The rumor surfaced days before the final at the ITA Women’s Team Indoor Championships last week: North Carolina would join Stanford and Florida in declining to participate in the 2014 event, scheduled to be hosted again by the University of Virginia.
Stanford and Florida have had a checkered history of participation in the event in recent years. In the 2007-2011 tournaments at least one of the Division I women’s tennis standard-bearers competed, but in the past two years neither have, instead establishing a home-and-home dual schedule between the two teams prior to the start of their conference seasons.
I spoke to Florida coach Roland Thornqvist about the reasons for the Gators absence back in May, and this is how he explained their decision:
"For us, we add two teams to the conference - Texas A&M and Missouri - and we have to play them. We're just not in a position to be able to play the Indoor qualifying," Thornqvist said. "That's two dates that we have to count, and we never get real teams, we get teams ranked 50-60 to come. So with the addition of the two conference teams, we just run out of competitive dates, frankly, so we would much rather next year play Clemson on a Friday and Stanford on a Sunday."
"We're missing out on some points, and obviously when you do that, you have to keep a clean sheet the rest of the year," Thornqvist said. "Stanford found that out this year. So there's a risk to it, clearly, but then again we don't have a team that's made to play indoors per se. You go to the Indoors and play four consecutive days, so there are a lot of risks both ways, but as long as we can have a really quality out-of-conference schedule, I don't think we're dependent on the Indoor points."
This logic made sense to North Carolina coach Brian Kalbas, who is also facing a conference expansion, with Pitt and Syracuse joining the ACC this year, and Notre Dame and Louisville also being added.
"With our conference expansion, we’re having to play more teams in our conference," Kalbas said. "The Kick-off Weekend is two dates, and that would have meant that we wouldn’t play Florida. Florida and Stanford asked if we’d join in with them, and next year we’re having them come to our place and to have a chance to have Florida and Stanford on your home court is amazing."
"I’m hoping [the ITA Women's Operating Committee] might make some adjustments to include everybody, whether they take the Kick-off out or something like that," continued Kalbas. "I heard rumors that they might make some changes. If that happens we’ll definitely play. "
After talking with Kalbas in Charlottesville, I spoke to ITA Executive Director David Benjamin on the phone a few days later, and although he didn’t rule out changes in 2015, he said there won't be any for 2014, meaning that North Carolina will not be defending its championship next year.
“It’s possible, looking ahead to 2015 and beyond, if there are more schools that decide they are not interested in playing in the Kick-off Weekend, we could make some changes, but not for next year,” Benjamin said.
The Kick-off weekend, which began in 2009, is an innovative and democratic means of selecting the ITA Indoor participants, but unlike the Team Indoor tournament, which does not count against the NCAA's 25 dates per year limit, the schools are required to count the two Kick-off Weekend matches that serve as qualifying for it.
Prior to the introduction of the Kick-off Weekend, teams were selected on the basis of their early season rankings, which were not computerized and based mostly on the previous season’s final rankings. As a reward for a good prior season, that method had its advocates, but it didn’t allow a team with an excellent freshman class or a team just outside the year-end Top 15 to play its way in.
The Kick-off Weekend is now much like a fantasy draft, with the Top 15 in the prior season’s rankings (hosts of the Team Indoor get an automatic berth) receiving hosting privileges while the next 48 ranked teams decide which site they wish to visit, in order of their ranking. Coaches must assess their hosts’ strength the following year (the draft takes place right after the NCAA tournament), along with the strength of other teams that will be playing in their 4-team regional, with travel cost and time also a part of the equation.
I’m a fan of Kick-off Weekend, believing it to be one of the many areas where college tennis demonstrates a willingness to create and experiment. (How much simpler would Davis Cup or Fed Cup be if they had a similar format for determining the final 16 teams?) I would hate to see it scrapped, but with North Carolina joining Stanford and Florida, there’s no denying an alarming trend is being laid at its feet.
Here’s the easy one—get the NCAA to add two dates or make the Kick-off Weekend exempt from the 25 allowed.
I’m assuming that’s not likely to happen, so what else can be done?
The stick: Penalize schools for not participating in the ITA Team Indoor.
Prior to the implementation of the Kick-off Weekend, the ITA Men’s Operating Committee had penalties for failure to participate. A team would get three losses on their record if they were invited and did not play. It appears to have been an effective deterrent, as Benjamin told me only one team was ever so punished. Whether this changed the culture permanently is debatable, but the top men’s teams have always played the Indoor, with only Baylor in 2011 not participating as a host in the Kick-off Weekend. (They did not participate this year either, but would not have hosted.)
The ITA Women’s Operating Committee has never approved a penalty for failure to participate, and the men no longer have one, which Benjamin believes is appropriate since the costs a school can incur are no longer picked up by the organization.
“We had generous funding from the USTA and had local presenting sponsors, which covered almost all the expenses of teams playing the national event, men and women,” Benjamin said.
“The ITA is not able to cover the expenses of playing the Kick-off weekend, that’s out of [the team’s] budget, and then going to the big event, we don’t have the big sponsorship anymore, so that’s more expense, so we really can’t say to a school you have to play in the Kick-off weekend or you’ll be penalized, when it could be for budgetary reasons they decide not to.”
The carrot: Bonus points for playing in the Team Indoor
I suggested bonus points for participating in the Team Indoor, enough to make it more attractive to play those two possibly non-competitive Kick-off Weekend matches. Benjamin said he thinks that would undermine the credibility of the rankings algorithm and even if the Women’s Operating Committee were to take that route, he doesn’t think it would prod Florida and Stanford into playing.
In a sort of mash-up of the two methods, the semifinalists from the previous year’s NCAA team championships could be given byes into the tournament, exempting them from the Kick-off Weekend, while the 11 other spots would be decided as they are now (it should be noted Stanford would not have received a bye this year, as they lost in the quarterfinals at the NCAAs in 2012). Or the finalists from the previous year’s Team Indoor could be given entry.
I don’t really like these options, but I am worried about the future of the Women’s Team Indoor. It has a stellar history since 1988, with Stanford(10) and Florida(6) winning more than half of the titles, just as their 22 NCAA team titles represents more than half of those championships.
I would never argue against a coach deciding what is best for her team and program, but there is more at stake than just that, most notably the history of college tennis, which is decided not in a particular dual match, but it tournaments. Rankings are important but winning conference and national titles matters more. And having 16 of the country’s best teams gather in one place for a long weekend of competition is part of what it means to play college tennis. Several parents have told me how much they enjoy these opportunities to see their friends from the juniors again, in a competitive yet somehow more relaxed atmosphere than exists at major junior tournaments.
This year’s title provided the University of North Carolina women’s team with a reason to be recognized for their accomplishment during a Tar Heels basketball game. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness the tiebreaker that decided the championship this year will never forget it.
The opportunity to provide these kinds of memories must be preserved, and Benjamin believes they can be.
“I don’t think it's a situation where anyone is at fault," Benjamin said. "I think that it’s complicated, and the coaches have obligations to do what they feel is best for their programs, their budgets, for their student-athletes, but also for college tennis and to help promote men’s and women’s tennis, and it’s not always easy to do all that.”
"Things change, and we need to be flexible and we need to find a way to make it all work."