The decision to play professional tennis can be a tricky one for a young tennis player. Aiming high, some of the greatest of all time like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal turned pro as teens. On the other hand, fellow greats John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Billy Jean King played college tennis before committing to the professional tour. Twins Mike and Bob Bryan, arguably the best doubles pair of all time, enjoyed tremendous success at Stanford during their college days.
The college decision isn’t as unanimous or straightforward as it is for other sports like basketball, where the number of “one and done” freshman has risen significantly over the years.
The US Open was a big moment for former college players, with Illinois alum Kevin Anderson making his first grand slam final, the first college player to do so in nearly 15 years. At age 31, Anderson carried crowd support from a significant number of Illinois fans and alumni in the greatest achievement of his career and credited his college experience with a role in getting him to where he is now.
Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, who was crowned the NCAA men’s singles champion in May, is now making the transition to the pro tour following a four-year career at the University of Virginia.
“Everyone’s tough at this level, so if you’re not doing all of your strengths really well, it’s tough to win,” Kwiatkowski admitted after his first match at the professional level. “The competition in college is really good and if you’re not ready to go pro at the age of 18, it’s a really good opportunity to mature and get a lot better.”
Kwiatkowski is following an increasingly common trend of players making their way from a college career to the professional tour.
Rajeev Ram, a doubles veteran whose continuous improvement saw him win the biggest title of his career earlier this year in Indian Wells, was part of a historic Illinois team back in 2002. His team went undefeated on the season, capturing every possible NCAA title, with Ram on the championship doubles team.
Ram left Illinois after his sophomore year to go pro, but would do things differently if he were to do it over again.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve certainly stayed a little bit longer, but at the time it kind of felt like ‘if you’re going to make a career out of this’ you have to start earlier,” Ram said, citing the age shift of the top tier in tennis towards men in their 30s.
One of the highlights of Ram’s career was capturing the silver medal at the Rio Olympics with Venus Williams and he compared the motivation to that of playing on a college team.
“When you play on a team, you definitely feel a different kind of pressure...we don’t have that very much in tennis and I wish we had a little bit more of it, because I really enjoy the team atmosphere,” Ram said
The general consensus among former college players heavily favors sticking with that track and going to college rather than risking it all to go pro. American Dennis Novikov went to UCLA for two years and wouldn’t do anything differently if he had to do it over.
“It’s a backup plan, and a good basis to build everything around [your game]. Taking the extra year or two to develop both physically and mentally would be good for the tour,” Novikov said. He added the decision is unique to every person, with some great players going through all four years and others going through only a year or two.
Like the NBA and NFL, there’s no set path to success but tennis seems to get overlooked in this discussion. College tennis doesn’t get much of the glory, but it helps people like Anderson and Ram build strong, successful careers. Former college tennis players are rising again and Anderson’s run in New York can only inspire more to choose college over going pro early.
Shahan Kamal is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.