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Countdown: Amritraj Oversees USTA's College Commitment
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As the Director of Collegiate Tennis for the USTA, Stephen Amritraj is committed to raising the profile of and appreciation for college tennis in this country. His focus is not just on juniors who aspire to play at the next level, but on creating community connections and fan bases for the hundreds of collegiate teams, from junior colleges to Division I.

Stephen Amritraj is the USTA's Director of Collegiate Tennis
© Zoo Tennis
Amritraj is a product of one of those Division I teams, having played at Duke from 2002-2006. After playing briefly on the tour, the 32-year-old began coaching ATP professionals in Southern California, where he grew up. In 2013, Amritraj served as a volunteer assistant at Duke before returning to the Los Angeles area in 2014 to begin his USTA career at the Player Development Center in Carson. Named National Collegiate coach later that year, Amritraj expanded his role and now leads the USTA's Collegiate Division.

In a visit last month to the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, I spoke with Amritraj about the new facility, the USTA's commitment to college tennis, the current Division I team season, the continued expansion of the Collegiate Pro Circuit Series and many other topics.

 

Questions and Answers

Colette Lewis (CL): What impact has the new USTA National Campus had on college tennis in these early days?

Stephen Amritraj (SA): I think it's had an incredible impact. It's the first off-campus collegiate venue in the world, built specifically for college tennis. It shows the importance that was placed on college tennis in the creation of the campus and shows the opportunity we also have on the campuses.

We're actually going to have more college matches here than any other place in the world - we're having 300 spring break tennis matches. It's mostly lower D-I, D-II, D-III, NAIA, Juco and then we obviously have UCF playing all their home matches here, men and women. We're going to have the American Conference Championships here. And then we have our College Match Day series, our six bowl games that we're bringing in marquee, big-name schools for. It's on a Friday night, which is an awesome time, and we've drawn really well so far.

I feel like we're trying to create a culture of passion and love for college tennis here.

 

The USTA Collegiate Center at Lake Nona looks impressive
© Zoo Tennis
CL: What do you consider the rationale for an increased emphasis on college tennis by the USTA?

SA: I can't pinpoint the exact reason. I think Erica Perkins and Dustin Taylor, who were kind of in a quasi-similar role as mine before me, did an unbelievable job always being there for collegiate players. So I think we always had some level of support. But honestly, with the demographic changes in the game, and with the fact that it's becoming more physical, it's becoming an older sport, and it's a $75,000 commitment per year if you turn pro, when you add up the economics and the ages, it's not cheap. So we have a [collegiate] system here that does a great job in helping the development of players.

The way I look at it, everyone has a window of opportunity for when they turn pro. There are no bottomless pockets and if there are, yes, chase the dream for as long as you want. But to do it right, it's roughly 75 grand a year. If you're going to turn pro at 18, and it's four years to make Top 100, that's a lot of money. The guys and girls in school now are getting great training, are getting an education and a chance to come back an finish their education, they're getting the ability to play Pro Circuit events, have a traveling team in the summer. There's an increasing number of Pro Circuit events every year, so, I don't know, I think it's a pretty good time to go to college.

I think a lot of things are starting to fall into place and we're starting to understand the leverage we have through the system, and I think there's going to be a lot of success going forward.

 

CL: Are former college players welcome to train at the National Campus?

SA: To be honest, I think we're still in the process of rolling out the requirements to come here and I know we will have that soon enough. Right now, they've been using it mostly in tournament play. There have been a lot of tournaments on the schedule, so I would hope they'd be playing more than training right now. In December, when it was yet to be opened, that was more the training period, whereas now, there's a tournament pretty much every week somewhere. When we get to the end of the first quarter, going into the clay court season, seeing that shift in the calendar, I feel like there will be an opportunity for more people.
 

CL: What are your thoughts on the current Division I season? Who do you see as dark horses that will challenge Florida and Virginia?

SA: More than ever, there's parity in the sport. I think no-ad is very equalizing. I think it gives a lot of teams an opportunity to compete and play well. There are some dark horses out there. I think TCU is a dark horse. They have probably the best player in the country in Cameron Norrie. Ohio State, with [Mikael] Torpegaard, there are teams out there that are very, very dangerous.

For women, Pepperdine, bringing in Ashley Lahey. Oklahoma State has reloaded and they're really good. North Carolina is very good as well.

I find it very entertaining. I find the parity to be challenging for all the favorites and I think anyone who assumes that the best teams are just going to waltz through, well, I don't think the coaches think that way.

 

CL: Do you foresee any more changes in Division I College Tennis in the next few years?

SA: There are things that are out of our control, with the NCAA as a whole having their priorities to focus on, for example, student-athlete health and welfare, student-athlete time demands, those kinds of things.

Amritraj oversees many initiatives to promote college tennis
© Zoo Tennis
I think the Super Regional format in 2019 (with on-campus round of 16 matches, with only eight men's teams and eight women's teams advancing to the final site) will provide a really good new opportunity for the NCAAs to be showcased in a different way. But I don't foresee any more changes. I'm fired up for the ones that we have and I think we need to sit back and let them take effect now and see what the overall outcome of the sport is going to be.

But yeah, in general, I believe that the fall is for individual play and the spring is specifically for team play. That would be how I would look at the season.

 

CL: So the NCAA Individual Championships will stay connected to the Team Championships in the spring?

SA: I think it's definitely easier to have Individuals after a shorter team event.

 

CL: How will June's College Combine on the National Campus work?

SA: It's a recruiting showcase that the USTA is going to put its name on, and only allow American kids. We're going to do that in conjunction with an ITA/USTA Coaches Workshop here at the campus. We want to have as many American kids as we can out here with many coaches watching. It's not going to be the be-all end-all to who gets a scholarship or gets on the team, but I hope that by showcasing them in drills, in matches, showcasing them in physical testing, there's going to be some diamonds in the rough that people are going to want to take a chance on, and they're all Americans.

We definitely understand the landscape that's out there, and this is one of our responses to try to assist American parents and their children in their quest for college scholarships. It's something I'm really excited about. We're going to have a tournament attached to it, with a main draw wild card into a Pro Circuit event, one for the men, and one for the women.

 

CL: Is the USTA Collegiate Team going to be expanded?

SA: We've held the same requirements together, and I put requirements in quotes, but each year we've been very open to helping whoever is showing a dedication to really going for it by trying to improve in the summers or make a career out of it. I think last year we touched like 55 players. We gave grant money to significantly less than that, but whether it's coaching, whether it's wild cards, whether it's transportation, assistance in some way, we're definitely trying to be as inclusive as possible.
 

CL: Are you done adding Collegiate Series Pro Circuit events, or do you still have a few more under consideration?

SA: If there's a university out there that wants to host these events and has the fundraising capabilities and it fits the schedule, we're definitely open to listening. No matter what anyone says, we're still at a 7-to-1 deficit in Futures against Europe, we're still a 3-to-1 deficit in Challengers against Europe, and we're at a 2 1/2-to-1 deficit on the girls side. When you look at the top 200 in the rankings and there's a lot more European players than ours, that's why.

The players who come out of school with no professional ranking and no funding, they start that same $75,000 process from scratch. So they're structurally getting killed because there are less points in the marketplace. That's where college tennis has really gotten hurt in my opinion.

Four nights in hotel, if you're in qualies, then you win one match and it's five nights of hotel and you now have $250 bucks coming in. How do you do this? So when people are wondering why college tennis hasn't done better, or historically, or in the lull between 1995 and 2010, this is why. Pro Circuit events shot up everywhere else and there was a structural deficit where we were at. When you add the lack of points in the marketplace combined with the cost of doing it, it's just really hard.

 

CL: Is the Collegiate Division still part of Player Development?

SA: We have USTA Player Development and USTA Community Tennis. Player Development is to create Top 100 professionals and Community Tennis is basically to put a racquet in everyone's hand, to grow the game. So actually we combined collegiate, so now it's in both places. My responsibilities are not just Player Development oriented, but also to promote, grow, expose the visibility of collegiate tennis. I have a team that's very dedicated, working extremely hard with me to accomplish this.
 

CL: Are there coaches in the Collegiate Division?

SA: Yes, Brad Stine, who is pretty much full time with Mackie McDonald. McDonald is on track to reach every excellence benchmark that we've set within the 18-month period that we give transition grants to players coming out of college. We're very happy with his success and progress. Roger Anderson, since the day she turned pro, has been with Jennifer Brady. We have our Team USA coaches and other national coaches who will be helping with the collegians who turn pro, but those two are specifically dedicated to collegiate tennis.

 

Boys War Room ...

This coming Monday, Tennis Recruiting and GAMMA take their first look at The Top boys in the Class of 2017. Check out where top recruits are leaning - and see how your favorite school stacks up - in our Boys' War Room.

In the meantime, make TennisRecruiting.net your online home for the Countdown to Signing Day!

 
 

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About Colette Lewis

Colette Lewis has covered topflight U.S. and international junior events as a freelance journalist for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Tennis magazine, the Tennis Championships magazine and the US Open program, and she provides monthly content for USTA Florida. Lewis is active on Twitter, and she writes a weekly column right here at TennisRecruiting.net. She was named Junior Tennis Champion for 2016 by Tennis Industry Magazine.

Lewis, based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has seen every National Championship final played since 1977, and her work on the tournament's ustaboys.com website led her to establish ZooTennis, where she comments on junior and college tennis daily.

 
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Colette Lewis has covered topflight junior events as a freelance journalist for over a decade. Read her weekly column, follow her on Twitter, and and find more of her daily commentary at ZooTennis.
 
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Page updated on Friday, March 17, 2017
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