Former NCAA champion Steve Johnson has jumped nearly 100 ranking spots since the start of 2014.
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By McCarton Ackerman, USTA.com
Years ago, college tennis was viewed by many as a consolation prize for players who weren’t quite talented enough to make it in pro tennis. But with the top three American men in the world rankings – John Isner, Bradley Klahn and Steve Johnson – all making noise on the ATP World Tour after four years on campus, college tennis is now being seen as a place for players to mature both on and off the court, refining their games while preparing mentally for the future demands of life on tour.
World No. 9 John Isner has made no secret of his Bulldog pride. The University of Georgia graduate won the NCAA doubles title in 2007 and also reached the singles final that year before turning pro. He’s since won eight ATP titles and cleared well over $6 million in prize money, something which he says wouldn’t have been possible without his time in the college town of Athens.
“Without college I wouldn’t be here today,” Isner said during the 2012 US Open. “I can say that with 100 percent certainty. I wasn’t nearly good enough to go pro after high school. I didn’t even have pro aspirations. I got so much better at Georgia. Once I did get so much better, I realized that I could maybe play professional tennis.”
Isner’s success has since spurred on the next generation of NCAA stars. After winning the NCAA men’s singles championship in 2010, Bradley Klahn stayed at Stanford for two more years before graduating in 2012. In the last 12 months, Klahn has won four singles titles on the ITF and USTA Pro Circuits, while also reaching the finals at three other events. Those results have propelled him from No. 178 in the ATP rankings last July to his current spot at No. 65.
While some – maybe most – players might have turned pro immediately after winning the NCAA title, Klahn said it was important for him to stick around Stanford because his parents always emphasized education. And Like many young Americans, Klahn said he was inspired by Isner translating his dominant college results into similar success at the pro level.
“I think that his success has been great for college tennis because it shows that you can go to school for four years and still go on to be successful at the professional level,” said Klahn. “There are a lot of benefits from going to college and it allows you to continue working on your game while getting an education.”
Like Klahn, Johnson returned to USC for his senior year after winning the NCAA men’s singles championship in 2011. Although some people questioned his decision to delay his pro tennis career for 12 months, he has credited the extra time with the Trojans as being instrumental to his game, a sentiment that head coach Peter Smith also agreed with.
"The grand lesson from all this is how Steve Johnson proved that you can stay in college and be successful and grow," Smith told ITATennis.com of his two-time NCAA champion, who ended his career on a 72-match collegiate winning streak. "My biggest fear was that Steve would come back and not improve, but he was such a better tennis player a year later – and it wasn't even close."
Just 18 months after turning pro, Johnson is setting himself up to be a player to watch at this year’s US Open. The 24-year-old started his 2014 season by reaching the quarterfinals at the ATP event in Auckland, New Zealand, then followed that up a month later by defeating then-world No. 12 Tommy Haas on his way reaching the semifinals at the ATP event in Delray Beach , Fla. He also won the $100,000 USTA Pro Circuit event this February in Dallas, and reached the final of another $125,000 event last month in Irving, Texas.
Last week, Johnson won his second title of the year by capturing a $100,000 title in Guadeloupe. Having started the year ranked No. 156, he is now at a career-high ranking of No. 69 after just three months.
“The first year is easy. You’ve got nothing to defend, no points coming off the board. It’s easy to play tennis that way, knowing you can never really go the wrong way,” Johnson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Coming out of college, I wasn’t used to losing and I had to learn how to deal with it. I took them hard, for the whole year. Now I’m looking at it a little differently and looking to improve.”
The growing trend of top college players finishing their education can also be attributed to most ATP players experiencing success later in their careers. The days of teenagers winning Grand Slam titles are a thing of the past. The average age of players currently in the Top 10 is 28. Only one player in the Top 100, No. 81 Dominic Thiem of Austria, is under the age of 21.
“It’s not how it used to be in the 80s and 90s where you would have 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds inside the Top 10 in the world,” said Isner. “In my opinion, it takes longer for guys to develop. I feel like a lot of top Americans are now going the college route.”