Friday, June 1, 2012

NCAA Individual Recap; My Notes and Observations from 12 Days in Athens

My recap of the NCAA Division I men's and women's individual tournament is available today at the Tennis Recruiting Network, where you can also find my recap of the team tournament from last week. In addition to those recaps, I'm including some other thoughts on the 2012 tournament below.

So much happens during the 12 days of the NCAA Division I tournament it’s impossible to work it all into any daily update, and most of the notes and observations below wouldn’t fit properly into the match reports anyway. But before the college season ends, with next week’s final individual rankings and the announcement of the ITA Players of the Year, it’s a good time to address some of the highlights, and a few lowlights, of this year's tournament.

As he won one match after another, the question arose: is Steve Johnson the best college player ever? Like any Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate, there’s no right answer. The recency effect, which gives more weight to what we’ve just seen, has to be considered, but there’s no question that he’s in the conversation. I heard a few nominations for Mikael Pernfors, the two-time NCAA champion from Georgia who reached the final of the French Open in 1986, just one year removed from his second NCAA championship. Of course Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe had great college careers, but it’s important not to let professional success color the accomplishments while in college. None of the players mentioned above won four straight team titles or fashioned a 72-match winning streak, so Kentucky coach Dennis Emery, who has coached the Wildcats for 30 years, sidestepped the GOAT question and went on to give Johnson another title.

“I’m not so sure he’s the greatest college player of all time, but he’s almost for sure the most productive player in college tennis ever, when you look at the four team championships, the two singles championships,” Emery said. “The greatest, that’s kind of a gray area, but it’s going to be awfully hard to go against him being the most productive player of all time, and to me, that’s a much bigger accolade. It’s the biggest compliment you can give somebody is to talk about their character and their productivity.”

Just as last year at Stanford, there were problems reported from those who were watching the live video from home. Unlike last year, when the scoreboard was not functioning in the Stanford stadium, I did not have any difficulties keeping track of what was going on at the McWhorter courts, because the live scoring worked perfectly on my iPhone4S. I was even able to inform Stella Sampras Webster that Florida would be UCLA’s opponent in the final while monitoring my phone during the news conference, held in a building some distance away from the courts. My understanding is that the company supplying the collegiate live scoring system has an NCAA-granted monopoly (if I’m wrong, please correct me) so some improvements may need to be made on their end, but Georgia needs to consider new cameras on the main courts should they host again. As of now, the only future site known is for 2013, which will be at the University of Illinois.

The heat and humidity, which really didn’t ramp up until the end of the team tournament, wasn’t any surprise, and all credit to champions Steve Johnson and Nicole Gibbs, Californians who don’t train in anything like those kind of conditions, for surviving and thriving. The rain was, of course, more disruptive, and having four courts on site, just steps from the outdoor courts, proved to be a mixed blessing. Their proximity led to quick decisions to move indoors, when on several occasions, just waiting another half hour would have allowed outdoor tennis, which is what the NCAA championships are supposed to be. Where there are no convenient indoor courts, such as Texas A&M, necessity is the mother of alternate scheduling, but the committee seemed to value finishing the team event on time as more important than what was actually best for the sport. And, as long as I’m spending the University of Georgia’s money for new cameras, I’ll also spring for two more indoor courts that eliminate the awkward situation of the team semifinals and finals. A facility as excellent as the Dan Magill Tennis Complex shouldn’t be two courts shy of a match indoors.

Never underestimate the value of feeding the media, and well. I find it difficult to criticize anything about Georgia when they provide the press corps lunch and dinner, with variety and quality, every day. Would that every tournament I attend were half as generous.

The battle of the bands at the Sweet 16 has begun, with the University of Virginia picking up the gauntlet thrown down by the University of Southern California last year in Stanford by bringing their pep band to the finals days of the NCAA team tournament. It certainly added to the sense of excitement to have live music, even if the restrictions on when they could play made for a lot of downtime for the musicians.

It’s time for my annual bow to the tennis SIDs, the ones who are there at the beginning and stay until the end, answering one dumb question after another from those of us less familiar with their teams than they are. They do video interviews, write releases, keep score, update stats and somehow manage to stay cheerful and accommodating through it all, win or lose.

Speaking of stats, it’s been very discouraging how little is done in that area in college tennis. My knowledge of college tennis barely extends back seven years, and I would love to enhance it, but there is no repository or archive available for that. Part of the reason centers around the fact that the NCAA championships are not connected with the ITA, the governing body of college tennis, but it is still sad when there is nowhere to go to verify if Steve Johnson’s 72-match winning streak is a Division I college tennis record. That’s a significant record, not an on-base-percentage-against-lefthanded-relievers-at-night-on-the-road type of baseball statistic, and yet it’s not available. Not to toot my own horn, but the Ohio State doubles team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola’s Triple Crown may have gone unnoticed had I not been there to research and mention it. It would help immensely if the ITA had a job description that included compiling and updating important college records. Short of that, most of the records will be tracked on a school-by-school basis and will lack the big-picture view required.

It’s important to get ESPNU back into the mix, and I urge the NCAA to do whatever it takes to make that happen. The NCAA.com streaming was better than nothing, and really done in by the rain this year, but there is no reason that a major sport like tennis can’t find 10 hours of air time on a network dedicated to college sports. The NCAA should not allow ESPN and its affiliates to pick and choose what non-revenue sports it airs; if women’s softball is really so attractive to the network, the NCAA should use that leverage to provide exposure for every sport that is sponsored by at least 100 schools.

I’ve heard that format changes are being considered in order to make the sport more television-friendly. I love the current format, and I don’t want to see it changed, especially without any thought to what it might do to college tennis as a developing stage for professional tennis, but it does demonstrate how important many coaches feel national television exposure is to their programs.

Even with the rain and the heat and the indoor court situation, I love it when the NCAAs are at Georgia. The sense of history runs deep, the fans are passionate and numerous, and the sports information department is well-staffed, helpful and supremely organized. Emery called it the greatest amateur tennis site in the country, and while I would claim that Kalamazoo holds that distinction, even I can understand why Athens would be someone else's top choice.

It’s difficult to overstate how emotional players get when they’ve played their last college dual match. Tears were frequently shed—by coaches and players, men and women—when they were asked about their thoughts on their final match. Being part of a team is so rare in tennis, and the experiences shared so intense, that going back to individual tennis, or on to another unrelated career, is plainly accompanied by a sense of loss.


Austin said...

Is Steve Johnson the best college player ever? That is an absurd question for people to seriously be asking. He didn't even play #1 for his team until his junior year. I agree with Dennis Emery, he is one of, if not the, most productive players ever, but one of the best, come on. However, he had a terrific career, one for the history books, and is the most valuable USC player in history.

One thing about USC's run is that people may forget they weren't the best team in the regular season until this year. Their seeds these past four years were 8,5,2&1. Their players were tough as nails and rose to the occasion when the money was on the table, which is what a true champion does, however, this year was the only year where they dominated. Last year they were pretty darn good as well, only losing their opening two matches at Indoors, but UVA was the best team until the finals.

Yes, following on your phone was the easiest way to follow, trying to use the computer was incredibly frustrating. UGA has never had camera problems before at NCAA's, so I dont know why they were acting up this year, and really dont know why no one bothered to fix them over the course of two weeks!!!!!

Collette, even finding results from the Sweet Sixteen site from THREE YEARS AGO is impossible. A&M already got rid of the site from 2009, page no longer exists. UGA used to archive their sites, but they deleted them a couple years ago. Stanford's from 2010 exists, but you have to Google to get to it. When I try to look up old results I have to go to each schools website and look in their teams archives. It's pretty bad when the only bracket from 2009 that seems to exist is one that has not been filled out. Why results are not easy to find like all other sports I have no clue.

I thought NCAA.com did a much better job than ESPNU when they aired the womens team final, jumped from court to court better. Still got some facts wrong, but weren't as stiff as the ESPN people. Cant speak for mens finals other than doubles since they had to go inside, but I liked their coverage of that more as well. I think the problem is there just isnt ENOUGH coverage and obviously backup plans for multimedia are non-existent.

What do you mean format change? What is being discussed? I dont even understand what they would change, especially for a sport that is not on tv until the final day of the season.

I will say whatever we have now is better than what existed 10-15yrs ago when even trying to find it online to follow was impossible.

I would like to see a UCLA/USC dual host final site in the next couple years. Should throw them a bone once in awhile. I also think UVA could do a good job, but since they dont have 12 outdoor courts that wont happen.

Colette Lewis said...

Why would you call that question absurd? None of the coaches I asked responded as if it were. He won every match at No. 1 for two consecutive seasons. Do you have other nominees?
I am very fortunate to have access to a print media guide with all the draws from 1978 to the present, which is distributed in the press room.
Perhaps I should have a contest with that as a prize.

Austin said...

Talent level in college right now is low from a top end perspective, it does have good depth though. I personally do not see many potential Top 100 pros. Johnson had a great two years, but Farah played ahead of him for two seasons and he wasn't the best player in the country. How can we call someone the best ever if he wasn't even considered the best on his own team for half his career?

Somdev Devvarman was a better player. Jesse Levine dominated as a freshman, I think he only lost one match until NCAA's. We will never know what he would have done, but he dominated when he was there right from the start. Bobby Reynolds dominated as a junior at Vandy, much like Johnson, then turned pro so we didnt get to see him as a senior. Most players on that level turn pro early. Matias Boeker was also very accomplished for UGA, winning back to back singles titles and a team title to boot. He even won the coveted Triple Crown in 2001. The players above are only from the past 10-15yrs, I'm not old enough to accurately compare other players from earlier generations who we know were more talented.

I dont want me arguing my point to take anything away from what I think of Johnsons career, it was fantastic, and can carry his head high knowing no one can touch his accomplishments, but he is not the best player ever. If he was he would not have played behind a teammate, and properly so in my opinion, for half his career. I think it's more appropriate to call him the most accomplished player ever. I would rather have that title anyway. Four team titles and two individuals. He definitely had the best two years in a row of anyone individually.

Austin said...

Do you have the results of every court, even unifished matches, from every tournament? That's what Im talking about, dont really care about generic team scores. Those aren't as tough to find. I like looking at the matches, seeing how close they truly were and how individual players did in each match.

Colette Lewis said...

@austin No, just draws from the team events.

college fan said...

Devvarman reached 3 straight finals & played in the toughest era in recent years (2007). He beat two future top #30 pros twice each. He won both matches against Kevin Anderson including the semis of the NCAAs. I think people forget that Devvarman also beat Isner in Athens in front of a hostile crowd TWICE within a week at the NCAAs. He won in straight sets in the dual match (semis) prior to their epic final. It's not Johnson's fault, but his competition is not likely to reach the same heights. Nor did he have to play a pressure match(es) in Athens in a packed house against a top ranked home guy. Devvarman was just as dominant his senior year. He lost one match in the All-American Finals in the Tulsa wind. Devvarman also came back his senior year to try to win a team title. He beat everyone he faced in a dual match. He just needed more help from his team.

I definitely want to say that Johnson has been fantastic for college tennis and should be considered one of the best of all time. Devvarman should also be included in any GOAT list

Colette Lewis said...

@college fan
Great review of Devvarman's stellar college career. Just one minor correction. His loss at the All-American was in the semifinals, to Travis Helgeson of Georgia, who beat USC's Robert Farah in the final.

wotten wun said...

Once again, Colette, your thorough investigative and always fair-minded tennis reporting leaves me smiling---happy knowing there're still writers who do their homework no matter how grueling the subject, how extreme the weather nor enervating the time: thank you, dear lady, for being a grand representative of quality in a diminishing group of professional journalists.

Austin said...

I think Blaz Rola could be a dominant player these next couple years, he has had some great results his first two years.

Sisco Montana said...

I agree with Austin, the question is absurd. Steve Johnson isn't even close to the best player to have represented USC so he's hardly likely to be the best college player of all time. Denis Ralston won 2 NCAA singles titles while also winning a US Open and Wimbledon doubles title during his college career. Alex Olmedo won 2 NCAA singles titles for and probably would have won three in a row except USC was excluded one year.

Putting aside USC, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have more claim to the title than Johnson. Less productive over 4 years - of course they were but that's only because they stayed 1 year. Even as freshmen they were playing a top level pro game and were simply too good for the college game; something you definitely can't say about Johnson. On a lower plane but well above Johnson were Somdev Devvarman, Mikael Pernfors and Pancho Seguso.

Steve Johnson has been the best player in college tennis for the past two years. Nothing more, nothing less. That is a fantastic accomplishmnent and one we should let him enjoy without asking ridiculous questions that insult him or the much better players who've gone before him.

college fan said...

Here's my argument against the old guys. First, the majors were not professional events until the late 60s. Most all pro records are from the Open era, which started then. Back then, the NCAA tournament was flighted singles, 6 flights You just played people in your flight. The winner of the #1 flight was declared the champion. There were only a handful of strong teams. No Indoor event, so only warm weather teams had a chance to recruit. Plus, it was an American dominated event. College wasn't nearly as deep or international. Now, I can see giving McEnroe credit. It was surprising, even to his Coach, for a top 25 pro to come to college. He also played in the era of the team & individual events. Not sure, if people realize, but the singles final used to be best 3 out of 5.

I just think with modern progress and development of tennis and the college game, it's hard to compare this era of team duals and individual champions with the era before the late 1970s

agree with college fan said...

I think college fan makes some good points. Much like I think less than 10 percent of NCAA basketball players from the 50s and 60s could compete with today's athletes, I'm not so sure these all-time greats in tennis could either. I'd love to see some tape of guys back then in college. I think we may be underwhelmed when comparing them to the athleticism and power of the modern athlete. We as fans, myself included, can be guilty of singing the praises of some of these college guys from the pre-Open era because of their accomplishments, but it was a much, much smaller and different tennis world back then. US "Open" champion in 1962 does not translate the same as US Open champion today. I'm not saying a Steve Johnson is better than a Dennis Ralston, but I think it is to an extent apples and oranges. Due to technology, training and the evolution of the sport it's challenging (but not "absurd") to compare. By the way, Jimmy Connors played No. 2 and 3 on UCLA his only year of college tennis.

Mark Lewis said...

Steve Johnson isn't the best college player of all time but he is the best college player of all time who wasn't good enough to go pro.

ken said...

Connors played #3 at UCLA in the 1970-71 season. Jeff Borowiak was #1 and Haroon Rahim was #2.

photos? said...

Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog
loading? I'm trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it's the blog.
Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Colette Lewis said...

Some of the very old photos may not load because they were posted on Flickr, which changed their url format. But most of the photos from past 8 years should load, as they are all in the Google environment. If others are having problems, I would like to hear about it.