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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Future of ITA Women's Team Indoor Clouded By North Carolina's 2014 Absence

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.

Other possibilities:

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."


Jim said...

To me, the Indoors is the second most important event of the entire year (next to the NCAA's). It is hard for me to understand how North Carolina, having just experienced the pure joy from arguably the single most important achievement in their program's history, can pass on defending next year to avoid using up two schedule dates and picking up a couple of good dual meets. I understand adding matches with the likes of Florida and Stanford is very nice, but that is absolutely no comparison to the players' experience of winning a national championship, and I think the players would agree. Those are memories of a lifetime. If I were a top recruit with the ability to play for the best teams, the decision of coaches to skip the Indoors would at least be a factor in the process of choosing a college to play for. Ultimately, coaches passing on this event may change their minds if they start losing recruits who want to have a chance to experience this fabulous event.

Fairplay said...

Thank you, Colette, for your post on North Carolina’s reasons for not participating in the 2014 Women’s Team Indoor. I was not aware of the 25 dates per year limit and that Kick-off Weekend was part of that. With the expansion of the ACC conference North Carolina’s decision now seems to make more sense, but winning a National Title is simply unforgettable and I would hope this tournament can continue to attract the top 16 of the country. So maybe some changes are necessary.
I agree with you that Team Indoor is a great tournament and it would be sad to see it disappear, but if the Team Indoor tournament does not count against the NCAA's 25 dates per year limit, I honestly do not understand the logic of having the two Kick-off Weekend matches that serve as qualifying for it, counting. To me they are very simply a part of the Indoor tournament, just like the round of 64 and 32 of the NCAA are played at different host sites and the top 16 advance to the tournament site. My guess is that these first 2 rounds do not count towards that 25 date-limit either, or am I wrong?
Just like you, I am a fan of the Kick-off Weekend because it gives teams outside of the top 15 (and host) a chance to earn a berth into the Indoor tournament. If I remember correctly, North Carolina was in that situation 3 years ago when they defeated then top 5 Notre Dame at ND during Kick-off weekend and battled their way into their first-ever Indoor Final. Without the Kick-off they wouldn’t have been there. So the solution seems pretty obvious: if Kick-off Weekend is a requirement to get into the National Team Indoor, and Team Indoor is not part of the 25-date limit, than so shouldn’t Kick-off Weekend be.
I am not a proponent of either penalties or byes/automatic entry; the latter would be based on the merit of the previous team’s year and we all know how the strength of teams can fluctuate with strong seniors leaving or strong freshmen coming in. Penalties don’t make sense either; I think teams might actually penalize themselves if they don’t have a competitive calendar the rest of the year. By not participating in a national tournament, a team loses out on a lot of opportunities to compete with other strong teams and that may be reflected in its ranking, which in turn could prove to be risky once the NCAA comes around in the sense that a top team might face another top team earlier than “should” be the case.

russ said...

Colette, why are you assuming that the ncaa won't be flexible and allow either of those two suggestions to be implemented? Like you said, they appear to be very easy solutions.

Dunboyne said...

It seems from Kalbas' statement that NC had already committed to playing Stanford and Florida in 2014--before they won the title. I'd be curious to know whether Kalbas, now, after experiencing the joy of winning, would make that same decision. Like Colette suggested, the whole point of participating in such tournaments is to offer your athletes the opportunity to experience that joy and pride. Isn't that what college sports is all about?

The Florida coach is worried that by playing in the Kick-off they "just run out of competitive dates". Ok, let me get this straight. So you substitute two non-competitive matches for two competitive dual matches, and you think you've come out ahead. But the Team Indoor does not count toward the competitive dates. So do these coaches think that the Team Indoor will not offer them any "competitive dates"? Really? I'd bet you that reaching the semis or better of the Team Indoor is a tougher (and more enjoyable) test for a team than playing a dual match, no matter who it's against.

Note also that Thornqvist said that "we don't have a team that's made to play indoors per se". So does this mean that he's worried that his team isn't going to perform well or win? If that's true, I find that a bit self-serving because the players, clearly, especially if they are not indoor specialists, would only stand to improve technically in such a competition, and have some fun doing it.

I hope that the biggest concern with participation in the Team Indoor can be found in these team's budgets, because the "better competition argument" is foolish. If these coaches truly believe that their teams are going to improve more by not playing, well, as Jim said in his comment, it's time for recruits to rethink their choice of program/coach.

doesn't add up said...

I don't totally understand the logic here re: dates. I understand dates are tight, but by playing the kick-off weekend, Florida (or Stanford/UNC's) reward is getting 3 or 4 FREE playing dates! If you are so concerned about playing dates, wouldn't you want these exempt dates against top 10 teams? Plus Florida opened against a team in the 40s and an unranked team this season, so why is having teams ranked 50-60 replace these tems such a hardship?

seems like said...

seems like this whole issue revolves around the kick-off weekend which has only been around a handful of years.

Seems like as has been stated by others, you should either exempt the top teams from the kickoff weekend (has a top 4 or top 8 team ever lost a kickoff weekend?) or

just not count the kickoff weekend as a date.

Encourage teams to play in a high pressure, tournament environment. Don't discourage them.

MichiganTennis said...

I enjoy reading the blog. However, is there a way where you can change/ update the comment section, so it automatically appears at the bottom of an article, similar to online newspapers.

That is all

Kurt Hong said...

I think the best compromise is to allow the quarter finalists from the previous year's NCAAs automatically qualify and then have the next 32 teams do the Kick-off weekend for the remaining 8 slots. This would be regardless of whether the Kick-off counts toward the 25. This would also save a lot of teams that have no chance of qualifying from the expense (and embarrassment), which I bet most of them would actually welcome, if perhaps secretly. When was the last time a team ranked beyond the top 40 qualified? I bet never.

marcoforehand said...

Great reporting

Austin said...

It is a completely elitist copout attitude from these coaches/schools, nothing more, nothing less.

In the words of Forrest Gump, "that's all I have to say about that."

Former College Player said...

Florida women’s coach Roland Thornqvist’s comments that were quoted on this blog are just another example of how many college tennis coaches, even the so-called “cream of the crop,” may know something about tennis (usually proving they could PLAY good tennis, rather than COACH tennis got them the job) but have woefully inadequate judgment and diplomacy skills. In his explanation for his decision not to play in the indoor he states:

"That's two dates that we have to count, and we never get real teams, we get teams ranked 50-60 to come.”

What an incredibly arrogant, outrageous and insensitive statement to call teams ranked below 49 “not real teams.” Is that any way to treat lesser ranked teams? If I was Thornqvist’s AD, I would demand that he apologize and try to keep his mouth shut in the future.

Florida Coach said...

Why not make a rule - like the ATP Tour with Grand Slam and ATP-1000 tournaments, that you are automatically entered into the National Indoors, if you are ranked high enough?


You cannot play the NCAA tournament in May if you skip the National Indoor tournament.

It is embarrassing the arrogance of Roland from Florida - showing that he recruit but cannot TEACH or COACH - in saying that his team does not have indoor players. How bad does that make him look?

Dunboyne said...

Yes, I agree with "Former College Player". LOL Thornqvist made a couple of Freudian slips in his response. Apparently, he doesn't consider any team below 50 to be a "real team". I'm sure the coaches of Harvard or Princeton, for example, would be amused by that statement. I wonder if he would consider their athletes to be "real students".

Yes, I sense a bit of arrogance and elitism has gone into his decision to skip the Team Indoor. I'm not sure where the Stanford coach is coming from, but I hardly think that budgetary/expense issues are a real factor at one of the nation's wealthiest schools.

The bottom line is that these coaches don't seem to respect the competition outside of their own peer group. If I was a player or coach on any of these "lesser teams", I'd be in full punishment mode right now, eager to play Stanford or Florida and send their rankings into the dark digits. Let's hear it for St. Mary's!

Save national indoors said...

Roland may not remember his Kansas days where his team was ranked lower than 50 in the country. There are Indoor courts in Gainesville to where he can practice if the desire and dedication is there - apparently not.

Rafael Nadal is not a grass court player but with practice and COACHING - he took the title.

Also - Stanford is producing players- Gibbs and Burdette have great WTA rankings - as Roland's current or ex players are nonexistent.

Overall it is really sad these teams do not compete in the National indoors and disappointed in UNC doing the same thing.

David Benjamin & NCAA Tennis Committee - STEP UP and DO SOMETHING about this. Stop letting these egos step in the way - college is for the development of student-athletes. Their coaches are eliminating a huge experience for them!!

ClarkC said...

The UNC and Florida women participated in the indoor draft for 2014 and will host. I suspect that ITA rule changes are coming but have not been announced.