American Collegiate Invitational

American Collegiate Invitational

Any opportunity to showcase college tennis is a “win” in my book. The American Collegiate Invitational (ACI), held during the second week of the US Open, is no exception.

The USTA started hosting the ACI in 2014, featuring 8 men and 8 women playing a single-elimination singles tournament with the winner of each draw receiving a wildcard entry into the following year’s US Open Qualifying tournament. If, however, the winner is ranked 120 or better by the US Open entry deadline, then he/she will get a wildcard entry directly into the Main Draw. That’s means a huge payday for these young athletes – the 2017 qualifiers received $8000 just for being in the tournament, $50,000 if they actually made it into the First Round of the Main Draw. ACI winners also get wildcards into three USTA Pro Circuit events, and the runners-up each get one.

It is interesting to note that, although the ACI features college players, this is not an official college event. That means participants are competing as individuals, not as representatives of their schools. That also means that, even though they may receive coaching during their matches, the players’ college coaches cannot be the ones doing the coaching due to NCAA compliance regulations. The strange part is that players wear their college uniforms while competing and are introduced by name and school, but the scoreboard and draw show them as from the US as opposed to their university. For the life of me, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand all the NCAA rules!

This year’s ACI Tournament Director was none other than recently-resigned USTA’s Director of Junior Tournaments, Bill Mountford. He told me that USTA chose to start this event 4 years ago in order to demonstrate its commitment to college tennis, to celebrate the best players by showcasing them on American tennis’s grandest stage: the US Open. And, to its credit, USTA is fully-invested in these players and this event, treating the collegians like Tennis Royalty by footing the bill for their travel, hotel accommodations at the Grand Hyatt (the official player hotel for the Open), and even taking them out for a gourmet meal the night before starting play. “They should be treated like royalty. They’ve come through Juniors and been among the best players. They’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours honing their skills. They should be celebrated. It’s got to feel inspiring when they’re out there practicing right next to Rafael Nadal or having their racquets strung right next to Juan Martin Del Potro or being called in the morning by the Bryan Brothers because they need to practice with someone who’s going to hit kick serves to the ad court to warm them up for the day’s match. These are the best of the best of our young American players.”

He went on to say that he hopes the ACI players view this event as an extension of their US Open Juniors experience, bridging the gap between that tournament and the time they will, hopefully, be competing at the Open in the Main Draw. Being on these courts at this venue is a learning experience for them that should aid the transition as they move from college onto the pro tour.

2017 NCAA Women’s Champion, Brienne Minor, confirmed Bill’s hope. “To be able to play in the US Open and then this Invitational has been amazing! I’m so glad I had this opportunity. Hopefully, I can come back here. I definitely do want to play after college. I’m glad I got to have the experience and to know what it’s like and to be around the top pro players is pretty amazing, just to get that atmosphere. Now I know what it’s like and if I get to come back, I can change a few things and know what to expect.” Unfortunately, Brienne will be taking a break from tennis this Fall to have surgery on both her knees. The plan is to rehab and be ready for the dual match season in January.

I had a chance to speak with several of this year’s ACI players, and they all agreed that this event is a wonderful opportunity and certainly welcome the chance to earn a wildcard into next year’s Qualifying or Main Draw, but they view it as one more step in the process. Any time they get to compete on a big stage, it puts them one step closer to their goal of competing at the WTA/ATP level, which most of the players want. As UVA graduate Thai Kwiatkowski said, “If you can’t enjoy playing at the US Open, then you shouldn’t play the game!”

I found it interesting to hear Thai say it hurt more to lose his Main Draw match to Mischa Zverev, mostly due to the loss of ranking points and money that would help him fund his first year on the tour, than it did to lose first round in the ACI to eventual winner Tom Fawcett (Stanford). “I graduated with a Business Degree from UVA, and there’s a massive opportunity cost every day I step out on the tennis court. I’m eventually going to get out into the business world. I think I’m playing right now because I’ve played tennis my whole life, and it’s always been a dream, and I know that if I quit now I’ll always have in the back of my mind that I should’ve played. I’m getting that out of my system and seeing how far it can take me.” He shared that he’s continuing to study and learn while out on the tour because he misses that aspect of being a collegiate student-athlete. Thai went on to say that he’s going to miss everything about college tennis. “Those bus rides and tough matches and celebrations . . . I’m still best friends with all those guys and still talk to them every day, so it’s not too far off.”

I also had a chance to speak with several of the players’ parents, including Scott Holt (Brandon’s dad), Kevin Minor (Brienne’s dad), Beata Redlicki (Michael’s mom), and Carlo DiLorenzo (Francesca’s dad). After seeing all of them back in May at the NCAA Championships, it was great to catch up and get their take on this tournament. They each viewed this event as a wonderful opportunity for their children to play at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the US Open but also realize it’s just another step in their long tennis journey.

And in case you think these college students no longer need that kind of parental support . . . ACI Women’s Champion, Francesca DiLorenzo, had a parent in the stands cheering her on for each match, both in the Women’s Qualifying and the Women’s Doubles Main Draw as well as in this event. “It means a lot to have that support from home,” she shared. And, I have to say my heart nearly melted when I saw Thai Kwiatkowski hug and kiss his dad, Tim, after his first-round loss. What a sweet father-son moment!

Fran is taking the Fall off from Ohio State to pursue her professional tennis career, but, at least as of now, is planning to return to school for the dual match season though she will re-assess in the next couple of months. Some of the new, more restrictive, rules from NCAA are hurting her ability to play enough tournaments in the Fall which was a big factor in her decision to take the next few months off from school. Also, the fact that her major doesn’t allow for as many online classes now that she’s in her Junior year played a role in her decision.

I asked Fran how former UCLA player Jennifer Brady’s success at this year’s US Open impacts her. “It’s always really nice to see a college player do well. It gives us all hope. It’s really good for college tennis and shows that you can do something after college, that it’s not the end of the road like sometimes people think. For her to represent, not just her school but all of college, is unbelievable. It’s really exciting!”

Watching these kids compete was such a treat! I was there the first day of the very first ACI in 2014 but hadn’t been back since. Unfortunately, I had to fly back to Atlanta yesterday before the Men’s ACI Final, but I did see all the other matches this year. College tennis, in case you were wondering, is in great hands!

ACI Women’s Draw & Results

Round 1 (Quarterfinals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Sara Daavettila (UNC So) 6-1, 6-2
Ena Shibahara (UCLA So) d. Brienne Minor (Michigan Jr, NCAA Champ) 6-1, 6-3
Sydney Campbell (Vanderbilt Grad) d. Alexa Graham (UNC So) 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6)
Ingrid Neel (Florida So) d. Hayley Carter (UNC Grad) 4-6, 6-4, 6-2

Round 2 (Semifinals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Ena Shibahara (UCLA So) 6-4, 6-1
Ingrid Neel (Florida So) d. Sydney Campbell (Vanderbilt Grad) 6-4, 1-6, 6-2

Round 3 (Finals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Ingrid Neel (Florida So) 4-6, 6-4, 6-4

ACI Men’s Draw & Results

Round 1 (Quarterfinals):
Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) d. Chris Eubanks (GA Tech Sr) 6-2, 6-4
Brandon Holt (USC So) d. William Bushamuka (Kentucky Jr) 6-2, 6-2
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Thai Kwiatkowski (UVA Grad, NCAA Champ) 7-6 (5), 6-4
Alfredo Perez (Florida Jr) d. Alex Rybakov (TCU Jr) 7-5, 6-3

Round 2 (Semifinals):
Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) d. Brandon Holt (USC So) 4-6, 6-0, 6-3
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Alfredo Perez (Florida Jr) 6-1, 6-2

Round 3 (Finals):
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 6-4

 

USTA & College Tennis

USTA

Today, USTA announced the members of its 2015 Collegiate National Team (click here to read USTA’s full press release):

Men’s Team

Mackenzie McDonald, UCLA, rising Junior

Noah Rubin, Wake Forest, turned pro at completion of Freshman year

Ryan Shane, University of Virginia, rising Senior

Women’s Team

Brooke Austin, University of Florida, rising Sophomore

Jennifer Brady, UCLA, turned pro at completion of Sophomore year

Julia Elbaba, University of Virginia, rising Senior

Jamie Loeb, University of North Carolina, rising Junior

Several college coaches will travel with these players over the summer as they compete in the various Pro Circuit events across the US. USTA will also provide grant money and other support to additional top college players not on the Collegiate National Team. I was especially happy to read this quote from new General Manager of Player Development, Martin Blackman: ““It is of vital importance that college tennis remains a strong part of the professional tennis player pathway. Therefore, USTA Player Development will continue to provide America’s top college players with the resources to help them make the transition from college to successful pro careers.”

I have maintained for a while now that if we want US tennis to grow and thrive, college tennis must be a viable option for young players and their families. This USTA Player Development support for a small group of top college players is a step in the right direction.

I would also love to see USTA’s Junior Competition & Sportsmanship Committee create an arm to provide financial support and guidance to those players who have devoted a decade or more to our sport but who may not qualify for the assistance from Player Development. With less and less money available for tennis scholarships, especially on the men’s side, this is a way that USTA could step in and help families cope with the ever-increasing costs of junior development and a college education.

There are a couple of new USTA Pro Circuit events popping up around the country such as the one at Wake Forest and the one at University of the Pacific. I suspect more universities will be jumping on the Futures bandwagon in the coming months which is a great boon for older juniors and college players who are looking to take their tennis to the next level. But, like junior tournaments, these Pro Circuit events can get expensive when you add in entry fees, travel, hotel, etc.

If USTA could come up with multiple levels of its Collegiate National Team platform so a greater number of young players could have a chance to receive at least some financial support, I believe it would have a quick trickle down effect on drawing more young players into the sport. Maybe with ITA’s recent announcement of its partnership with Oracle, this is an opportunity for USTA and ITA to work together to help grow the sport. Or maybe USTA should take a lesson from ITA and seek out a major sponsor devoted to supporting college players. Thoughts???

 

 

My Son Said the “F” Word

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Tennis is a game. Games are supposed to be fun. Ergo, tennis is supposed to be fun. However, as many of us Tennis Parents know, junior tournaments by their very nature can suck the fun right out of things. So, imagine my surprise and delight when my son said the “F” word in relation to a junior tennis event this past week!

We left very cold and very windy weather in Atlanta Thursday afternoon to travel to Naples, Florida for the ITA Coaches Convention Junior Showcase, a one-day event being held at the Naples Waldorf-Astoria for high school players to strut their stuff in front of a wide variety of college coaches. The event was co-sponsored by USTA’s Collegiate Tennis department which offered a one-hour parent information session on the college recruiting process. For those juniors who play mostly within their own section and don’t get a chance to play in front of coaches from other parts of the country (like my son), this was a fantastic opportunity!

We arrived in Florida around 5pm on Thursday, drove from the Ft. Meyers airport with the sunroof and windows open in our rented Chevy Impala, and arrived at the hotel about 45 minutes later. My son changed into his tennis gear, and we headed over to Pelican Bay Community Park for him to get in a hit with one of the local boys who would also be at the next day’s Showcase (a huge thank-you to coach Chuck Breger for setting it up). IMG_1917The boys played while I sat nearby and watched. Even though the kids were working hard, they seemed to be having a great time knocking the ball around and getting to know each other a bit during their water breaks.

The next morning, we walked over to the Waldorf courts for check-in. FYI, the cost to participate in the Showcase was $20, quite a bargain. My son didn’t know anyone there other than Alan (the boy he hit with the night before), but he walked out to the practice courts and found some guys to warm up with while I headed back to the lobby for a meeting. After about an hour, he texted me letting me know he was all set and would meet me back in the lobby to pick up some water and Powerade before the matches started.

My meeting happened to be with another Naples-area coach named Brett Hobden – we were discussing Brett’s coaching philosophy and his ideas for developing players. Once my son came in, Brett gave him some excellent advice. Brett told my son that the college coaches wouldn’t be concerned with wins and losses in this event; in fact, if they were watching a match, they probably wouldn’t even look at the score. The coaches would be looking for attitude, for technique, and for fight. They wanted to see players with a love for the game who could be coached and who wouldn’t be high-maintenance, behavior-wise. He advised my son to “play big,” to go for his shots even if he missed them, to brush off errors and move onto the next point with determination and positive focus. My son shook Brett’s hand, thanked him for the advice, and we walked back out to the courts.

After a brief players meeting, the 32 participating boys walked across the parking lot to “their side” of the facility to get their court assignments. At check-in, the kids had been asked to create a cardboard sign with their last name and the color of their clothing which they would attach to the fence during their matches so the coaches could identify them.IMG_1921 Each player would play 3 matches against 3 different opponents – the matches themselves consisted of one set to 6 with a tiebreaker played at 5-all. They would have 30-45 minutes between matches to rest and refuel with all matches expected to finish by 4pm (plenty of time for us to get back to the Ft. Myers airport for our 6:30 flight!).

I can’t speak to what went on on the girls’ side, but the boys’ matches all seemed to go off without a hitch. There were no loud “C’mons” or thrown racquets or arguments. The feeling I had as an observer was that these kids were all there to help each other shine in front of the coaches. I only saw a couple of questioned calls, but even those were resolved without any yelling or accusations. It was as if all the players took an unspoken oath at the beginning of the day to be on their best behavior.

Throughout the day, my son kept checking in with the boys he had met to see how their matches were going. I kept my distance, giving my son the space he needed in this new environment. I wandered around the courts, talking to other parents and to some of the college coaches, learning as much as I could about the various schools represented there. For the most part, the parents stayed calm and quiet. Again, a nice change from the typical junior tournament atmosphere.

After he came off the court from his final match, and after a 45-minute impromptu Life Lessons session with former NCAA champion Peter Rennert in the parking lot, I asked my son what he thought about the Showcase. He replied, “Mom, this was really great! Thank you for bringing me. It was fun!”

Fun? FUN? I hadn’t heard him use that word in relation to his tennis in a very long time. I asked him what – specifically – was fun about it. Was it the format? Was it getting to play in the warm weather in the middle of December? Was it simply coming to a new place?

He answered that it was nice not having to think about how many ranking points he would get for a win or who his next opponent would be or being out of the tournament early due to a loss. He liked playing all new guys. He liked that the tournament was over for everyone at the same time. He liked the experience of playing in front of college coaches and seeing them watch him in action. He liked the supportive atmosphere, the feeling that they were all in this together.

If your child is in high school and playing college tennis is a goal, please consider taking him or her to a future Showcase event. You can get dates and other information from the USTA’s College Tennis page and on TennisRecruiting.net. There are several private companies that host college showcases as well, such as Donovan Tennis Strategies and Ed Krass College Tennis Academy. And, Ross Greenstein of Scholarship for Athletes is another a great resource for getting exposure to a variety of college coaches.

My son and I both came away from this experience feeling good, feeling excited, feeling hopeful. On the flight home, my son thanked me several more times for taking him down to Naples. He spent much of the flight talking tennis with me, discussing his thoughts on college and how he could get himself where he wants to be. He asked me tennis-related questions and was genuinely interested in my answers. Please understand this is NOT how we typically spend the ride home from a tournament!

That day, I saw a new maturity in my son, both on the tennis court and off. He was composed yet energized, outgoing and polite, inquisitive and receptive. I know he didn’t just wake up that morning a changed young man, that this maturity was a result of all the work he has put in over his 17 years on this planet, but it all seemed to come together on Friday the 13th. And in big part because of the “F” word.