US college tennis: Simmering row over foreign players

By Franz Strasser
BBC World News America, Charlottesville, Virginia


No other American college sport has more international players than tennis. But with tens of millions of dollars in scholarships going to foreign-born players each year, critics argue that the use of non-American athletes has got to be reined in for the good of home-grown students.

Head coach Joey Scrivano is preparing for one of the biggest tournaments of the season. He calls his players simply "kiddo" and his team the "Bears". But a look at the scoreboard tells a bigger story about the Baylor University women's tennis team.

Names like Secerbegovic, Nakic, Stanivuk, Novakova and Filipiak fill the roster for the team from Waco, Texas. Baylor was listed as the top team in the US last spring, but did not have a single American player on the team.

When Baylor hired him in 2003, Scrivano's mission was to develop the best tennis programme in the country. "I believe I should be able to win and so I will find the best players who are going to be competitive," he says.

Scrivano is not alone. Six of the 16 teams competing at the ITA Indoor Championship in Virginia have more international players than Americans. The top 25 teams in men's and women's tennis list 175 players from abroad - some 37% of all players.

image copyright(C) British Broadcasting Corporation
image captionThe Baylor women's team has won the Big 12 conference title for six straight years.

'Mercenary athletes'

Veteran coaches and tennis officials agree that the best American players have long been opting to play for a small handful of traditional tennis powerhouses, leaving little US talent for schools like Baylor to recruit.

"It's a dilemma for the coach who is under pressure to win and has a limited number of outstanding American players available," says David Benjamin, the President of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA).

With more money and prestige in college sports, the pressure is on the coaches and the athletic directors, says Benjamin. "It's a lot tougher now. You might not get fired, but you might not get a bonus, either."

For decades, Stanford University has had no problem attracting top American tennis talent, and has won the national title in women's tennis six times in the last 10 years. Stanford won the ITA Indoor Championship this February with no international players on its 11-woman roster.

Not being able to recruit the top athletes stateside should not be an excuse for tennis coaches, says Lele Forood, Stanford head coach. "It's gone well beyond what it should be. You are basically renting players and have mercenary athletes that help you win championships."

Some of the international players flowing into the American system come through Anton Rudjuk, who was one of the first Russian-born players in the US and now runs a recruiting service for players and coaches.

Since 2004, he has helped over 600 athletes find playing time and scholarships at US colleges.

"It was intimidating for the coaches at first and they didn't want to spend the dollars," says Rudjuk, who has brought between 25-30 coaches to Russia. "We broke the door down, offered recruiting trips, and rented the courts so that they can check out the players in person."

The higher you go in the team rankings, the more international players you will find, says Rudjuk. "Obviously the pressure is on."


Rudjuk's players pay him between $1,500-2,000 (£925-1,133) up front for the consultation, the connection to a coach, and help with the paperwork. He does not guarantee a spot but the reward, a four-year scholarship to some of the top schools in the US, can be worth 40 times the investment.

In the top 25 women teams about 40 percent of the scholarships in Division 1 go to international players. The top 25 schools in Division 2 award about 70 percent of their 6 scholarships per team to female players from abroad.

Many in college tennis say that international players are often older than their American high school counterparts. Some of them have been unsuccessful as professional players, and use college tennis as a second chance - and an opportunity for free education.

"It's a fairness issue," says Geoff Macdonald, who coaches one international player on his women's team at Vanderbilt University. "I don't think the intent of Title IX was for a European pro to come here and take a scholarship from an American kid who might not be as good."

Title IX was signed into law in 1972 and requires equal funding for boys and girls in every educational program under federal funding. It has resulted in a significant increase in scholarships available for female sports, such as college tennis.

But with more than 5,700 scholarships available for both men's and women's tennis, David Benjamin, the ITA president, argues some schools would leave money on the table if they did not allocate it to international players.

"It's hard to find an American girl who doesn't get a scholarship," says Benjamin. "There is less opportunity in the top teams for American players, but they can still get a scholarship somewhere else."

Pro effect

There are only four Americans in the top 20 in men's and women's professional tennis, and the Williams sisters are two of them.

Former coaches like Tim Cass, now associate athletic director at the University of New Mexico, say more scholarships for international players means fewer Americans will make their way up to the professional level.

"Those kids stop playing at the age of 18 as opposed to 22 and tennis is not a part of their life anymore."

Among proponents and critics alike, there is widespread agreement that international players raise the level of college tennis, and the US Tennis Association (USTA) argues it helps in the development of future US professional players.

"A player like John Isner needed those four years in his development and the added push that the high competition level provided," says Erica Perkins, Manager for Junior and Collegiate Competition at the USTA.

But for parents like Wayne Bryan, whose sons Bob and Mike played at Stanford and are currently the best men's double team in the world, the sport was not meant to purely develop professional players but to provide important life lessons for student athletes.

"I don't think college tennis should be a world-class sport. And you shouldn't have to compete with the world to play at Baylor or any other place."

Limiting the amount of scholarships that are given to international players, as some coaches and officials demand, would conflict with the US constitution, says David Benjamin. In the end it is up to each university and its president to define a mission for their sports program.

"We are a global village, and that is not unique to college tennis."

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