College graduates unique, rare at pro level

By Amber Greviskes

Editor’s note: This is the final piece of a three-part series discussing the pattern of younger athletes choosing a professional career over college.

In the world of professional tennis, Brian Vahaly is one of a kind.

In 2003, he was the only male American singles player in the top 100 with a college degree. Vahaly 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 earlier, but he did not want to miss out on his college experience.

“I loved everything about college,” Vahaly said.

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 tennis player and as a person, 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 from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Southern Section, which Vahaly grew up playing in, heeded his advice.

Monte Tucker, a freshman on the Illinois men’s tennis team and a native of Birmingham, Ala., decided early on that Vahaly had the best of both worlds – a degree and an opportunity to play professional tennis. Even after watching several of his former rivals turn pro instead of going to college, Tucker chose to play tennis for the Illini.

“(Turning pro) is a gamble, and you never know when the day comes that you’ll never be able to play again,” Tucker said.

Illinois 2000 NCAA doubles champion Graydon Oliver said he would not have played professional tennis if he did not attend a college with a developmental program. Now he is one of Illinois’ most successful alumni on the pro tour.

When Oliver enrolled in college, nearly everyone else did too. He considers the rush to turn pro a fad and knows the success college graduates have will affect 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 is 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 to attend college are seemingly limitless.

Tiley is one of the best coaches in college tennis today. Dancer is a former college head coach and the coach of the Delaware Smash, a World Team Tennis team, featuring four-time NCAA champion Paul Goldstein.

There are also strength and academic coaches. Trainers attend every practice and competition. All of the athlete’s training and travel expenses relating to competitions are paid for. 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 also encourage athletes to compete in professional futures and challenger events as amateurs. Dancer estimated the entire Illinois package is worth more than $100,000 per year.

One athlete who Tiley said could have turned pro after his junior career but went to college instead is sophomore GD Jones. Jones arrived 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 Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Indoor 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 top athletes. Stanford should also not be affected because of its storied past that includes winning 13 NCAA team titles since 1980.

However, 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 developing 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. Instead he will focus on helping the men he coaches develop into athletes who will make an impact on the professional circuit when they decide to turn pro, much like he has in the past.

“It’s great for tennis if you get an American player like Andy Roddick who 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.”