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College Tennis
Musings on Proposed ITA/NCAA Division I Format Changes

Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of experiments with the format of college tennis. Recently the Intercollegiate Tennis Association - the governing body of college tennis - announced a number of changes to NCAA Division I competition starting this fall. The most notable changes are (1) a move to "no-ad" rather than traditional scoring, (2) shortening doubles from an eight-game pro set to one standard six-game set, and (3) the "clinch/clinch" rule where individual doubles/singles matches are abandoned once the doubles point/match has been decided.

These changes have been met with strong feelings on both sides. On the one hand, there is a desire to shorten college tennis matches to make them more fan-friendly and TV-friendly in a world where big-time college athletics is experiencing so much upheaval. With budget stresses in athletic departments across the nation, there is a belief that changes are necessary to shore up tennis on the college athletics landscape during these uncertain times.

On the other hand, these are significant changes away from "traditional" tennis, and some people think they are drastic moves that will hurt the sport to no real benefit. The clinch/clinch rule will eliminate competition - possibly to the detriment of player development, and some believe that no-ad hurts the integrity of singles. Others think that going with one six-game set could unnecessarily deemphasize doubles - and that many top juniors may eschew college since it will use such a different format.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. There are many coaches and players who are on both sides of this debate. Fortunately, this conversation has gone on for a while, and there is a wealth of interesting material that explores these issues. If you are interested, join me for a trip down memory lane...


Relevant Content from Tennis Recruiting and Elsewhere

We have run several articles over the years featuring thoughts from college coaches. Here are a few...

(1) No-Ad Scoring is a Recipe for Excitement by Dan Magill

If we venture back to 2005 and the first months of existence for Tennis Recruiting, we find an opinion piece from Dan Magill - one of the greatest men in the history of college tennis. Magill supports a move to no-ad scoring for college tennis. He expresses his opinion with a nice historical perspective, and it should not be discounted.

(2) The Vote of 21-19 by Chuck Kriese

Chuck Kriese is another legendary coach - and he falls on the other side of the argument. He believes that (1) the decision-making process was not inclusive of key stakeholders and (2) the question of format is one of entertainment vs. education, and "dumbing down" the format for entertainment is not worth the price. Coach Kriese also has an internet radio show, and recent episodes have featured his thoughts on these changes.

(3) My Take on College Tennis by Marc Lucero

Former college coach Marc Lucero of RAMP Tennis Academy offered his interesting take on college tennis. His piece talks about the merits of the "simultaneous format" (which some coaches on the women's side are considering), but his points about the length of the dual match provide general food for thought.

(4) Comments from college tennis coaches on the 2013-14 experimental rule changes (Part 1, Part 2) by Colette Lewis

Last year, experimental rules used at the ITA Team Indoors that included third-set super-tiebreakers for the women and no-ad scoring for the men. Colette Lewis attended the women's event and talked with a number of college coaches about the format changes. The responses were largely negative - but they focused on super breakers rather than no-ad scoring.

(5) Social Media Push by college tennis players

There have been many proposals to change college tennis over the years, and the last significant push came in 2012. Back then, Michigan's Evan King and Florida's Bob van Overbeek organized opposition on Facebook and Twitter. This time around, it is Virginia's Mitchell Frank who is leading the social media charge against.

(6) Other Materials - ITA Resources

The ITA put out a great deal of information on the new format earlier this month. They describe the motivation for the changes, the process employed in coming up with the new format, and the changes themselves. You can read the full release here, and this FAQ addresses many questions. A number of coaches and hall-of-famers offer their thoughts on this page.

(7) Other Materials - Parenting Aces Internet Radio Shows

Lisa Stone of Parenting Aces hosts a weekly junior tennis radio show on UR10S, and she has quite a few relevant shows on the new format. Three recent shows are notable:

(8) Statement from the ITA

When I talked to the ITA about this article, they issued this statement:

"College tennis is at an important crossroads: while some may see collegiate 'Olympic sports' at risk of becoming obsolete, we believe the time is ripe to set a bright future for the sport of tennis, ensuring it is as exciting and vibrant as possible going forward! Our goal is to not only 'keep tennis relevant,' but to make it even more relevant and more exciting, in an ever-changing, time-challenged world. In a market-driven universe, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to sell and market collegiate varsity tennis - to college presidents, athletic directors, prospective fans, and TV."

(9) Other Links

There is too much material to cover everything, but here are some other relevant links - including a couple from Zoo Tennis:

  • Comments from top junior tennis players on the changes.
  • Petition from 145 D-I women's tennis coaches calling for a vote on these changes.
  • Comments from the wider media - SI.com, NY Times, and USA Today - was largely negative back in 2012 when initial NCAA changes were proposed.

Our Take

As I mentioned above, the truth usually lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Here are some of our thoughts...

  • Most people hate change. I know I do. Change is difficult for many people, so any significant changes will always be met with some trepidation and concern from the community.

  • To say that no-ad scoring ruins tennis seems too strong a statement. No-ad scoring was used in college tennis from 1973 to 1988, and many coaches and players seemed to like it.

  • Our own Julie Wrege coached at Georgia Tech using both traditional and no-ad scoring, and she claims to have not noticed much of a difference. She says that the rules were the rules, and they had only a limited effect on preparation and practice. Many other coaches who have experienced both systems seem to feel similarly.

  • On the other hand, the fact that so many people in the community are upset by the move is an indication that the process probably could have been handled better by the decision-makers.

  • From a historical perspective, rules changes in sport are common. Basketball is much better with dunks, a shot clock, and a three-point line. Tennis is clearly better with the set-tiebreaker at 6-all. Even the move in college doubles to an 8-game pro set - first met with apprehension - seems normal to everyone today.

  • That said, shortening the doubles seems dubious. How much time can we expect to save moving from 8-game pro sets to 6-game sets?

  • The clinch/clinch rule is probably a good idea for televised matches and tournament play, but abandoning matches could significantly impact individual rankings and player development. There is a provision for coaches and/or conferences to agree to play out regular-season dual matches. Here's hoping that all programs will decide to do so when television/streaming is not an issue.

  • I am still unclear on the goals for these changes. The most common goal stated seems to be to shorten dual matches to three hours to make the sport more fan-friendly. Is that the goal? Do we have evidence that these changes will help attain that goal? If we are trying to address dual matches, why shorten the format for individual competition like the ITA All-American and the Indoors? That said, I suppose there is something to be said for a consistent format throughout the year.

  • I love college tennis, but I do agree that the dual matches are too long for all but the most die-hard fans to watch in their entirety. Even many big fans - like me - have a hard time breaking away from the family for 4+ hours with any regularity. I rarely watch an entire regular-season dual tennis match, while I will watch a three-hour college football game.

  • I am always fearful of unintended consequences. One claim I have heard in support of these changes is that "we had to do something." That kind of comment sets off red flags in my head. "Better than nothing" is a pretty high bar to clear in my book because there will always be both good and bad ramifications. Are we sure that the good will outweigh the bad?

  • One way to make the transition go smoother and avoid those unintended consequences would have been to announce the goals up front, experiment more broadly, and measure/report progress toward goals. I can't see evidence that such an approach was taken - but, of course, we are outsiders to the process and did not receive communications between operating committee and college coaches.

  • I don't want to discount the opinions of our experienced college tennis stewards - like legends Dan Magill and Dick Gould - who staunchly support a move to no-ad.

  • People are worried that many top juniors will avoid college tennis. That may happen, but I don't see a strong case for it.

  • I like the idea of "raising the red flag" when there is a game point. I think that could be very exciting - and many others say it was when no-ad was used in the past.

The NCAA Sports Cabinet has a vote scheduled the week of September 8 to vote to implement or table these changes.



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