College tennis in the US is one of the most thrilling tennis settings in the world. I played at UCLA for 4 years and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I could have asked for. College tennis is the hidden gem of the tennis world, so I wrote this article in an attempt to shed some light on what it is all about. This article mostly speaks to the rules and formatting of Division 1 tennis because that is what I played, but Division 2 and Division 3 are also fantastic options for many players.
Every successful college tennis team has one thing in common: great recruits. The process is tedious and complicated for coaches because there are so many rules in play, but the best coaches have mastered the art of recruiting.
What makes a good recruit:
There are many requirements a recruit must fulfill to make them to compete. The two biggest components to being eligible recruits are having adequate grades to get into school (with help from the athletic department), and having preserved their amateur status. There are a lot of small rules to look out for, but those are the basic ones that can make or break a student athlete’s opportunity to compete in college.
Finding good recruits for a team is extremely competitive. Missing out on a highly sought out recruit not only hurts you because they don’t compete for you but also because you must now compete against them as they play for a different school.
Another thing that coaches look for in recruiting is personality. If the number one player in the country would cause issues amongst the team, more often than not a coach will pass that player up. Team chemistry for a college team is crucial for success, and it only takes one rotten personality to ruin the entire team’s comradery.
How the ideal recruiting process works:
Each recruit’s experience through recruiting is different, but the ideal recruiting process is as follows:
- The recruit contacts coaches at schools of interest, typically by email and phone call. There are specific rules as to what age a recruit must be to talk to coaches, and when coaches are allowed to contact the recruit.
- The recruit asks questions to decide if the school might be a good fit.
- The recruit takes “unofficial visits” to schools he or she is interested in. This includes meeting with the coach in person on campus, meeting the team, potentially watching a football game in person, etc. Unofficial visits must be paid for by the recruit, not on the school’s dime.
- The recruit narrows their choices to 5 schools or less.
- Once the recruit and the coach have a mutual interest and talks become more serious, they may offer an “official visit,” in which the school is allowed to pay for the trip. This is typically an overnight visit where the recruit is able to experience a couple of days in the life at that school. Recruits can take up to 5 official visits at 5 different schools before they make up their mind.
- The recruit “verbally commits.” This is not a commitment that means much besides letting other coaches know that they are no longer available. This unofficially takes a recruit off the market.
- In November of the recruit’s senior year in high school, they can sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) to play for the school they commit to. This is basically a contract verifying the scholarship (if any) they are promised.
There are many opportunities for recruits to earn scholarships through their tennis abilities. Due to Title IX, women’s college teams have 8 scholarships available to give for their team while men’s teams have 4.5. This makes the scholarship aspect of coaching a girls’ team fairly straightforward, while the men’s coaches have to be a bit more strategic.
Because a general team roster consists of 9-15 players, the breakdown of scholarship when recruiting can make a difference in the team’s success. If a coach wants to give 4 full scholarships and one-half scholarship, he has the right to do so. However, coaches typically opt for a different strategy. Most coaches tend to break the scholarships up so that a majority of the team receives some help financially. The amount of scholarship awarded does not always depend on the recruit’s level. For example, a coach may offer more scholarship to a foreigner because it is more expensive for foreigners to attend public universities.
Coaches are also able to offer scholarships as 4-year plans. This means that a coach can promise X% of scholarship for year 1, X% of scholarship for year 2, etc. Once a recruit signs their national letter of intent (NLI), or scholarship contract, the amount of money promised cannot be taken away for lack of performance.
What a scholarship includes:
- Room and board
- School materials such as books
Format of Matches
Okay, enough business. Let’s get into the fun stuff. In division one college tennis, the format is simply 3 doubles matches followed by 6 singles matches. The team that is able to win 2 out of the 3 doubles matches earns 1 team point. Each of the 6 singles matches earns a point to the team total as well. Therefore, between singles and doubles, there are a possible 7 points to be awarded. The team to reach 4 points wins the dual match.
One of the best parts of college tennis is that the “weaker” players on the team matter just as much. Whether you’re at the top of the lineup or the bottom of the lineup, your singles match will count as 1 point. In addition, college tennis gives players with more doubles specialized skills the chance to play and make a difference in the match. The 6 players competing in doubles can be the same or different as the singles players depending on what the coach decides.
In doubles, the scoring format is a single set, no ad. This makes for a quick doubles point that can turn to either team’s favor within just minutes. Some say it goes too fast, but personally I like it because it makes the match more interesting and fan-friendly. In singles, each line plays 2 out of 3 full sets. Like the doubles, singles are played with the no-ad format as well.
You are probably wondering, “What happens if a team reaches 4 team points, but there are still matches unfinished?” For the doubles point, once a team gets to two sets won, the remaining match is abandoned. Each conference has its own rules on this for singles, but generally, it falls to the discretion of the coaches before the match starts.
There are pros and cons to both “clinching” matches and finishing them out. Finishing all of the matches out is good practice for the players participating. However, it can also make the matches longer, risk unnecessary injury, and cause an individual result that would not have otherwise happened.
Speaking from experience, it is unmotivating to play in a match when your team has already won or lost the dual. The team aspect of college is what makes it so fun to play, so the interest level drops once the team result is decided.
Most of the time if the coaches anticipate that the match is going to be close, they decide beforehand that they will stop the match once it is clinched, leaving the remaining matches unfinished.
Rules that Differ from Pro Matches
College tennis and pro tennis rules differ in some spots. Most of the rules that have been amended in college tennis throughout the years are to make the sport more fan-friendly. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) is the body responsible for coming up with ways to make matches more engaging.
Speeding Up Matches
One way that the ITA has made matches more enjoyable for fans is making matches faster and shorter. The sport becomes boring for a non-tennis fan when the matches take too long. A few examples of rules that speed the matches up are no lets, playing no-ad rather than regular scoring, and no warm-up.
In pro tennis, when a serve hits the tape of the net and falls into the box, a let is played. In college, the returner must play that serve as good. Not only does this make the match a bit faster, but more entertaining at times as well. It is fun to see if the players are able to change direction fast enough to return a ball that clips the net tape.
In addition to that, singles and doubles are both played with no-ad scoring. Long deuce games can be long, tedious, and quite frankly boring. Sudden death points keep the match engaging, as every point matters just a bit more.
Finally, college tennis players do not warm up with their opponents prior to matches. In professional tennis, opponents warm up with each other for 5 minutes following the coin toss. In college tennis, players warm up with their respective teams before the match time, then go right to the court to compete. This rule was put into place because the warm-up creates a bit of a lull between the pre-match team huddles and the first point. Because the ITA has created rules to speed up the game, it has become more attractive for fans, especially college students that are unfamiliar with tennis.
Cheering at college matches is part of what makes college tennis so exciting. Whether it be fans or teammates, the yells and screams of encouragement from the stands make college tennis more fun to attend. Sure, the biggest matches in the professional world (center court of the grand slams) have diehard fans cheering their favorite players on. However, it is unbelievable to feel that energy while watching or playing in an amateur tennis setting.
Tennis is known as a “gentlemen’s sport,” but college tennis makes it more entertaining. Teammates and fans are allowed to cheer as loudly as they please in between points. Technically they are not able to direct their words at the opponents, but experienced fans get creative and it adds another element to the matches.
Another rule that improves the college tennis scene is on-court coaching. Each team is allowed 3 coaches to be on staff; a head coach, an assistant coach, and a volunteer assistant coach.
During the matches, their duties are equal. They are all allowed to coach players whenever they choose, whether it be on changeovers or in between points, as long as they are not slowing the pace of play.
This is a great way to improve our game because the athletes are young, so it helps to promote growth and improvement over a player’s college years. Because there is an immense amount of pressure during dual matches, on-court coaching can help to keep the athletes level-headed throughout. This is one rule that just about everyone that is involved with college tennis can get behind as it helps the game so much.
College Coaching Staff
Being a college coach for a good program is a high profile job in the tennis world. It is an extremely demanding position because it has to do with much more than coaching the game of tennis. In addition to improving their players, the coach is in charge of recruiting, scheduling the team’s days, making sure each athlete is on top of school, fundraising, scheduling matches, and so much more.
To help with all of these responsibilities, the head coach is able to hire an assistant coach and a volunteer assistant coach. The NCAA allows only 2 staffed coaches to be paid, but a third unpaid coach is allowed. Most of the top programs in the country find a volunteer assistant coach pretty easily, but not every team has 3 coaches.
College Coach Salary
The pay for the head coach and assistant coach comes from the school’s athletic department. As tennis is not a revenue-generating sport, the pay is not nearly as high as what the football or basketball coaches get paid. However, college coaches can make a good living.
Just like other college sports, the amount a coach gets paid is based on the prestige of the program, a coach’s resume, and how many years of experience they have. Most of the coaches in power 5 conference schools make well over 6 figures per year, including bonuses based on performance. In addition, many run junior tennis camps throughout the summer as supplementary income. Obviously head tennis coaches aren’t paid like Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban, but they generally earn enough to live comfortably.
The salaries of assistant coaches vary more depending on the profile of the school. Some are able to make 6 figures themselves, while many assistant coaches for the mid-major programs make far less than $50,000 per year
Just like any other college sport, the rankings in college tennis are important. They prove to be a great benchmark for measuring a team’s success through a season. Additionally, they make the difference in team seeding for the NCAA tournament at the end of the year. One ranking spot can decide whether or not a team qualifies, so it is important that the NCAA makes them as accurate as possible.
Up until a few weeks into the season, the college rankings are based on a committee’s decision. Members of an NCAA committee vote on who should be ranked where, 1-25, based on current results and how they predict the season will play out. As the season moves along, an algorithm creates the rankings from 1 to 75. This algorithm is based on a team’s win and loss of strength. For the formula broken down in detail, see collegetennisranks.com. This write up gives a clear and concise explanation of the college rankings.
Just like other college sports, conference play in tennis is a large part of each team’s schedule. A team plays every other team in their conference one time during the conference season. As these teams become familiar with each other over the years, conferences create intense rivalries that keep college tennis competitive and pride-filled.
Though teams within the same conference may play multiple times per year, only one of those matches counts towards the official conference record. The results in the conference season decide the seeding for the conference tournament. So, at the end of each season, there is a regular-season conference champion and a conference tournament champion. They can be the same team, but that only happens if the #1 seed in the tournament wins.
Why do conferences matter?
Conferences are important because they maintain long-standing rivalries, but also because the winner of each conference tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This does not matter as much for the “power five” conferences (PAC12, SEC, ACC, BIG12, and BIG10). However, for lower-tier conferences, this rule provides an opportunity for a lower-ranked team to be matched up against a powerhouse.
For power five conferences, because the winner of the conference tournament almost never needs the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as they qualify on ranking, the conference tournament is meaningful for a team’s pride. But for teams in low tier conferences, winning the conference tournament means extending their season.
The life of any student-athlete is demanding both physically and mentally. Days are usually jam-packed with practice, fitness, class, and studying. Due to the fact that NCAA athletes have such busy lives, the NCAA has rules in place to make sure that they are not overworked by coaches.
NCAA Scheduling Rules
- Teams are capped at 20 hours per week of involuntary sports activity. This includes practice, fitness, and team meetings.
- Coaches must give one full day off per week. This means they cannot be required to do anything related to the team on that designated day, including travel.
- Coaches may not require more than 4 hours of team activities per day.
Each coach has a different schedule that they believe is best for their team. For reference, my typical day at UCLA went as follows:
- 8:00-9:00 — Strength and conditioning
- 9:30-2:00 — Class, depending on the day.
- 2:30-5:00 — Practice
- 5:00-6:00 — Treatment (optional)
Why College Tennis is Worth Getting Involved In
Now that you know what college tennis is all about, I wanted to conclude with a bit of my opinion. I have played 4 years of college tennis and almost 2 years of professional tennis. I can safely say that pro tennis does not compare to the experience that I had in college. Playing matches for a team is a privilege that most tennis players in the world never get to experience, so if given the chance to play in college, most juniors should take that opportunity.
Playing the futures tour, I have seen countless young players make the decision to go pro without even considering playing college tennis in the U.S. That decision is entirely up to the player and I respect that, but I feel that the reason many times is a lack of knowledge for how much college tennis can provide.
What College Tennis Can Provide:
- Admission to school potentially paid for. There are a lot of great schools out there that provide admission at a lower standard for athletes than normal students. It makes a lot of sense to take advantage of that.
- Free treatment for injury. This includes care for something as small as a treatment for the common cold or a stiff back, to something as big as surgery for a torn ACL.
- Free coaching and strength training. College coaching staffs overalls are very experienced and knowledgeable.
- Free gear. College programs will provide their players with everything they need to compete. This includes rackets, string, shoes, grips, bags, etc.
- Free traveling to competition. Coaches now are even providing travel to professional events during the fall and spring seasons, so players don’t even need to miss out on that experience.
- Time to develop. Players arrive at college as kids, but come out of it stronger physically and mentally.
College coaches are eager to recruit the best players that they can find, American or foreign. There is not a lack of opportunity for these foreign players to come and play in college, so I recommend foreign players do their research on college tennis before ruling it out completely.
Finally, I have seen that players who come out of college tennis tend to do better on the pro tour because it takes the pressure off their shoulders. Having a college degree in your back pocket gives players the opportunity to play professional tennis with fewer worries.
In addition, players who have experienced the pressure of playing for a team find it easier to play for themselves on tour. There are many professional players within the top 100, 250, 500, etc. that played multiple years of college tennis. Click here to see that list, as you may be surprised to see how many college players have gone on to be successful after school.
College tennis is such an exciting setting. The comradery, competition, and passion make for one heck of a ride. If you are a junior looking for the next step in your tennis career, consider playing for a college team. If you are a fan of the game, go check out your local college’s men’s and women’s tennis schedule. It’s a lot of fun and you won’t regret it!
Want to learn more? Drop a comment below and we will be happy to answer any questions you may have!