Is the US college system a good idea for potential tennis stars?

In the UK, and most other countries for that matter, after University the party must stop and it becomes time to find employment. You then hope to enjoy a successful career, venturing down a path that your studies have opened up for you. For a small number of people the road is a little different. Once the cap and gown have been worn and graduation is over, the career of a professional sports person beckons. Although due to the American draft system beginning a career in the NFL or NBA aged 21 or 22 is common, it is much more unusual in tennis, but it does happen.

The US college system places a huge amount of emphasis on sporting achievement, whether its Alabama for football or Duke for Basketball, there are future sports stars all across America currently studying at these institutions. Tennis is really quite different. By the time a person has graduated from college and began their tennis career, most of their new found rivals have been on the tour for maybe four years. The very best of those may even have won a Grand Slam title or a few million dollars in prize money. High profile sponsors may also be queueing at the door to have the latest young star endorse their product. So does the US college system really hold any great benefit to someone wanting to play tennis professionally? Why would a player choose to go to college rather than join the tour as early as possible?


These are tough questions that I have asked myself whilst writing this feature and for young American tennis players, there is a hard decision to be made. There are of course success stories, as the likes of John McEnroe and Lisa Raymond won the NCAA Tennis Championship in singles. They became household names in American tennis but came through the system many years ago and most sports, tennis included, have evolved considerably since then. For the purpose of this feature I wanted to look at players since the turn of the century to see if winning the NCAA Tennis Championship is guaranteed to lead to a successful career on the WTA or ATP tour.


The first thing I noticed was the huge disparity in success between the men and the women that win the college championship. The women's game is different to the men's in many ways but there was one statistic in particular that surprised me and is absolutely relevant to this debate. At the time of writing, there are 15 women ranked in the WTA top 100 that are aged 30 or above. That is fair enough, not a shocking statistic by any means, but let me add to that the following. At the time of writing, there are 40 men ranked in the ATP top 100 that are aged 30 or above. That is a huge difference and for me, it can in part, explain why the men that come through the US college system tend to have better careers than the women who follow the same path. Women tend to thrive in their younger years whilst the men tend to develop a little later.


Of those 15 women that I mentioned they include the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic. It is clear that in the women's game, if you want to be a top 100 player at the age of 30 then you need to have something really special. This statistic means that you have perhaps 12 or 13 years from joining the tour at 17 or 18 until you are likely to be on the serious decline. If you go through the US college system you can probably cut that down to just eight or nine years. To potentially have a shelf life of just eight years is really quite frightening, especially when you have to start at the bottom aged 21, fresh out of college and a complete newcomer to life on the tour.  

Perhaps though it is a wise choice to go to college and receive a high level education. After all, the duration of a tennis career at the top, particularly for the women, is not that long (unless you are Patty Schnyder). It is also impossible to predict the future, a career ending injury could be just around the corner and for many young players they probably don't have a plan B. In addition to all this, there is also the possibility that a person doesn't quite feel ready for the professional tour and all the stress that it can bring. Of course if you are as talented as Nicole Gibbs, who won the NCAA Tennis Championship in 2012 and again in 2013 then perhaps going to college is costing time, time that could be spent earning big money and enjoying a successful career.


A handy comparison could be made between Sloane Stephens and Nicole Gibbs who are both American, ranked in the WTA top 100 and both born in March 1993. They took very different routes into tennis, whereas Gibbs went for the college experience at Stanford (the same college as McEnroe), Stephens was a student at the Nick Saviano Tennis Academy and was home schooled. The performance of Stephens has been far superior to date having earned almost $4million in prize money, taking four WTA titles in the process. Gibbs is still searching for her first WTA title and has just surpassed $1million dollars in prize money, putting her an eye-watering $3million behind Stephens. This does beg the question, if Nicole Gibbs had had the same tennis education as Sloane Stephens and not gone to college, who would be ranked higher today? After all, Gibbs had to juggle honing her tennis skills with a college education during some key development years.


Some people are perhaps born with more talent and maybe Stephens was always destined to be the more successful player no matter what. I don't believe that and it makes me wonder if going to college actually stifled the development of Gibbs or did it actually make her the player she is today and help to improve her game? For every success story there are players who try to turn professional at 18 and just cannot hack life on tour. They do not have a well rounded game or the right mentality to climb the ranking ladder. Gibbs is a huge advocate of college tennis and although she didn't finish her degree, has made a highly successful jump to the professional tour. She is also armed with a formidable plan B of returning to Stanford to complete her degree should something terrible happen and that is something that many other players just do not have.

Nicole Gibbs should in all likelihood be applauded for keeping dedicated to her tennis when it would have been all too easy to just focus on her studies. Gibbs was playing against the best college players in the US and came out as the best, twice in a row. The leap of faith into the professional ranks was a brave one, especially being just a year from graduation. She has no doubt become someone for other college players to look up to and try to emulate. Danielle Collins and Jamie Loeb are the latest NCAA champions now embarking on a career on the WTA and ITF tours and Gibbs has proven recently that success is possible.

The men's side does have a few more success stories this century as Steve Johnson, Blaz Rola and Somdev Devvarman are all winners of the NCAA Tennis Championship in singles. Although enjoying varying success right now, all have been top 100 players at some point in their career with Johnson coming very close to the top 20 recently. Names such as Dom Inglot, John Isner and Kevin Anderson were all winners of the doubles title in college proving that for the men, the college route, although still not a guarantee, may not be such a bad idea.  

So with the chances of success, especially for the women, seemingly limited, what motivates someone to go to college when they could be earning thousands or even millions of dollars on tour? Perhaps it is the idea of receiving a top class education, it could be the comradery that can be experienced playing college sport or maybe these young hopefuls believe that they can emulate the likes of McEnroe and Raymond. Whatever the reason is, it seems perfectly clear that for a select few, you can have it all. Nicole Gibbs and Steve Johnson have lived the college life and are now living the tour life and earning big money. I doubt either player will feel they have missed out on anything and I bet neither of them would decline a college place if they could live it all again. Joining the tour at 21 or 22 years old rather than 17 or 18 probably means you are more mature, not only as a person, but as a player. For recent champions such as Loeb and Collins the hard work doesn't begin now, they have been working hard all their life but only now can they focus solely on tennis and that makes them very scary opponents.