Sunday, August 2, 2015

CITI OPEN: A COLLEGE EDUCATION...FOR TENNIS PLAYERS?

A funny thing happened to me watching the last match on the Stadium Court at the Citi Open Qualifying yesterday, something that was at once surprising and eminently pleasing.  I pulled up a chair in the press box for the encounter between Alejandro Gonzalez, the 116th ranked Columbian, and a player I’d never heard of before, Ryan Shane.  A recent graduate of the University of Virginia, he was granted a wild card this year as the NCAA champion, a perk afforded the best collegiate player in the country both here in DC, as will be the case for him at the US Open in Flushing Meadows.  

The player in the near court had an accurate, but altogether less than impressive serve, his forehand was contrived and hitchy, and the backhand was a double-fisted offering that was flat and penetrating, but indistinct from the majority of backhands I’ll see this week.  He looked edgy and uncertain of himself, not particularly comfortable, but he seemed to be holding his own.  Dressed in a drab grey, an almost olive shirt, and black shorts, the blue topped shoes belied what was clearly an ensemble hobbled together at the last minute.  All the earmarks of an American collegian who’s probably just happy to be part of the show, and playing on the stadium court no less.

On the other side of the net was a player wearing perfectly coordinated neon yellow short, olive green shorts with neon yellow and teal trim, which flowed nicely into the teal laces of his olive green shoes – the soles of his shoes were also teal.  His forehand flowed more freely, and was far more penetrating than his opponents, his serve, flat and deceptively fast from the languid delivery, dove-tailed technically right into a marvelously fluid, deep penetrating, heavy spinning one handed backhand.  He didn't so much as shuffle from one side of the court to the other, as bounce, as though on springs, and the ease with which he positioned himself allowed him to control the center of the court repeatedly off of both wings.  I know  Latin flair when I see it, and his backhand and heavy forehand, which he hit as often from the ad as the deuce court, told me that this was obviously the Columbian.

But I got it all wrong.

It turns out that the expertly concocted (but concocted nonetheless) game was Gonzalez's (the Columbian), where the spectators were as likely to see a fist pump as they were a backhand winner up the line.  The one making the match worth watching, probing and pressing with every shot, consistently placing the ball in the right half of no man’s land, running around the backhand with aplomb and going inside in just often enough to make his inside out delivery all the more effective, was Ryan Shane, the American.

The emergence of a number of quality American players who’ve come through the ranks of collegiate tennis is nostalgic for many, harkening back to the days when the US Open champion was as likely to be a former NCAA champion as a former boys champion.  But as more money poured into the game, as a result of the exploits of the the Arthur Ashe (UCLA 1965), Jimmy Connors (UCLA 1971) and John McEnroe’s (Standford, 1978) of the world, the likelihood of a successful player on the ATP tour having played NCAA tennis diminished precipitously.  But the modern game, heavy as it is on players having their greatest success just before and just after they turn 30, stretches the horizon on the back end of one’s career, but more importantly, possibly on the front end as well. 

This means the prospect of losing out on the money available to young players who turn professional is the same as the prospect of coming into the professional game too early and burning out.   This might encourage players to seek a collegiate career, and as such, improve the quality of tennis played at that level.  And since players will be developing their games for longer before turning professional, and can have some measure of financial security (from a college education) without rushing into the pro's, we may even see players develop technical capacities that are lacking more and more in professional tennis at an alarming rate, such as serve and volley, one handed backhands, and touch and feel.  John Isner (University of Georgia), Steve Johnson (USC), Rajeev Ram (University of Illinois), are all players who made their name as top collegiate competitors.  Isner is a top 20 player, a persistent Davis Cupper and dark horse in any draw he enters, and Ram recently won the title Newport, his second professional title (not ironically coming at the same tournament where he won his first in 2009).  Their emergence suggests that the path of least resistance into the world of professional tennis (from the juniors), may not always be the most effective.

It turns out that Shane is a bit of an college tennis blue-blood, from a family that includes his older brother Justin, and younger brother Zachary, as well as fellow UVA alums who will also figure in the draw, Somdev Devaarman (a two-time champion in 2007 and 2008, who lost to Darium King in the first round of qualifying) and Treat Huey, an outstanding doubles specialist.  Unlike Devaarman, who was born and raised in India, and is only a tangential local, by virtue of his alma mater, Shane is almost as local as it gets.  He was born and raised in Fairfax Virginia, went to Jeb Stuart High school, and in all likelihood was a ball-boy here at the Citi Open for some of the players he would have faced this week.  The history of professional players who made their way to high achievement on the ATP is a long one, and while the best of the best still go straight from the juniors, Shane's unique technical symmetry, his comfort with and mastery of the subtleties of movement about the court, and that marvelous one-handed backhand he flings hither and fro like a frisbee, are a welcome development and gives hope to those of us who want to see more complete players come to the tour and play tennis a way more befitting the the awe and anticipation of tennis fans around the world. 

The breadth and depth of his game, and the force of his 6’4” frame bodes well for his future, as the professional game becomes as much a contest of athletic prowess as technical.  But he’s no slouch in the technical area either.  American coaches are encouraging young American players to hit with more and more spin off both wings, they typically have the innate advantage of having played ball throwing sports (which would give them a leg up in the muscle memory for the serve), and movement that would have been facilitated by an almost certain history of playing youth tennis on har-tru.  In 2009, Devon Britton wound up playing none other then Roger Federer in the first round, as the NCAA champion wild card recipient, so Shane's additional wild card here will do him great good.


I learned my lesson today – taking nothing for granted, and don’t assume anything about anyone you meet on the tennis court.  Professional players beware:  if you expect the guy across the net to be more nervous and less technical than you just because he played college tennis...he could just be expecting the exact same of you because you didn't.

ADDENDUM:

With egg on my face, I must admit that I neglected to include in the line up of NCAA champions at the Citi Open one Blaz Rola of Ohio State, who won the men's singles title in 2013 over Jarmere Jenkins of the University of Virginia.
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