Climate Control

By Eric Chima

As a tennis player growing up in Houston, Texas, Sasha Kharkevitch enjoyed all the benefits of a temperate climate. He practiced year-round on the outdoor courts and attended private tennis camps, sculpting a powerful game and a muscular body. He finished high school ranked No. 2 in the tennis-rich state and was recruited by traditional warm-weather powers such as Duke, Texas, and Texas A&M.;

And yet he chose the blustery, cold Midwest, and in so doing became another prized recruit playing tennis for the University of Illinois.

“Once I came out here, everything just clicked,” Kharkevitch said. “I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Not long ago, a highly touted Texan would never have considered leaving the southern half of the country to play college tennis. But in recent years Illinois’ success has drawn recruits out of the talent-rich warm-weather states and into the Midwest – enriching not just the Illini, but the entire region.

The success of Midwestern schools, though, has been a long time coming. In the first 53 years that the NCAA crowned a team tennis champion, from 1946 to 1999, only three teams from north of Virginia brought home the title. In that span, just three NCAA singles championships and one doubles championship went to students from northern schools.

The reason, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said, is simple: the players weren’t there.

“(Southern and coastal schools) were winning because that’s where the tennis players came from,” Dancer said. “That’s still the case today. You’ve got California, Texas and Florida, which dominate talent development. The Midwest section is typically one of the middle or lower sections in terms of the talent they’re churning out.”

Tennis is more weather-dependent than many other sports. Rain makes the game unplayable outdoors, and indoor courts, while no longer rare, can be expensive to use. As a result, young players in the Midwest just don’t have the opportunities that warm-weather players do, Ohio State coach Ty Tucker said.

“You have to spend more money to be good if you’re growing up in a cold-weather climate,” Tucker said. “Maybe you only get a chance to practice an hour a day for five to six months out of the year. How can you compete with someone who has courts open year-round?”

Even when promising juniors emerge from other regions, they often relocate to Texas or Florida to find more challenging competition. Illinois junior Ryan Rowe grew up in Iowa but moved to Florida with his uncle when he was 12 to train year-round. He blossomed into a promising junior with a wicked left-handed serve, and began to see why warm-weather schools had been so successful.

“It’s not hard to recruit when everybody’s right around you,” Rowe said. “The climate and everything being warmer, there are a lot more high-level tennis players in Florida. I grew up playing in Iowa, and I wanted to give myself the opportunity to play with higher-level tennis players. Iowa just wasn’t able to provide that.”

Now, though, players such as Rowe and Kharkevitch are starting to come to the Midwest. In the seven years since the start of the 2000 season, when Illinois claimed its first NCAA doubles championship, the team has garnered a total of five NCAA titles – three in doubles, one in singles, and one team title. The five titles were two fewer than the Midwest had won in over half a century.

Other Midwest schools are starting to catch up as well. Last year was the best overall season in recent memory for the region, with five teams ranked in the top 38 nationally and three in the top 17, including Ohio State at No. 5. The University of Minnesota ranked in the top 10 in 2004, and both Dancer and Tucker said the Michigan Wolverines could be the next to rise.

The beginning of the region’s turnaround, both coaches agree, was Craig Tiley. When he took over as the permanent head coach at Illinois in 1993, the team was recovering from a disastrous 4-23 season. They improved to 13-15 the next year and haven’t had a losing season since. When Tiley’s own recruits began to make their way through the Illinois system, the program took off, culminating in an undefeated season and NCAA team championship in 2003.

Tiley had a knack for doing what no other Midwest coach had been able to do: convince 17-year-olds in Florida or Texas that Illinois was the best place to develop. Once a few recruits came, their results drew many more. In his 12 years of coaching, 11 different players earned All-American honors.

“He was the best recruiter ever to come through college tennis,” Dancer said. “That defines Craig Tiley.”

As the Big Ten and national championships began to accumulate, and as more of Tiley’s graduates showed up on the professional tour, players from far-flung locales saw that their talent could flourish in the cold. And even if they did not come to Illinois, they often signed with other Midwest schools. Big Ten teams now have six players from Florida, four players from Texas and one from California, to go along with players from 20 foreign countries.

“More schools are definitely putting their fingers out across the country, trying to draw players in from everywhere,” Dancer said. “It’s made recruiting a lot more interesting.”

Tucker credits Tiley for making players take another look at Big Ten schools – a case of one school lifting the entire conference.

“Coach Tiley did an amazing job,” Tucker said. “Because he was able to attract kids from Florida and California, it made kids look at the rest of the Big Ten. Then, once we got a few players, we were able to develop the talent and move up the rankings ourselves.”

As the graduates of Tiley’s program spread out, the Illini’s success built upon itself. Kharkevitch came to the school, in part, because the coach that trained him was one of Tiley’s pupils. But Tiley left Illinois after the 2004-05 season, and his recruits will be out of the system soon. It’s up to coaches such as Dancer and Tucker to make sure the Midwest does not fall back into tennis obscurity. To do that, they will have to keep selling their schools to high school students who may have never owned a winter jacket.

But Midwest schools do have advantages. With modern facilities, they can offer plenty of experience playing indoors or on clay, which could prove useful to a player hoping to turn pro.

“A lot of (the recruits) really need some indoor time, so that’s definitely one of the things we sell,” Dancer said. “I think we sell ourselves as coaches. We think that we do a great job with player development, and our track record shows that.”

And of course, any college decision involves academics. Many Big Ten schools have strong business schools, a popular course of study among tennis players.

“The Big Ten has strong academics, and the kids want to be challenged in the classrooms as well,” Tucker said. “Most of the tennis players, their parents all went to college. It’s the right mix here.”

In addition to Michigan, who is on the rise under one of Tiley’s former assistants, Bruce Berque, the coaches named Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern as emerging Big Ten programs.

Last year the Buckeyes won the Big Ten championship, ending a streak of nine straight Illini titles.

And with the conference improving, other schools could be a threat this year.

“To me it looks like Michigan and Wisconsin are poised to make a move into the top 20, but they’re all getting better,” Tucker said. “Everybody’s good. Everybody’s dangerous.”