Texas A&M men’s tennis coach Steve Denton knows a thing or two about transitioning from the college game to the pros. After four years playing at the University of Texas, he reached a career-high ATP ranking of No. 12 in singles and No. 2 in doubles. The key to his success on tour, he says? Staying in school.
“I didn’t start in the pros full time until I was 22,” says Denton. “That was ample time. I was a little more prepared. “I think I would have failed had I tried to go at 18. My theory is the earlier you leave to play the pro circuit, the more likely it is you’re going to fail.”
Steve Johnson and John Isner crafted successful tour careers as college graduates. More grads are thriving in doubles, and while there are fewer alums in the WTA Top 100, the numbers are increasing Danielle Collins, who reached this year’s Australian Open semifinals and has skyrocketed up the rankings, came to the pros with a University of Virginia degree in hand.
“Now at 18, players aren’t ready. It’s different than 20 or 30 years ago.”
“College is definitely a pathway to the pros—by no means is going to college a failure of any kind,” Denton says. “It’s just another path to get you to where you want to go.”
College tennis gives players time to properly mature in an environment packed with important resources: dedicated coaches, on-campus training facilities and strong competition.
“I’ve recruited some players where, three or four years later, they’re not even playing anymore,” says John Roddick, men’s coach at the University of Central Florida. “Whereas if they had gone to college, three or four years later, they’d be just getting their start.”
It’s also important to consider just how much the game has changed over the last decade from a physical standpoint. Training in college will pay dividends in the short and long term, particularly in an era where professionals are playing—and in some cases, peaking—in their 30s. Teen prodigies are out; extended careers are in.
“I think it’s changing,” says Michigan women’s coach Ronni Bernstein about the professional game. “Now at 18, players aren’t ready. It’s different than 20 or 30 years ago, when players were ready to make it at 17 or 18 years old. It’s so much more physical.”
There will always be exceptions; Stefanos Tsitsipas and Amanda Anisimova didn’t step foot on a campus. But for many players with pro-tour ambitions, college tennis should be seen as a necessary part of the process.
Just as the undergraduate experience prepares the next generation of teachers and lawyers for the professional world, so can college tennis.