UCLA celebrates after claiming men's NCAA team title in 2005
That's why it's painful for me to say that I won't be covering Division I college tennis if it uses the current format announced last week by the NCAA, ITA and USTA. I will not bore you with all the personal and philosophical reasons I don't like no-ad tennis, which I see regularly in doubles play at ITF Junior Circuit events. I will just say that the deuce-ad part of the game is the sport's essence to me, and remains so at all other levels of the game. (Even in third-set tiebreakers, a two-point advantage is required). The tense 19-minute game between Marin Cilic and Roger Federer last week in Toronto, in which Cilic saved six match points, does not exist in the no-ad format, nor will college tennis again produce a riveting final game like that of the women's team championship last year, when UCLA's Kyle McPhillips and North Carolina's Caroline Price played a 15-minute seven-deuce game, with Price saving three match points before McPhillips held to deliver the team title.
The drive to change the NCAA Division I Tennis format has been going on for more than two years, and the ITA's operating committee's decision to adopt no-ad is a result of pressure from the NCAA and several high-profile athletic directors to make college tennis "relevant." Seeing lacrosse and softball and even college bowling on ESPN, there is a fear that tennis, especially men's tennis, is threatened with extinction, so this is the committee's response to that threat.
I am not an expert on the governing structure of the ITA, but I do know, because I have spoken to them in person, that many coaches, both in Top 10 schools (some of whom are on the operating committee) and mid-majors, do not feel their concerns and voices were heard in this process. They believe the choices they were given when surveyed were not adequate to the gravity of the decision. The women's coaches are particularly upset with the process, and I was told by the ITA's David Benjamin that the one women's operating committee vote against the format was by its chair, Shelia McInerney of Arizona State, who objected, he said, to the shortening of the doubles. More than 172 Division I schools (a majority of those offering women's tennis) have signed a petition asking to delay the implementation of the new no-ad format, the clinch-clinch, (which will leave many of the top players' matches unfinished), and the paring of doubles to one no-ad set, with a tiebreaker at 6-all. Not all of those signing the petition are against all of these changes, but they do feel their voices were not heard and a membership vote should be required for such a major change.
It goes without saying that the student-athletes most affected by this change were not consulted, because they do not have a seat on the ITA's operating committees, nor on the NCAA's Division I Tennis Committee. I was told that a survey of players at the ITA men's Indoor in February revealed 80 percent of the singles participants and 85 percent of the doubles participants were against no-ad scoring. Ohio State's Ty Tucker, whose team won its first national team title at the Indoor with the format, is not a proponent of it, despite that success, and the obvious advantage it gives a team with a big-serving, indoor-type game.
My question on no-ad to the top amateur junior boys at Kalamazoo produced a range of responses, from vehemently against to mildly against, but I fear the format change will provide a reason for top juniors to avoid college, even when so many positives remain. I spoke to several parents of top juniors last week and they too are dismayed by the decision, sharing my position that the standard tennis advantage format is superior to what one parent referred to as "this watered-down thing."
Having heard the men's Indoor in Seattle was well-received and therefore seeing this dual match format change coming, I had almost convinced myself to try covering no-ad for one year. But the decision to play that format at the individual NCAA tournament and the fall ITA majors, none of which have any relevance to the length and difficulty of televising or promoting a dual match, was the last straw for me. I am relieved that the American Collegiate Invitational at the US Open September 4-6 will feature traditional scoring, which gives me a chance to see collegians use it one last time.
I spend my own money, earned from your donations, from advertising on my site, and from freelance work, to attend ITA and NCAA events. Unlike junior tournaments, where my husband is often provided a hotel room in exchange for working as a tournament site official, I have no way to economize at college events, with airfare, food and accommodations all out of my own pocket. I have subsidized my college expenses with other work because I loved it, but with no-ad, I will no longer be getting the product that made me willing to spend so much time and money to cover it. Division III has retained its traditional-scoring format for many years, with all three doubles matches played out, making their duals best of nine points, not seven, and yet somehow they have avoided these issues. So in addition to continuing, or even increasing, my coverage of junior tennis, I may add Division III coverage, most likely at the NCAA championships in May. I will still follow Division I tennis here on Zootennis, but will not travel to do so, similar to how I cover the ITF Futures circuit here.
This post should not be construed as a campaign against this change, although I am in full agreement with Paul(no relation), who left this comment on zootennis.com last week. I am not privy to the pressures, both economic and political, that may have led some coaches to believe a change this drastic is necessary. I hope against hope that it succeeds in drawing the casual fans without alienating the serious ones, in getting more TV or streaming exposure, and in keeping college tennis as an option for those with professional ambitions. Two of the best coaches in the country--Manny Diaz at Georgia and Peter Smith at Southern California--are proponents of the change. A letter they, along with men's operating committee chair Billy Pate of Princeton, wrote to their fellow coaches can be found here. Here is the ITA's announcement and its FAQ. Lisa Stone of Parenting Aces devoted her weekly call-in internet radio show to the topic today, and it featured comments from Chuck Kriese, Lin Loring, Gene Orlando, Rob Hubbard, Peter Smith and me. You can listen to the show here. Lisa also has published the email she has written to NCAA president Mark Emmert, with his contact information on her post on the topic.
The one vote against the change on the ITA men's operating committee came from Virginia's Brian Boland. I asked him for his comments. I will close this post with his response:
"I have voted against these absurd changes every single time. It hurts our game, I am fine with the no-ad in doubles, but this hurts us. The college coaches want to skip the hard work to get people engaged. This is not the answer at all. I am beyond disappointed. We need great leadership in the greatest game on earth. If we locate great leadership, anything is possible, but changing the traditions of our great game is not the answer.
Coaches need to get after putting people in the stands like some of us have through hard work and commitment. If coaches believe changing the way we play the game is going to put fans in the stands, they are dreaming. Hard work is going to put fans in the stands, not changing the great traditions of our game.
To stop matches at 4 (the clinch-clinch change) is absolutely counterproductive to developing a player. I have never stopped any of our matches at 4 unless forced, because I do not believe in it. The more matches these young men play the more productive for their development; they need to finish their matches even if the team match is over. I am concerned a couple of my guys will only play 2 or 3 matches to completion next spring. How is that positive for their development?
I went to the College World Series (in Omaha) to support my good friend and neighbor and several of the games lasted over four hours, but I doubt they're looking to go to six innings. They respect their game and have tremendous leadership. The atmosphere was amazing. The solution is to find a final site that can accommodate the number of teams (at the NCAAs). We have a circus-like atmosphere now and this like swallowing a pill to fix our problems.
I am beyond disappointed and I appreciate your strong stance against it. I would have been much more vocal, but I have been overseas."