Juniors take the plunge to play professionally

By Amber Greviskes

Illinois freshman Monte Tucker grew up playing tennis against Scoville Jenkins. But it is unlikely the two will compete against each other regularly in the near future.

Jenkins, 18, decided to forgo college tennis to play professionally.

He is not alone. Jenkins is just one in a group of young American tennis players exchanging their college eligibility for dreams of professional glory.

The choice, said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley, is often made with too much short-sightedness and not enough foresight.

“There are some players where there is some value (in turning pro immediately),” Tiley said. “On the other hand there are some players where a transition year or two – or three or four – would be extremely beneficial to their lives.”

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    Tiley said the increase in American juniors, who are on the verge of beginning their college careers, but instead opt to turn pro has come quickly.

    Three or four years ago, few juniors – except the very best – considered turning pro immediately. Now it has become the norm.

    “What is new is that the very best are doing it for sure – it doesn’t even seem to be an issue that that is what their plan is,” said Michigan head coach Bruce Berque. “And it seems like a lot of guys beyond the very best are starting to have that thought in their mind.”

    The change has come as Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri have sky-rocketed through the rankings. Roddick is No. 2 in the world. The others finished in the top 40 in 2003. None went to college – and many up-and-coming juniors quickly determine that college might not be the best option, Berque said. What those juniors do not realize is there were other athletes who turned pro without going to college that still struggling to succeed at lower levels of the tour. The fear, some said, is that these players will get frustrated and abandon tennis completely.

    “They have no reason to know who those guys are,” Berque said.

    For some young athletes, though, there is the pressure to turn pro early. They fear they might not make it. Tennis is demanding and careers can be short. Top singles players are typically younger and have more powerful, aggressive games; doubles players tend to have longer careers because the game requires more specific skill, which takes time to develop. Few athletes start out dreaming of doubles glory. However, the number of phenoms like Roddick who can quickly ascend to the top of the world rankings without going to college is limited, Tiley said.

    “In tennis there has been a general attitude that if you don’t turn pro early then you’re not going to make it, but so few people make it anyway,” Tiley said. “You have a better chance of winning the lottery as far as being at that (highest) level.”

    But the list of young Americans turning pro instead of going to college is growing.

    Brendan Evans, who won the doubles title at the U.S. Open juniors tournament, was 15 when he signed a five-year $1.25 million deal with Nike. Fifteen-year-old Donald Young has jumped to the professional ranks too. He was the youngest player to win the boys’ 18-and-under title at the Easter Bowl this year. Alex Kuznetsov, 17, swept the singles and doubles titles at the USTA Super National Spring Championships and Easter Bowl in 2003 before turning pro. Brian Baker, who won the doubles title at this year’s Wright Financial Group/Northwestern Mutual USTA Challenger, skipped college too.

    American juniors, however, are not alone in their decision to turn pro at young ages. Dean Goldfine, one of the USTA High Performance Coaches, said the “rest of the world has forced our hand.”

    In the past, when Americans dominated professional tennis, nearly everyone went to college. If athletes won the NCAA title, they turned pro. Otherwise they stayed in college for four years. Now, Goldfine said, many tennis players worldwide are competing in professional events at age 15 or 16. By the time they hit their late teens, they are full-time pros.

    Rafael Nadal, 18, defeated Roddick to help Spain win the Davis Cup title 3-2 over the United States, in Seville, Spain in December. Nadal turned pro in 2001. France’s Gael Monfils, No. 1 in the International Tennis Federation junior rankings, turned pro this year. He is 18. Canadian Frank Dancevic began his pro career in his late teens.

    “For our guys to keep up with (international athletes), they feel like they’ve got to do the same thing,” Goldfine said. “And unfortunately, that jeopardizes their development.”

    But for the athletes whose careers – and lives – will be changed forever by their decision, there is no cookie-cutter answer to determine when they should start their professional careers, said former Georgia All-American Travis Parrott, who won the NCAA doubles title in 2001.

    “If you’re ready, and it’s something that you want to do, then go for it,” Parrott said. “The belief has to come before the results. You have to believe that you are good enough to be out there with the top guys in the world before you can start beating them.”

    Making the Choice

    Brian Baker’s biggest choice of his tennis career was not if to turn pro, but when.

    He had weighed the options. If he had gone to college, he said, it would have been for a year or two – no more. But, the 6-foot-3, Nashville, Tenn., native turned down SEC powerhouses Vanderbilt and Florida – his top two choices – and jumped to the pro tour.

    He has not been disappointed with his results.

    Baker, who is 19 but carries himself like a much older individual, made his choice to get a head-start on the competition. The soft-spoken athlete is rarely flustered or discouraged. And, he felt he was mature enough to handle the demands of traveling, training and competition.

    Baker’s goal for the year was to make it into the top 200 of the world – a feat he accomplished this summer.

    But he knows he has a lot of improvement ahead of him, and the road to the top will not be easy. As a junior he was No. 2 in the world. But only twice this year has he made it through a tournament without a loss. However, he said he knew the transition to the pro circuit would be filled with losses.

    “You’re going to be losing more than you ever have once you turn pro, because the competition is so great,” Baker said. “I’m not supposed to be winning many matches.”

    Leaving college early

    Amer Delic, Rajeev Ram and Bobby Reynolds each spent time in college, but failed to get their degrees, leaving early to capitalize on their success at the professional level.

    The trio headed to the pro circuit after the 2002-03 season. Former Illini Delic became the NCAA singles champion, and his teammate Ram won the doubles title. Vanderbilt’s Reynolds finished at the top of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) rankings. Delic and Reynolds were juniors – one year shy of a degree. Ram, a freshman, was only one semester into his collegiate career.

    The men, who were once pitted against each other as rivals in the finals of the 2003 NCAA team championships, reached their decisions to attend college and – ultimately – to leave early, separately. But, they said, it is a choice they would make again.

    Reynolds decision to go to Vanderbilt was simple. He had never thought about playing tennis professionally. When head coach Ken Flach offered him a scholarship, he left Acworth, Ga., and became a Commodore. Ram was the nation’s top recruit – like Delic. He chose Illinois, planning to use college as a springboard for his professional career.

    But the men’s time in college, though fleeting, was crucial to their professional careers.

    It was in college, Reynolds said, that he learned the self-discipline necessary to be successful. Juggling practice, classes, homework and other obligations made it easier to conform to the lifestyle demanded by the tour. Learning how to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds has helped him when traveling too.

    “If you don’t interact with people well, a year seems a lot longer than it should be,” Reynolds said.

    Ram needed time in college to develop physically and mature. He, like Reynolds, said he learned responsibility and was able to figure out what style of game he needed to become a dominant, aggressive pro. He also used the time to gain self-confidence, which, he said, is necessary on the tour.

    “With as much as you lose out here, if your confidence is shaky, it’s not going to work,” Ram said.

    Delic also benefited from his time in college, Illinois head coach Craig Tiley said. The former Illinois All-American gained emotional maturity and is now better prepared for the tour. Had Delic turned pro any earlier, Tiley said, he would have been discouraged because he would have lost a lot of matches.

    “But he came to college and he won a lot of matches, and he believed that he could be good,” Tiley said. “And now he can be good – he can be great.”

    When it came time to make the decision of whether to return to college, the men chose the grueling tour schedule, traveling up to 40 weeks per year. Instead of waking up and going to classes, they spend their time on the courts.

    Tennis is no longer a game, but a full-time job.

    The men said they talked to their parents and coaches – but the final decision was theirs. Reynolds said he did not want to spend the rest of his career wondering, ‘What if?’ and reasoned that he only has a year of college to finish after his tennis career ends. Ram vowed to return to college – probably at Illinois – if he did not succeed professionally.

    Knowing they would have a USTA training group to work with helped the men make their decision too. USTA High Performance Coaches Ricardo Acuna and Dean Goldfine – who work with Baker, Delic, Ram and Reynolds – help them make their tournament schedules, organize practices and travel with the men. The USTA also helps the men financially and awards some athletes wildcards into tournaments, allowing them a chance to compete in the main draw of events instead of having to play through qualifying rounds.

    Having other athletes to train with has helped the men – who are used to a team atmosphere – adjust to the lonely, competitive pro tour.

    “You’re competing against each other because of rankings, but nobody wants to fall behind,” Reynolds said. “Just to know that they’re cheering for you, it makes you not want to lose even more.”

    The men help each other stay motivated when they are not playing as well as they would like. Flach, the Vanderbilt head coach, and Tiley have also remained in contact with their prot‚g‚s, providing counsel.

    “Being on the road, if you start losing, it can start snowballing,” Reynolds said. “When you’re losing, you think you can’t hit the ball on the court and you have to regroup.”

    But the young Americans contending on the tour know the demands are harsh. And the responsibility for their success lies solely on their shoulders.

    “When you do something well, you get all the credit,” Ram said. “When things don’t go well or you don’t do the things that you’re supposed to, you’re the one who gets all the blame.”

    Goldfine said he has seen the group improve, although with the demands of the pro circuit, it is hard to make dramatic adjustments to the players’ games.

    “When you come out and play pro tennis it’s easy to fine-tune things,” Goldfine said. “But to really make major adjustments when you are trying to play and make it your career – that is difficult to do.”

    The Graduates

    In the world of professional tennis Brian Vahaly is unique.

    He was the only American man in the top 100 with a college degree in 2003. He is an advocate for education, earning a dual major in business management and finance from Virginia while becoming an All-American and a strong supporter of college tennis.

    He said he probably could have turned pro prior to his senior year but did not want to miss out on his college experience.

    “I loved everything about college,” Vahaly said. “I never wanted to miss out on it.”

    When Vahaly joined the pro circuit in 2001, he realized his success would show younger athletes the importance of going to college – it was in college, Vahaly said, that he grew as a person and a tennis player, easing his transition to the professional level. He believes tennis is a “thinking-man’s game” and would like to see more top athletes go to college.

    “I just wanted to show people that you could still be a successful player and graduate from college,” Vahaly said “You weren’t making a career choice at 18 when you signed with a school.”

    At least one youngster in Alabama, Vahaly’s home state, heeded his advice.

    Monte Tucker, a freshman on the Illinois men’s tennis team, decided to attend college, even after watching many athletes his age sign contracts. Early on he decided that Vahaly had the best of both worlds – a degree and an opportunity to play professional tennis.

    “It’s a gamble, and you never know when the day comes that you’ll never be able to play again,” Tucker said.

    Illinois’ 2000 doubles champion Graydon Oliver said he would not have considered playing professional tennis if he had not attended a college with a developmental program. When Oliver went to college, nearly everyone else did too. He considers the rush to turn pro a fad and knows that the success of athletes who have gone to college, like Vahaly, will alter younger athletes’ plans.

    “It’s cyclical as you watch the top American guys,” Oliver said. “In the next couple of years, you’ll see more guys going to school – college is a window of opportunity.”

    It’s an opportunity young athletes get only once. But at Illinois, the possibilities head coach Craig Tiley and associate head coach Brad Dancer sell to athletes choosing a school are seemingly limitless.

    Tiley is one of the best coaches in college tennis today. Dancer is a former college head coach and coach of the professional World Team Tennis’ Delaware Smash.

    There are strength coaches and academic coaches. Trainers attend every practice and competition. All of the athletes’ expenses are covered. The Atkins Tennis Center, where the team practices and competes, was voted the ‘Most Outstanding Facility in the U.S.’ in 1992 by the USTA and is set for expansion. The coaches encourage athletes to compete in futures and challenger events as amateurs. Dancer estimated the entire Illinois package was worth over $100,000 per year.

    One athlete who Tiley said could have turned pro after his junior career but came to college is sophomore GD Jones. Jones came from Auckland, New Zealand to compete for the Illini. When he returns to New Zealand, Jones said, many of his friends who turned pro ask him what collegiate tennis is like. After all, many have stopped looking at college tennis as a viable option, Jones said.

    But Jones said he feels fortunate to compete for the team that last season won the ITA National Indoors Team Championships.

    “The awareness of the benefits of college tennis are not high,” Jones said. “I think a lot of people rush into their pro careers when they probably shouldn’t.”

    The athletes who begin their pro careers prematurely are not only hurting themselves, but also hurting college tennis, Michigan head coach Bruce Berque said.

    “It definitely waters down the field of American talent,” Berque said. “It causes some of the coaches to look overseas or makes the game a little weaker.”

    Berque, a former Illinois associate head coach, said he does not expect the Illinois program to be affected – it has built a reputation for developing American athletes. Stanford should not be affected either, because of its storied past that includes winning 13 NCAA team titles since 1980.

    As more and more top juniors turn pro, the profiles of the athletes Tiley recruits will change. Instead of getting top-tier American players, Tiley must try to build his tennis dynasty with second and third-tier American players.

    He will not, he said, recruit mostly international students like other coaches have.

    When he came to Illinois he swore to develop American talent and that dedication has been unwavering. He has had less than a handful of international athletes compete for him during his 12-year tenure at Illinois, despite the influx of international athletes throughout collegiate tennis. More than 60 international athletes were in the top 100 of the June 4 ITA singles rankings.

    Some say it will be harder for Tiley’s teams to remain competitive against their internationally dominated rivals, but Tiley is not afraid of the challenge.

    “To stay competitive with the Baylor (team) that has an entire German team that are 23 year olds and playing club tennis, to compete against those guys is very difficult,” Tiley said. “We’re going to have to bring in a bunch of pros like they do, and we’re not prepared to do that.”

    Instead, Tiley looks at this year’s freshman class as a great example of athletes willing to push each other and develop into great players. When speaking of their potential, he refers to the freshman class that started in the fall of 2000 and won the triple crown of college tennis – the NCAA team, singles and doubles titles – their junior year.

    “It’s great for tennis if you get an American player like Andy Roddick is as good as he is – and the attitude that he has is great,” Tiley said. “It’s not good for college tennis because everyone sees they can do that.”