Founded in 1910, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is the governing body that organises, regulates and represents student-athletes from universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada. It is one of the most competitive and well-run sporting organisations in the world and regularly acts as a stepping stone for student-athletes to transition into professional sports.
In 1973, the NCAA inaugurated their current 3 tier league system, with division 1 teams offering the most attractive scholarships, receiving the most lucrative sponsorship deals and enticing the best student talent.
When it comes to tennis, U.S. colleges have a long and rich history that actually predates the NCAA itself. The first intercollegiate tennis tournament was held in 1883, featuring a singles and doubles competition. So, it is clear that college tennis has a long-standing reputation for producing high-level tennis players, but it is becoming a more and more popular route into the professional ranks.
Traditionally, professional tennis players would have gone to a high-level tennis academy funded by their national governing body, at the expense of a university or college education in order to make it on the professional tennis circuit. However, with so much exposure, funding, and high-level playing experience on offer in U.S. colleges, this no longer has to be the case. The NCAA has become the perfect stepping stone on to the ATP tour, with players such as Kevin Anderson, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, John Isner, Mackenzie McDonald and Tennys Sandgren transitioning to the top of the men’s game.
So, there is a clear route to the professional game through college tennis, but why exactly is the NCAA a perfect stepping stone to the ATP Tour?
As the NCAA as a whole has become more popular, this has brought media attention to the athletes and teams that compete in it. College football and basketball players have the opportunity to be recruited by major professional teams in the NFL and NBA through a college draft system, which is now televised and gives unmatched exposure to college athletes.
However, as tennis is an individual sport and players can only earn money through winning matches and endorsement deals, life can be a bit more difficult after college. It is very much a situation of sink or swim on the ATP tour.
While college tennis does not receive the same level of exposure as football, baseball or basketball, the ATP has championed college tennis and shed some light on just how beneficial it is to a player’s development. This puts the spotlight on the NCAA and brings promising players into the public eye. A good example of this is British tennis player Paul Jubb, who won the 2019 singles NCAA title and went on to compete in the 2019 Wimbledon main draw at just 20 years old. He received a wildcard into the tournament, but this may not have been possible had he not competed at and been so successful in NCAA competition.
The level of competition in NCAA tennis leagues is very high. Division 1 players will regularly transition on to the ATP Challenger Tour following their time at university or college, so they can get a feel for the life of a professional tennis player.
One of the main reasons NCAA players are so experienced and compete to such a high level is the sheer volume of competitive matches they play. Each fixture comprises 9 matches, where 6 players will be selected to play 3 doubles and 6 singles bouts against a rival institution.
If you consider that players are always fighting for their place in the team, have to play multiple matches across a tie and will be competing across a whole season of college tennis and then likely playing ITF and futures events in their spare time, it is no surprise that college tennis players are more than comfortable with competing on the main professional stages.
So, not only is it the level of competition that NCAA players must play to, but the high number of matches help them become comfortable playing under pressure and with crowds watching. This creates the perfect breeding ground for professional tennis players that will be competing for prize money, ranking points and sponsorship deals on the ATP Tour.
Most division 1 NCAA colleges will offer attractive scholarships to tennis players who are academically strong and they assess to be strong prospects for their tennis teams. Most prospective college tennis players will send in a video of their strokes and match play to give the athletic recruiters an idea of their playing level, which can help them secure their place.
Although a scholarship will often fully or at least partially cover the cost of an athlete’s tuition and tennis training, once the player graduates there is often little or no financial support to aid the transition into the professional game. This can leave players struggling as their only real source of income is prize money from winning matches, which can be few and far between on the highly competitive futures and challenger tours.
However, in 2017 Oracle launched the ‘Oracle US Tennis Awards’, helping to support college players with this transition. Each year, Oracle will pick a male and female winner of the award, who receives $100,000 towards furthering their career in professional tennis. This is a massive boost to a player’s chances of success on the ATP or WTA tour, as Mackenzie McDonald received the award in 2017 and was ranked inside the world’s top 80 a year later.
So, the NCAA is a perfect stepping stone on to the ATP Tour as it provides young players with unmatched playing experience, training facilities, media exposure, and now great funding opportunities. Going through the college tennis system has become the most realistic and viable route for many budding professional tennis players to make it on the ATP world tour.