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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Two Roads Diverge

I wrote this story in November about Kalamazoo junior Scott Oudsema. At the time Oudsema had not signed with an agency, but in December, SFX outbid Octagon and he was officially a professional.

©2004 Colette Lewis


Scott Oudsema, the sixth ranked junior tennis player in the world, considered using the famous poem “The Road Not Taken” as the theme of his college application essay. Robert Frost’s words aptly outlined Oudsema’s dilemma, but he never completed the assignment.

He didn’t have time. An 18-year-old with tennis talent can’t dally, and in early November the high school senior from Portage, Michigan told his parents he would bypass college and proceed instead down the path of professional tennis.

The decision was a difficult one, complicated by Oudsema’s academic aspirations. His ability to juggle tennis and schoolwork, excelling at both, was evident throughout his adolescence. But the colleges recruiting him needed an answer. Would he accept a full athletic scholarship? He had reached his fork in the road, facing a choice he recognizes “will influence the rest of my life.”

Agonizing with him over the decision were his father, Bill, an attorney who played college tennis at Bowling Green State University, and his mother, Kathy, a second grade teacher in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. With their daughter attending Western Michigan University and elder son enrolled in law school, the Oudsemas never doubted their youngest child was destined for college. So it was a disappointed Bill Oudsema who called Stanford and Duke to tell them that his son would not be accepting a scholarship from either university.

“I love college tennis,” said Bill Oudsema, who traveled to the NCAA Tennis Championships in Athens, Georgia in 2003 with an eye toward determining which coaches and programs best suited his son.

“The team atmosphere, the camaraderie, the educational opportunities, the doors an institution like Duke or Stanford can open for its graduates—those are all such positives," Oudsema said. "There was no celebration at our house when Scott told us of his decision to turn professional.”

But reflected in that decision are the new realities of tennis development in the United States, a system that was once as dependent on college programs as the NFL.

“When I went to college, [1979-83] everyone went to college,” said Rodney Harmon, the United States Tennis Association’s High Performance division’s director of men’s tennis. “The best U.S. players were playing in college. But now international tennis is getting younger and younger and we are the only country where there is a distinction between amateur and professional.”

It is a distinction the USTA no longer finds valuable; in 2004, it began allowing age-eligible professionals to compete in the national junior events it sanctions.

But the National Collegiate Athletic Association stringently confines its competition to amateurs, and though it is the arbiter of the world’s only university system in which athletics play a prominent role, the NCAA appears powerless to reverse some ominous trends.

The men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) top 100 ranking currently contains one player with a college degree—Jeff Morrison, a University of Florida graduate ranked 95th. Of the other eight U.S. players ranked in the top 100, only James Blake spent any time at an institution of higher learning. The last Grand Slam singles champion with a college resume, well…let’s just say he played with a wooden racquet.

Agassi, Chang, Courier, Roddick, Sampras —the Grand Slam singles winners, the players that every American junior aspires to be— not one of them ever attended freshman orientation.

Is that surprising? Not to Scotland’s Andrew Murray, 17, the reigning U.S. Open junior singles champion who trains at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain.

“I have no regrets even if it was a wrench to leave everything behind at 15,“ Murray said in a recent interview with Glasgow’s The Herald. “… We’ve created this culture where you have to study biology, physics. … Why? Frankly, I don’t believe it is important for somebody such as myself, who wants to be the best at tennis, to be the best at biology—just as you wouldn’t insist that every would-be doctor was also a red-hot golfer or runner. … The bottom line is you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to be good at tennis.”

Murray, currently Great Britain’s primary tennis hope, is allowed to make that choice early, as are many other countries’ top prospects, as evidenced by the 31 different nations represented in the ATP’s top 100. And although their sacrifice may be leaving hearth and home for better facilities and coaching, it doesn’t extend to relinquishing this country’s litmus test for future success—a college degree.

The NCAA unsurprisingly touts its college model as the best one for a young athlete. In the foreword to its booklet, “A Career in Professional Athletics,” NCAA President Myles Brand writes, “No matter how long or successful your professional career may be, you will have a long life afterwards that will benefit from an excellent education. In the long run, getting your degree will be the most important career move you make.”

But who has time? No middle-class parent would debate Brand’s statement, but this is the era of sports prodigies, of Freddy Adu and Michelle Wie. And when Martina Hingis retires at age 22 with 14 Grand Slam titles, who dares wait until her retirement age to get started, especially in the physically demanding, year-round, globe-spanning sport of tennis?

Not any of the top American juniors that Oudsema has grown up playing with and against.

Brendan Evans, Scoville Jenkins, Alex Kuznetsov, Phillip Simmonds, even the heralded Donald Young, who is a full three years younger than Oudsema, all have signed professional contracts and begun working their way through the pro tennis minor leagues of Futures and Challengers. Wayne Odesnik, 18, now has an ATP rank of 242; after playing the professional circuit as an amateur the past two years, he turned pro in September. Evans, Oudsema’s partner in three of the four junior Grand Slam double titles he has won, signed professionally in 2001, at the age of 15. But Oudsema would not be rushed.

“Scott’s always been cautious,“ said Tom Walker, Oudsema’s personal coach. “He’ll dip his toe in the water, and ask himself if likes it. All his decisions have always been at his own pace and time.”

“I think Scott has been weighing all his options,” said Simmonds, Oudsema’s closest friend on the junior circuit. “He wanted to see how it would all play out before he made his decision. And his parents have always stressed education.”

Determined to avoid the tennis academy, split family, high-pressure world of modern junior tennis, the Oudsemas limited their son’s court activity and lessons to a manageable number of hours, leaving him time for friends and interests unrelated to tennis. And Oudsema managed to keep his life one of a typical Midwestern teenager, despite the globetrotting required of a top junior competing on the International Tennis Federation circuit.

But under Walker’s tutelage, Oudsema continued improvement began attracting considerable attention from those whose careers are based on the ability to assess junior tennis talent-- the USTA staff, sports management firms and, of course, major college tennis coaches.

Their interest and Oudsema’s results in national junior events produced invitations to travel, to test his game at the highest international level. By the time he was 17, Oudsema had played tennis in Australia, the Philippines, Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Costa Rica and Panama, in addition to European junior circuit events in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France and England. And despite missing what his father estimates as approximately 30 percent of his class time, he was able to keep up academically, getting the grades and test scores that intrigued the country’s best universities.

“The Portage Public school system and his teachers always worked with us,” said Walker. “Not that they let him off from any requirements, but they did allow him the opportunity to do assignments earlier or later, if he was traveling to a tournament.”

And that flexibility gave him essential breathing room—until the spring of his sophomore year. Despite having won his first Grand Slam title at the 2003 Australian Junior Open (doubles, with Simmonds), Oudsema decided to pass on the next junior Grand Slam event, the French Open, to take his final exams at Portage Northern High School.

“I had missed exams because I was at the Australian,” said Oudsema. “I just didn’t want to repeat that, falling behind, all the homework, all the stress.”

“He felt it was just too important a period in his high school academic life to miss,” said Bill Oudsema. “He was worried he might jeopardize his college prospects if he wasn’t in school then.”

But during his 2003 summer break, Oudsema played Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and reached the singles quarterfinals at the USTA Boys 18s National Championships, played in his hometown of Kalamazoo. His game continued to develop and importantly, he was able to keep pace with his U.S. contemporaries, who were producing noteworthy international results. Simmonds won a Grade A tournament (the top ITF designation, just below the Grand Slams) in December 2003. Jenkins, who beat Oudsema in August in the finals at Kalamazoo, won two Grade One ITF events, and made this year’s Wimbledon Junior championships semifinals. Kuznetsov, 17, was a finalist at the 2004 French Open in singles and doubles and this spring, a Davis Cup practice partner.

And Oudsema, though not achieving that caliber of results in singles, was proving a dominant force in doubles. He and new partner Evans won the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open doubles titles this year, missing an unprecedented Junior Grand Slam when they suffered an 8-6 third set loss in the French Open semifinals to the eventual champions from Spain.

It was his performance in Kalamazoo this August, however, that ultimately resulted in offers from the sports management firms Octagon and SFX.

Kalamazoo, a notoriously pressure-packed venue for any junior, did not overwhelm Oudsema, even when playing before record-setting crowds hungry for the first homegrown singles champion in the tournament’s 62 years there. Oudsema reached the final by virtue of a win over Evans, the world’s second ranked junior, demonstrating that his singles game also had great potential.

But even his late September stint in Charleston as a Davis Cup practice partner, a position reserved for a country’s most promising young players, —where he hit with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Bob and Mike Bryan, spent the weekend on the bench leading cheers, ordered room service at the five-star hotel, and accompanied superstar celebrity Roddick on a King St. shopping spree— even that did not convince Oudsema to relinquish his amateur status.

Instead, he arranged to finish his two remaining required high school courses in absentia and in October, joined his fellow top-ranked juniors on California’s Future and Challenger swing. He and Evans won the Irvine Futures doubles tournament, beating the first and second seeded teams along the way, yet Oudsema returned home still pondering his future in a college tennis landscape drastically different from that of a decade ago.

No longer are college scholarships solely for U.S. citizens; according to David Benjamin, the executive director of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, 29 percent of the players in Division I programs are from outside the U.S., and often that number approaches 60 percent in singles competition. Lured by training facilities and coaching their less affluent homelands can’t match, players from around the world continue to flock to the United States, to the famous junior tennis academies and increasingly, to colleges as well.

G. D. Jones, 18, a freshman at the University of Illinois and currently ranked 51st in the ITF junior rankings, explains why the university system in the United States has attracted so many international players.

“I come from New Zealand, which is the end of the earth,“ said Jones. “Every tournament is so far away. The opportunities for playing, coaching and training are just not there, which makes it difficult to fund your career when you are in the development stage. That’s why I wanted to go to college, to get that development for a couple of years,” said Jones.

The USTA’s Harmon agrees with Jones that the influx of foreign players to U.S. colleges is understandable, although he points out that not all of those arriving are as young and undeveloped as Jones.

“Many are older and have already played at the professional level in their home country,“ said Harmon, who played tennis at the University of Tennessee and Southern Methodist University, then joined the pro tour after graduating from SMU in 1983. “They weren’t able to break through there, so they’ve turned to American universities to fund their education.”

“For Scott the situation is different,’ said Jones, who has played in many of the same junior Grand Slams as Oudsema. “He’s going to get help from the USTA and whoever he signs with. So he’s going to be able to start his career and develop at the same time.”

So are the colleges now resigning themselves to attracting only late-blooming juniors and foreign players who have been rejected or overlooked by their national federations?

Stanford’s Dave Hodge isn’t ready to wave any white flags.

“We like to think we have a shot at a lot of juniors and much to offer them,” said Hodge, Stanford’s assistant coach under John Whitlinger, who was recently named to lead the storied program when legendary coach Dick Gould retired. “We have two full time coaches, facilities, constant practice partners, a home, and a crowd.”

“On the pro tour, it’s not always like that. You can’t come out to the tennis courts and have nine other guys who are wearing your uniform and will do anything for you to make you better,” said Hodge, a former top junior in Australia and a 2001 graduate of Baylor University.

“On the pro circuit, you may have a coach—if you’re lucky—but you’re doing it for yourself, by yourself.”

University of Illinois head coach Craig Tiley also believes in the value of teammates. “Often a junior doesn’t know his weaknesses, the holes in his game,” said Tiley, who has built the Illinois program into a national powerhouse in the past decade.

“If your competitors discover them and you don’t have time to work on fixing them, then you just keep repeating them, over and over. Often just a set of consistent matches, which you cannot get in the pros if you are losing often, is enough. College can provide that.”

The USTA’s Harmon agrees that college can benefit many juniors. “Take James Blake,” said Harmon of the 24-year-old who finished the past two years ranked in the ATP top 40. “Although he was an outstanding junior while playing in the U.S., he didn’t have international results. So during his two years at Harvard, he was able to mature physically and work on his game at a great school.”

But great schools don’t get those reputations by allowing their student-athletes to coast through, majoring in backhand volleys. Can a top player realistically expect to have the time to fully develop his game?

Timon Corwin, men’s tennis coach and athletic director at Kalamazoo College, a perennial Division III title contender with a stellar academic reputation, is doubtful.

“There is no question that college athletes don’t get enough sleep,” said Corwin, the 1986 NCAA Division III singles champion and a member of Kalamazoo College’s national championship team that year. “I know the guys on my team always play better when they’re not in school. To be the best at anything, you have to be fiercely focused on your goal, and student-athletes can’t do that. They have to give equal time to their studies.”

Illinois’ Tiley believes Oudsema’s decision was particularly difficult because “he has the personality to really enjoy the college experience. I think if some of his tennis friends had gone to college, he might have spent a year or two in school, developing his game, which I know we could help him do.”

Harmon agrees that Tiley and several other programs now provide a viable alternative to early professional decisions. “His formula has changed things. He’s comfortable with the goal of preparing players for the professional ranks, encouraging pro circuit play and travel. He’s done a good job of it.”

“But if Scott’s goal is to play at the highest level, he needs to focus 100 percent on his tennis.”

And Harmon believes Oudsema is prepared to do that.

“There are three questions we at the USTA always ask when assessing whether a junior is ready to become a professional, or is better served by accepting a college scholarship,” Harmon said.

“First we ask, does he have enough game? Does he possess the physical tools to be a top 100 player?”

“Second, we ask if he is emotionally and psychologically ready for the rigors of the professional tennis tour, the travel, the lifestyle?”

“And third, is he willing to treat tennis like a job? Is he committed enough to eat, drink and sleep tennis? To constantly work at improving his game?”

And that is where the college and pro game diverge, says Harmon.

“Take Gael Monfils, for example,” said Harmon of the 18-year-old French junior who won three of the four junior Grand Slam singles titles in 2004 and is ranked number one in the world.

“He just beat [Thomas] Enqvist at a Master Series event in Paris, and gave Lleyton Hewitt a tough match. Now, in which scenario is your tennis going to get better? Playing Hewitt or playing UCLA’s number one and going to classes?”

In tennis terms, the answer is obvious. But not everyone gets the opportunity or is ready to play with the big boys at age 18, and prize money in Futures events is miniscule.

Horia Tecau of Romania, for example, the winner of the recent Waikoloa Futures event in Hawaii, took home $1,950. Anyone who has ever vacationed in America’s version of paradise knows those earnings would not cover the cost of his airfare and hotel room. And he WON. It’s unlikely the other 31 players could pay for a luau from their take. Even in the ATP’s top 100, considered by many to be the economic Promised Land, the aforementioned Morrison has won only $170,000 in 2004, an unimpressive number when travel, lodging, coaching and other expenses are subtracted. Illinois’ Tiley says his studies show that funding a legitimate candidate for professional tennis costs approximately $350,000 over three years, the minimum amount of time he feels it takes to assess development.

And if that’s not enough to give an aspiring pro pause, there is that one elephant always in the room—the career-ending injury that any player, no matter how talented, can suffer at any time.

Facing those realities, it must be disconcerting for parents to watch their son decline a full athletic scholarship and with it the opportunity to earn a degree from a prestigious university.

Jay Lapidus, head coach at Duke University, concedes that he would have mixed feelings should his son face a similar decision. “I’m not one for kids turning pro early,” said Lapidus, who played tennis for Princeton and after graduating in 1981, toured professionally. “But for Scott, I think it’s the right decision.”

“He’s got a huge game, and obviously he’s an unbelievable doubles player. I think he has a real good shot to make it. This is a good group he’s part of and he’s doing so well at the international level. He needs to give it a shot. If that’s his dream, he should go for it.”

But junior tennis is littered with phenoms who dreamed those dreams and woke up in a nightmare. For every Michael Chang or Aaron Krickstein, who vaulted from winning Kalamazoo at age 15 or 16 to having an immediate impact on professional tennis, there is a Tommy Ho or Rudy Rake, who dominated junior tennis and faded into obscurity, without a degree or a professional tennis career.

“You and I could come up with many, many names of those who bypassed college and did not make it professionally,” said Tiley. “In the vast majority of cases, college is the best option, and most of the juniors know it. It’s their parents who are delusional.”

“But in Scott’s specific case, I recommended to Tom Walker that Scott turn pro,” said Tiley. “There is just a lot more room on the upside with him.” Tiley feels that, unlike the majority of his cohorts, Oudsema has what pro tennis requires.

“He has the size, athleticism and attitude to make it. If he trains hard, stays disciplined and continues to play fearlessly, I’d put his chances at 100 percent.”

Though Corwin doesn’t rate Oudsema’s chances quite that high, he does see vast potential. “If he puts in the time and energy, he has a great chance. So far, I don’t think he’s been able to devote himself totally to his game. But he has the same huge tools—the forehand and the serve—that Roddick has, and if he can match Andy’s desire to be great, he can make it.”

Harmon believes Oudsema also shares with Roddick the ability to attract endorsements, and although he certainly is not in the Kournikova, Sharapova, Agassi stratosphere, Oudsema has already modeled professionally. This summer, he and Simmonds were featured as “Stars on the Rise” in Abercrombie and Fitch’s A&F Magazine and Oudsema’s image is currently gracing the home page of the USTA’s new High Performance website.

“Scott’s a great-looking kid; he’s very marketable,” said Harmon, mindful of the myriad opportunities open to athletes in golf and tennis, a marketing edge conceded by the NCAA. “Generally, the best endorsement opportunities go to athletes in individual sports,” says the Pro Career booklet, “…inasmuch as they have greater potential for a world-wide following.”

But a Roddick-like position as the face of men’s tennis in the United States is unlikely for Oudsema.

“He doesn’t relish the celebrity,” said Walker. “He came home from Wimbledon after winning the doubles title, and when he went to pay for his gas, the attendant said, ‘say, aren’t you Scott Oudsema?’.

“He was embarrassed by that. He likes some of the recognition, but not all of it.”

So perhaps a bit lower profile career after his tennis days are over? Maybe even starting college as a thirtysomething?

“I certainly am planning on going back to college after my tennis playing days are over,” said Oudsema, “but right now, I have no idea what I’ll be interested in studying then.”

Walker, a graduate of Florida’s Flagler College, also thinks Oudsema will complete his education. “Although I don’t see him necessarily staying in tennis after that, because he has many other interests and options.”

“But the right time for him to turn professional is now, when he has the backing. You don’t want him to look back and say ‘What if?’

David Nainkin, a USTA High Performance men’s coach traveling with the top U.S. juniors, agrees.

“Sure, it’s a risk,” said Nainkin, a 34-year-old South African who played eight years on the ATP tour and recently completed his degree at UCLA. “But it’s a calculated one. If you want to be a success, achieve excellence, you have to take a risk.”

And, regardless of what the next decade brings, Oudsema and his family recognize he will face a transition to a new career, a prospect not nearly as daunting to teenagers today, for whom lifelong employment is a quaint feature of their grandparents’ lives.

“All young people today expect to have a series of jobs and employers, maybe even careers, depending on the paths they take, “ said Bill Oudsema. “So we are supporting Scott’s decision as a family, and when the time comes for another career decision, we’ll help him then, too.”

“But ultimately, you’ve got to follow your heart.”

And if that leads to Roads Not Taken, Scott Oudsema is philosophical. “Every decision involves risk. I think I can play with the best in the world, so I might as well go for it.”