Break point in college tennis
College tennis is more competitive than ever but increasingly threatened too
Four Division I college tennis programs have been cut since April
This story appears in the June 1, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.
In the folksy reaches of Terre Haute -- where Larry Bird became a star and the Coca-Cola bottle was designed -- understanding the native tongues of Indiana State's top tennis players this year all but required those clunky headphones mothballed in a United Nations closet.
A Swede, a Serb and a South African wore the Sycamores' royal blue, a reflection of the global reach of collegiate tennis. Of the top 25 men's and 25 women's players in Division I, as ranked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), more than half were born outside the U.S. That's led to more than a few jingoistic remarks from the moms and dads of American tennis hopefuls who have watched precious scholarships go to foreigners, many of whom enter college in their 20s. "If parents invest $50,000 a year into their child's tennis career, some feel they're owed," says David Benjamin, executive director of the ITA. "But it's not in the Constitution that if you spend a certain amount, you'll get a scholarship to the school of your choice. Intellectually, a family understands this, but emotionally it's difficult to accept. That's where you get the anger."
It's the land of opportunity -- why wouldn't there be an open casting call?
Chris Finney, for one, didn't have to go all Patriot Act. Rather than feel squeezed out, Finney, a freshman from Scranton, Pa., nudged his way into the Benetton ad, determined to play among the best in the world. The top player at Wallenpaupack Area High and a district doubles champion, he walked on to an Indiana State team that improved as the season progressed. College is where the Bryan brothers got on the fast track to doubles fame. Where James Blake developed a swashbuckling forehand straight out of a Johnny Depp scene. Where the landscape is more competitive than ever, but increasingly threatened too.
Around 7 p.m. on May 14, Finney, having just finished his semester, was dining out with his family when he picked up a call from his coach, Malik Tabet. The signal was clear; the words were a jolt: The men's and women's tennis programs had been the first casualties of budget cuts in what athletic director Ron Prettyman called a "difficult" but "necessary" decision. "Everyone was left high and dry," says Finney. "What am I going to do now? That's the question we have. I don't know if I want to go back to Indiana State. I don't know what I'd do without tennis. It's been my life."
Tennis career crises are an NCAA epidemic. The international stars are handy when schools need to fill the trophy cases, but they make teams vulnerable when money gets tight; boosters aren't likely to phone in protests from Barcelona. Since April, the men's programs have been slashed at Southeastern Louisiana (nine of 10 players were foreign-born), Tennessee-Martin (four of seven) and Southern (five of five) on top of a half-dozen Division I programs cut in 2008. "What is happening now," says Benjamin, "is like going from a normal flu season to a pandemic."
AD's don't merely shutter tennis programs because of Title IX (the old excuse) or foreign players (the new excuse). They do it to preach the gospel of revenue-producing sports without disclosing the secret -- that few of them turn a profit -- to football-obsessed boosters. "We've got kids who are completely disgusted," says Tabet, who was born in France and played at NAIA Mobile (Ala.). He was the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 2008 after the Indiana State women's team, composed entirely of foreign players, went undefeated in conference and won the title. This year he coached the men, too. While they struggled to rebuild, they have been dominant in the past, winning 60 straight conference matches from 1999 through 2004 with largely international talent.
"We were getting closer as the year went on," Finney says of his teammates. "I'd made plans to share an apartment with [Serbian] Milos Pavlovic next year." Isn't this what the modern college experience is all about? Networking in a global marketplace?
There is a paradox to the purging: Tennis is in a recession-era revival. In March The Wall Street Journal ran a story -- is tennis hip again? -- that was almost as stunning as the numbers to back it up. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association rated tennis as the fastest-growing sport in the country, with participation jumping 9.6% in 2008 while golf, baseball and football lost bodies. The sport is cathartic to play ("People in these hard times have found hitting a ball therapeutic," says Benjamin) and cheap to start (Wilson's Roger Federer signature beginner's racket retails for $19.99 at Target).
Even on the college level tennis is a bargain. Average operational cost (equipment, travel, insurance, etc.) of a men's or women's team: $15,000 a year. Cost of competing in a football arms race (air travel, spa tubs, flat screens, etc.): endless.
These days in Terre Haute, there is talk of upgrading the locker room for the Sycamores' football team, which has gone 1-44 since 2005. So here's a question, in plain English: Which sport was ripe for the ax?