By Rick Vach, USTA Florida
Luis Duco (right) jumps for joy during a big point at the Tennis on Campus Nationals
It’s not that University of Central Florida Tennis Club President Luis Duco didn’t like what he saw in his third year playing on the squad this past spring -- he just wanted to keep it on the down-low.
"I never wanted to say it out loud, but I knew the team we had and the quality. You begin to get a feel for the group, and that the group is strong enough and you can bring it and go to nationals and go far into it," said Duco, who relentlessly promoted the Tennis on Campus program at UCF this past year. "I'd been to nationals several times and I'm one of the few people on our team who has been."
Duco and the UCF Tennis Club saw a dream realized this spring when they posted the school's best-ever effort at the USTA National Campus Championship, advancing to the semifinals before falling to Wisconsin. The Golden Knights were an underdog story after losing to the University of Florida in the state final, but still receiving a bid to nationals along with UF, the University of South Florida and the University of Miami on the strength of the Florida programs.
But it was UCF that made the farthest push at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in Surprise, Ariz., outdistancing even their rivals the Gators.
"UF are definitely our biggest rivals because their club program has been around as long as we have," Duco says. "They have the level of players and the resources to travel, so it seemed it was always us meeting them in the finals."
It was in tournament finals throughout the 2008-09 year, and seeing his team raise trophies throughout the early season, that Duco realized his squad could do some damage at nationals. The UCF Tennis Club began the season with a win at the Florida State University Doubles Tournament, won the Gator Bowl in Gainesville, then the Nitro Cup at UCF. Duco saw something special in his team's chemistry that other teams didn't have.
"The way we liked each other, the way we hung out a lot, I knew we had the opportunity to get to nationals," Duco said.
Socialization is a large part of Tennis on Campus, fueled by the World TeamTennis-type co-ed format of men’s and women’s singles matches, men’s and women’s doubles, and a mixed doubles match. Tennis on Campus is keeping the fun of competitive tennis alive for the approximately 320,000 high school players each year who don't go on to receive scholarships to play college tennis. According to statistics, college and university club tennis is at an all-time high in popularity, with more than 30,000 participants across 500 participating schools.
"The Tennis on Campus program is continually growing in Florida," USTA Florida Team Tennis Coordinator Michelle Willis says. "We have several smaller colleges wanting to join in this year. It is such a great outlet for our USTA Florida Jr. Team Tennis players to progress to once they go to college."
The Tennis on Campus program is also rapidly filling in for college tennis programs that are being cut from school sports rosters as colleges and universities tighten their budgets. According to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, 12 college tennis programs have been dropped since the beginning of 2008, with more of the chopping block. Recent cuts in the last couple months have included the University of Tennessee-Martin (men), Indiana State University (men and women), Southeastern Louisiana (men), and Southern University (men).
The no-cut philosophy means everyone gets to play in the Tennis on Campus program, no matter what their ability, but some large programs maintain a traveling team of top players. Duco says the UCF program frequently took 20-30 players to meets against other Florida colleges and universities.
"In 2008 we began hosting practices [at UCF] and we were really amazed at the amount of kids we got on the courts right away," Duco says. "We really pushed on doing a lot of advertising, and we went to local high schools and talked to the coaches. We passed out flyers, and we had freshman orientation that we hit up strong."
The UCF team displayed their depth and resilience at nationals when, after being edged by the tightest of margins by Wisconsin in the semifinals, they came back to defeat four-time consecutive Tennis on Campus National Champion Texas A&M (2004-2007) in the 3rd/4th place playoff. Representing their school at nationals was not taken lightly by the UCF squad. They received the Sportsmanship Award in Arizona, voted on by the other competing schools.
"That was the other thing I was emphasizing when we went to tournaments," Duco said. "I told players 'I don't care if you get a bad call, I don't care if you think people are cheating, you're not representing yourself on the court, you're representing UCF.' I'd rather UCF be known as a quality and well-mannered school with good sportsmanship."
UCF will also be known as a team to watch to make a repeat trip to nationals next year, returning essentially the same team from their 2008-09 3rd place run. Either way, UCF's club president Duco says he looks forward to the team camaraderie, continued social networking opportunities, and of course the competition during his final year of Tennis on Campus as a senior. He knows the rigors of high-level tennis as a former ranked junior player, suffering a major elbow injury during his senior year of high school that essentially ending his varsity college tennis prospects. Then after 1-1/2 years of rehab he discovered Tennis on Campus and a second chance.
"It's laid back, but it's competition at the same time," Duco says. "We have some ex-varsity players on the team or who just practice with us, and they say they love it because at the varsity level it’s constant competition, and sometimes you can't really enjoy tennis. Here you get the competition, and at the same time you have a lot of fun."
For more information on the Tennis on Campus program visit tennisoncampus.com. For info on Tennis on Campus in Florida, contact Michelle Willis at (386) 671-8937 or firstname.lastname@example.org.