College tennis serves as
pathway to the pros
Arthur Kapetanakis and Taylor Linton | May 23, 2019
For some collegiate tennis players, the dream extends beyond the NCAA Championships. With the resources available at today’s top programs, the college game has cemented its reputation as a pathway to the professional level—as illustrated by the college-to-pro “dream team” unveiled at the end of this piece.
“Most universities at this level are like Olympic villages, in terms of the training opportunities,” explained Vanderbilt women’s head coach Geoff Macdonald. “You can get really good if you can keep the dream alive.”
As a result, the contingent of former collegians flourishing in the pros continues to grow, led by current stars like Danielle Collins, John Isner and the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike.
“We’re proud,” Texas Christian University head coach David Roditi said of the influx of former college stars on the ATP and WTA Tours, which includes TCU alum Cameron Norrie, who now ranks in the ATP’s Top 50. ADVERTISEMENT “We’re very proud of what our alumni are doing out there on the tour. There’s been a lot of changes, and there’s definitely no question that college tennis is a legitimate path to the pros.”
Collins, a University of Virginia grad and a two-time NCAA singles champion (2014, 2016), is the latest shining example of collegiate talent impacting the professional ranks. After working her way into the WTA’s Top 40 in her first two years as a full-time professional, Collins hit new heights by reaching the 2019 Australian Open semifinals. Thanks to her time at the top of the high-pressure collegiate game, the relative newcomer to the WTA Tour shows no fear on the game’s biggest stages.
Aussie Astra Sharma, a 2018 Vanderbilt grad, reached the singles quarterfinals at the NCAA Championships exactly one year ago. Next week, the freshly minted member of the WTA’s Top 100 will compete in the French Open. Her ranking earned her direct entry into the Paris main draw—her first direct entry into a Grand Slam tournament—after she qualified and reached the second round at the Australian Open in her major debut.
Macdonald, her former coach, noted that Sharma still keeps in contact with the Commodores, who she helped to an NCAA team title in 2015 as a redshirt freshman. The 23-year-old still has a house in Nashville and trains at the university’s tennis facility. In fact, she hit with the current squad the day before they jetted off to the USTA National Campus in Orlando for their NCAA quarterfinal match.
“She’s a ‘Dore,” Macdonald proudly declared. “Once a ‘Dore, always a ‘Dore.”
And it’s not just on the court where college tennis pays dividends, he explained.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding of how college tennis can be an incredible developmental path to the pros,” the coach continued, “in terms of just developing as a human being, getting an education, making great lifelong friendships and relationships, and having a connection to a university.
Fomer UCLA Bruin Jennifer Brady, who now trains full-time at the USTA National Campus, also stays close to her college roots. The Orlando resident, who reached a career-high WTA ranking of No. 60 in 2017, makes a point to visit her old campus before Indian Wells each year.
“She misses it a lot,” said Bruins head coach Stella Sampras Webster. “She loves coming back. It feels like a family atmosphere.
“She definitely keeps track of us, and we keep track of her too, so it’s fun.”
Virginia’s Thai-Son Kwiatkowski had one of the more decorated collegiate careers of all-time, winning three straight NCAA team titles with the Cavaliers (2015-17) and capping it off with the 2017 NCAA singles title (for which he received a wild card into the 2017 US Open men’s draw).
The 24-year-old, now a fixture on the ATP Challenger Circuit, remains tight with the current squad. He was on hand as a vocal supporter as his former team fell, 4-2, to Wake Forest to open NCAA quarterfinal play at the USTA National Campus.
“He’s pretty much still part of the team,” Cavaliers head coach Andres Pedroso said of his former pupil, who still spends a lot of time at the Charlottesville, Va., campus
With the nation’s top programs gathered in Orlando for the NCAA Championships, USTA.com conducted an informal poll to spotlight former collegians in the pros. During the tournament’s media day, coaches and players were asked to pick their “dream team” of current professionals that came up through the college game (see video below).
For a singles squad featuring three men and three women, the collective selections were:
- John Isner (Georgia)
- Kevin Anderson (Illinois)
- Steve Johnson (USC)
- Danielle Collins (Virginia)
- Nicole Gibbs (Stanford)
- Astra Sharma (Vanderbilt)
Other active players receiving votes: Jennifer Brady, Tennys Sandgren, Cameron Norrie, Mackenzie McDonald, Jamie Loeb, Quinn Gleason.