Home-Grown Tennis Players Losing Scholarship Battle : Colleges: Coaches looking to experienced foreigners to put together a winning program.
Jason DeVera remembers leafing through the UC Irvine Tennis Classic program this spring with his buddy, Cameran Lindee, and suddenly wondering what country he was in.
“We were going down all the rosters and we couldn’t help but notice all the foreign players,” he said. “It was incredible. We just had to laugh.”
But DeVera stopped laughing a couple weeks later when he started asking college tennis coaches how many scholarships they had available.
“The Utah coach told me he was going to offer a scholarship to a Canadian kid and the Santa Barbara coach said he was also looking for a foreign player,” said DeVera, who graduated from Villa Park High last month.
These days, it’s pretty hard to find a men’s college tennis coach who isn’t looking for--and finding--a foreign player. In the final 1993 Intercollegiate Tennis Assn. rankings, nine of the top 15 and 51 of top 100 men’s singles players are foreigners.
The numbers are not as mind-boggling in women’s college tennis, however 34 of the top 100 singles players are foreigners.
The recent international phenomenon in college tennis appears to have hit players like DeVera the hardest. Several college coaches say the blue-chip American juniors are still finding tennis scholarships, but the borderline or lower-level ranked players, who sometimes are late-bloomers, are being passed over for more experienced foreign players.
The number of men’s tennis scholarships is dropping even further because of Title IX, the federal law that requires male and female students to be treated equally in all areas of education. In order to make up for the imbalance of athletic scholarships created by college football, Division I women’s tennis teams are allowed eight scholarships, while men’s teams are allowed 4.5. Men’s teams were once entitled to eight scholarships and as recently as last year, were entitled to five.
The combination of trends has dealt a blow to boys’ junior tennis in the United States, according to several college coaches, junior boys’ players and their parents.
With nearly twice the number of scholarships available to women, the foreign invasion hasn’t appeared to affect junior girls as much.
DeVera and Lindee, who played Loara High School, were lucky. DeVera received a 40% scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Lindee got a quarter scholarship to UC Irvine, although both said their financial aid could increase in later years depending upon their play.
But neither DeVera nor Lindee was as lucky as they might have been 10 years ago, when few foreigners played college tennis in this country.
“When I first thought about playing college tennis, I thought I could go to a big school and get some money out of it,” DeVera said. “But then I realized all the big schools were going after the foreign players. I don’t think a lot of our coaches see how tough our section is.”
Former UCLA men’s coach Glenn Bassett, who retired this year after 27 years, said most coaches are recruiting foreign players for good reason.
“Scholarships are very hard to come by,” said Bassett, whose top four players this year were foreigners. “You can’t fool around. Every one you give out, you have to know you’re giving it to a real good player. The foreign players are becoming very good.”
Jakub Pietrowski, a Southern Section singles semifinalist this year as a junior at Ocean View, said college coaches are simply being realistic.
“Most of the players over there have been on the pro (satellite) tour,” he said. “The coaches want to win and unfortunately they go with the players who have the most experience.”
And judging from the latest ITA rankings, coaches have been making the right choices. Although the foreign invasion is hurting American juniors, Bassett said it has provided college tennis with more parity.
“The teams that are not very good want to make the NCAA (tournament),” said Bassett, whose team reached the NCAA semifinals this year. “The only way they are going to do this is to recruit foreign players. If we didn’t get a top American player, then we’d be behind the other schools. So we would then go after another good foreign player that could help us win the national championship.”
Schools such as Mississippi State (ranked seventh in the final ITA rankings), Alabama Birmingham (13th) and Virginia Commonwealth (15th) have turned their programs around in a hurry with predominantly foreign players.
“Many more schools are good now because of this,” Bassett said. “A couple of schools used to dominate the sport. Now other schools like UAB and Mississippi State have a chance of winning. There’s a lot more parity.”
Several coaches say schools are able to transform their programs so quickly because most European players essentially are professional. They have honed their games by playing professional satellite tournaments, while American juniors have been competing against themselves.
“The beef I have is that most of these guys in Europe have been playing pro and taking money,” said Steve Clark, UC Irvine men’s coach. “Our guys can’t do the same (in the United States satellite circuit) because it’s more closely monitored.”
Clark also stressed that opportunities available for Europeans in American collegiate programs are not an option for American players.
“Junior players in the United States don’t have the opportunity to improve their games and get a free education,” he said.
Although several college coaches now take summer recruiting trips to Europe, Bassett said most overseas recruiting is done by word of mouth or videotape.
Bassett’s No. 2 singles player, Robert Janacek of Toronto, was spotted in Europe by one of his former players. The recruitment of Janacek soon brought Bassett another Toronto product Sebastian LeBlanc, Robert Janacek’s best friend. LeBlanc played No. 1 for UCLA and finished the year ranked eighth by ITA.
Jim Settles, director of USTA junior tennis leagues in Southern California, played European satellite tournaments during the 1980s and helped recruit Europeans for his former college Coach Lou Belken at Arizona State, and other friends in college coaching.
“I used to give kids I met in Europe phone numbers of coaches at schools where I thought they’d fit in,” said Settles, who at the time was coaching many of the top juniors in Arizona. “Then one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. Why am I doing this? I can offer these coaches one of my (Arizona) kids or a European. I said, ‘This is nuts. I’m taking scholarships away from my own kids.’ So I quit doing it completely.”
Lew Brewer, an administrator for USTA training centers, said the USTA is concerned about the decreasing number opportunities for American juniors, but not alarmed.
“I think there are still enough scholarships,” Brewer said. “The problem is, who wants to go to North Dakota State? They want to go to the best school possible. But there are some good schools out there and some Division II players are almost as good as the top Division I players.
“If somebody’s willing to work hard, I think anybody can become good. You need to play against players of all ability levels to become good.”
But some parents believe the recent trend is improving the level of foreign tennis while it fosters mediocrity in American tennis.
“The NCAA has to make some different rules,” Wojtek Pietrowski, Jakub’s father and a former coach in Austria’s junior program. “Everybody’s knows this is the best competition in the world. Everybody is going to come here. The junior programs (abroad) are good until you’re 18, but they don’t have anything after that.
“So we give them the best training, and then they go beat our boys in Davis Cup.”
But Brewer wonders if the game is actually being hurt by more foreigners playing college tennis.
“Is free-market tennis good for the game overall?” he said. “Does the game improve overall? Should we have open borders?”
Sherri Stephens, University of San Diego women’s coach, said there are other advantages to having foreigners on college teams.
“They teach the American kids a lot about life in other countries,” Stephens said. “They are very appreciative, hard-working and they are good students. I don’t regret getting foreigners, but I don’t like playing teams with all foreign players either.
“Recruiting them is a pleasure though. I’ve never heard kids say, ‘Thank you,’ so much. A girl I recruited from Ireland for next year calls me every day to make sure she’s prepared. The kids over here seem to expect everything given to them.”
However, Stephens and every coach who was interviewed said too many opportunities are being taken away from American junior players.
“I feel there should be a limit, maybe two per team,” Stephens said. “Most of the scholarships should stay in the United States.”
Said Bassett: “It’s good to have people from foreign countries, but maybe there should be some kind of limit. I never thought it would explode like it has.
“This issue has been building. It’s coming more and more to the front. A quota system will be passed, maybe two foreign players per team.”