size and gender equality forced me too. Many kids will come out just to hit with a good player. Those kids don’t get much help with a win-oriented coach who’s working with the top kids. Regardless, many subs go on to teach tennis. They love the game. I tried to keep them around, for the games sake.