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USTA 'Tennis on Campus' Filling NCAA Gap for Competitive, Social Players

March 9, 2012 07:52 AM
By Rick Vach, ustaflorida.com

Penn State University Club Tennis Team PhotoWith international tennis players comprising the majority of the rosters of the top Division I and II schools in increasing numbers, U.S. junior competitive players, and even former casual high school players, are turning to the new college tennis haven -- the USTA Tennis on Campus circuit of club events.

Any college or university can start a tennis "club" and participate in Tennis on Campus, which now boasts more than 30,0000 players at 500 colleges across the U.S.

Clubs practice together and travel to attend some of the handful of tournament events throughout the school year hosted on various participating campuses. At the end of the year, all participating schools are invited to the season-ending championships to determine which schools will represent their USTA section at the USTA National Campus Championships.

At the recent USTA Florida "Tennis on Campus" Championships in Altamonte Springs near Orlando, tennis mom JoAnne Robinson sat in the bleachers marveling at the sight of her daughter Nicole -- who burnt-out and gave up tennis at age 14 -- as a freshman playing doubles on a far court for the Florida State University club team.

"My daughter has been playing tennis her whole life, since she was 6 or 7, played in the USTA nationals, the whole thing, and then burn-out at a pretty young age from playing so much," Robinson said. "Her sister plays for the University of Missouri...but she's had a long life of tennis, and kind of burnt-out and completely lost interest."

TOC-1After half-heartedly playing high school tennis, Nicole declined to pursue NCAA varsity tennis, and her mother thought her involvement in the sport might be done. After enrolling at FSU, Robinson encouraged her daughter to look at club tennis, and much to her surprise, Nicole joined the team.

Tennis on Campus club teams are co-ed with an emphasis on sociability and a love for tennis -- campus club teams practice together, hold meetings, perform community service together and generally hang out like other college clubs.

"She's loved it -- the pressure is not like what it used to be, and she's loving it, loving it," Robinson said. "She's found her little niche in the tennis world, I knew it would come together some day. This is a perfect world here.

"It's much more competitive than I thought it would be," Robinson added while watching Nicole compete on the FSU "A" squad, one of multiple teams of multiple abilities FSU fielded for the year-end Florida Tennis on Campus Championships. "I thought it would be patty-cake tennis but it's very good tennis. It can be competitive but it's much more social. Just because you're not going to play on a Division I team, now you can still play tennis. She's got new friends and it's part of her social life. She can have a good time but not let it control her whole life like my other daughter on the Division I team -- it's her whole life. It's quite a commitment, but that's worked out well too -- they're different kids, and everyone needs to find where they fit in the world."

Teams can contain a minimum of two girls and two boys to play boys' and girls' singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, but some Florida tennis clubs contain more than 100 members. To demonstrate the depth of field and opportunity for play at the USTA Florida Tennis on Campus Championships, the University of Central Florida fielded five teams -- UCF "A" through "F" teams, in order of strongest to...perhaps having the most fun.

It is not uncommon to see some Florida Tennis on Campus players in day-glo afro wigs, costumes, socks pulled up to the knees, carrying wooden racquets or donning t-shirts with funny or ironic slogans. But watching two high-level "A" teams such as the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida square off makes it difficult to distinguish from a normal NCAA match. Teams nonetheless always seem to find ways to goof off or vent while taking a break from hitting the books or testing.

The 2012 Florida Tennis on Campus champion University of Central Florida squad
"I think it's a wonderful program," said University of South Florida Tennis Club President Mary Wynne. "It is a great stress reliever to get out with friends and hit tennis balls and meet new people."

Wynne learned about the USTA club tennis program from her former high school doubles partner, who went onto college a year ahead of her. Her former doubles partner then became the University of Miami club tennis president, and told Wynne to get involved in the tennis club at USF when she enrolled.

"She was insisting I join, and said, 'It's like a lot of fun and you get to meet a lot of people," Wynne said. "I met the majority of my friends freshman year because of tennis, and it's a really good experience. You get to travel with people every month and just have that team bonding type of friendship. There's not as much pressure, as you can be friends outside of tennis."

Tennis parent Ellen Runda says club tennis is perfect for her former junior-competitive-playing son Kevin, watching him from the sidelines compete for the University of Florida team for the third year.

"Intramurals wasn't quite competitive enough, and varsity is so hard to get on and so much of a time commitment, so club tennis is a great middle ground," Runda said. "It's really good competition, really fun, and a good team feeling, I really love it. He played junior tennis, so it keeps him playing really good competitive tennis.

"It keeps him feeling like he has a team to play with, a lot of camaraderie and he meets a lot of people, and it's nice that it's girls and guys. It's nice that it's not too intense -- the girls keep them a little lower key," she said, laughing.

Whereas many junior competitive tennis players weigh different scholarship offers coming out of high school, now some players are bypassing NCAA tennis and choosing schools based on the strength of their Tennis on Campus club programs, such as some of the University of Florida players. A runner-up at the USTA National Campus Championships in North Carolina last year, the UF club squad has reached the national semifinals or better over the last three years.

"It's definitely grown into an alternative to playing NCAA tennis, but it's accessible to experienced, intermediate and beginner players," says USTA Florida Team Tennis Coordinator Michelle Brown, the tournament director for the Florida Tennis on Campus Championships. "The size of the UCF, UF, Florida Gulf Coast University and FSU clubs are proof. The levels of the players from these clubs is huge. The best teams from these schools are easily 5.0 [USTA rated] players."

Samantha Seto, the event coordinator for the UCF Tennis Club, says she sees the USTA Tennis on Campus program continuing to grow and provide an alternative college tennis path for former junior players.

"Maybe now, if kids can't get on [collegiate] varsity teams, because I know they do a lot of heavy recruiting outside of the country and from different states, it's nice to come to a school where you know you can play on a team and you can win," Seto says of the UCF squad, which has reached the semifinals at the USTA National Campus Championships the last two years. "Because that's like the best feeling when you're on a winning team, and you're friends with everyone."

For more information on the Tennis on Campus program in Florida go to www.ustaflorida.com.






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