Historic combined NCAA Championships will be a boon to recent tennis surge
Over the last three years, tennis participation in the United States is up 33%, and with that, comes the need for more playing opportunities at all levels of the game. And with nearly 20,000 student-athletes already competing at colleges and universities of all stripes in the U.S., the intercollegiate arm of the sport is primed to be a lynchpin for the next generation of players who are seeking a competitive outlet.
The role that college tennis already plays in the sport's overall ecosystem will be highlighted as soon as next month in Orlando, Fla., as the USTA National Campus hosts a combined edition of the men's and women's NCAA Championships—the first time that Divisions I, II and III will play their championships at a single site in any sport. It's a historic undertaking, but one that Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) CEO Tim Russell says is emblematic of the current state of the sport in the country.
"The fact this is happening while this growth is going on is nothing but a good thing," Russell said. "What I like to say is that college tennis is kind of the connective tissue in the tennis ecosystem. It's a an aspirational goal for juniors. It [can be] a launching point for some people to go on to pros, but also for other people who are going to play tennis as a sport for a lifetime.
"When you think about college athletics, they've always been an integral part of the higher education ecosystem, but college sports are just as important in the sports ecosystem. I think it should do nothing but help pour accelerant on a already growing sport, and whenever we can shine a light on our sport in new and unique ways, I think it brings new people to the game."
The three-year surge in tennis participation has been bouyed by increases in nearly all demographics, including with young people; more than 2 million new players aged 6-17 picked up a racquet between 2019 and 2021, for a total of 6.9 million players by the close of 2021. As only a small percentage of junior players go on to professional careers, Russell says that having an ever-increasing pool of potential college tennis players can only bolster the upward trends the sport has seen on campuses nationwide over the last decade.
Since taking the top job at the ITA in 2015, Russell has seen more parity in competition, enhanced infastructure—"There are a lot of people coming to work on behalf of college tennis," he says—and better collaboration between stakeholders.
All of this, he says, sets student-athletes up for their post-graduation edeavors.
"One of the things we're really excited about in the world of college tennis is how many people go on to success in life," Russell said. "One of the taglines the ITA has used has been serving college tennis and returning the leaders of tomorrow. ... I think part of the allure here is connecting people's life journeys.
"I've been fond of saying college tennis is ultimately about higher education. Division I might have the biggest schools, whether it's UCLA, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, and a lot of the Division III schools, whether it's the University of Chicago, Williams or Middlebury, are some of the greatest institutions of higher learning of all time. The various players and teams from different divisions will get to interact with the other ones, and that doesn't happen very often. For everybody to be intersecting at the National Campus, I think is an incredible opportunity."
Russell says that the seeds for better teammwork between the ITA, NCAA and USTA, and this first-of-its-kind championships, were laid well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the creation of the Tennis Industry United advocacy group in response to the pandemic helped facilitate further unity.
"We have probably the strongest alliances we've ever had between the ITA, USTA and NCAA," he said. "We just did a big announcement with the ATP about a Challenger accelerator program [which earmarks spots in tournament draws to the best college players]. We also now have, for the first time in a long time, the ITF, the international governing body of world tennis, talking about college tennis. I think there is real support by many different organizations."
As a result, the road to this 17-day tennis festival will culminate with a world-class experience for student-athletes, coaches and fans alike this May, with the USTA National Campus as an ideal stage.
"Much like this combined championship is a one-of-a-kind, the USTA National Campus is one-of-a-kind," Russell said. "They're going to experience a tennis facility that's like no other. I think people are genuinely going to feel welcome, and they're going to experience tennis at a very high level. The other word I would use is just excitement ... I think you're going to find even increased excitement from people who might have attended when Division I was there alone or Division III was there alone.
"When you have a one-on-one singles match, it's exciting. But there's nothing quite like a college dual match. Watching three doubles matches at a time, then six singles at a time, is a very unique experience. It's just not like anything else in the world of college sports."
Tickets for the Division I NCAA Championships are on sale now. Click here to visit the NCAA Championships hub at the USTA National Campus website to purchase tickets and for further information about the tournament.