Hitting the Books or the Courts: Top High School & College Students Decide
At this year’s US Open tennis championships, many of the top American junior players found themselves facing a pivotal fork in the road. Players including Asia Muhammed and Kristie Ahn are now entering their junior and senior years of high school. With a full year of classes (if not more) ahead of them, they have already been contacted by some of the best universities in the country, including Stanford and Princeton, with guarantees of full athletic scholarships if they commit to playing on their tennis team. However, these teenagers already possess a game well beyond their years. They already have the ability to compete at the professional level and are aware of the relatively small time frame they have to utilize their talents. This ultimately begs a crucial question for these players and their families: Is it best to turn pro or go to college?
For many in the tennis community, college tennis is almost seen as a consolation prize; for those who lack the ability to make it on the pro tour, they have the opportunity to receive a free education. The odds of becoming a successful player on the pro tour after college are slim at best. Out of the tens of thousands of women who competed at the college level over the last 15 years, only five of them have ever cracked the top 100 in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Only two of these girls (Jill Craybas and Julie Ditty) actually graduated from their school of choice; the rest dropped out by their sophomore year to pursue their careers. This year’s NCAA champion, Amanda McDowell of Georgia Tech, is currently ranked No. 797 in the world.
“The level of play in college tennis is not nearly what it used to be 15 or 20 years ago,” said Lisa Raymond, the 1992 and 1993 NCAA women’s singles champion. “Players don’t have that same opportunity to compete and develop their games anymore.”
The lack of strong competition at the college level has prompted top American junior Asia Muhammed to turn professional this summer. In declaring their pro status and accepting prize money, she is no longer allowed to compete at the amateur level. This means she is not only giving up her chances to play college tennis, but is also forfeiting any athletic scholarship opportunities should she choose to go to college in the future.
“America is the only place where college tennis is really even an option,” said Muhammed, 17. In Europe or Australia, you turn professional when you’re young and then go back to college if you haven’t made it on tour. There isn’t that intermediate step.”
Despite now having the chance to pursue her dreams of tennis stardom, players like Muhammed now have to face the realization of the cost and time commitment that it takes to compete at this level. Unlike most sports, professional tennis tournaments are held year round at locations all over the world. The majority of players travel for at least 30 weeks a year, completely on their own, and often in foreign locations where they don’t know the language. The international travel, combined with the coaching that takes place at home, leads to a staggering bill that is often placed on the shoulders of their families.
“I would say that it costs about $50,000 a year to compete on the tour, and that’s if you’re doing it very cheaply,” said Mashona Washington, a 31 year old player from Houston. “If you travel with a coach, you can pretty much double that amount.”
Muhammed is also coached partly by her father, which brings up a potentially harmful situation. Although she doesn’t have to pay for a coach, Muhammed now faces the responsibility of becoming the primary breadwinner in their family while not even out of her teen years. In many cases, the decision to turn pro is that of the parents and not the child themselves.
“There are some girls who are turning pro right now and there isn’t anything about their game that stands out,” said Raymond. “Being a professional athlete can be an incredibly tough life at times. I think it’s important for these girls to at least go to college initially and be able to mature as people. Playing with the pros and actually becoming a pro are two completely different things.”
Factors such as this have prompted Kristie Ahn to keep her amateur status and plan on attending college for all four years, regardless of her professional results.
“I don’t see the big rush to turn pro right away,” said Ahn. “Rather than focusing on the pros, I’m just glad to have the honor of being one of the top junior players in the country.”
While many of her contemporaries have shuttled off to tennis academies in California and Florida, Ahn has heeded the advice of her family and remained at home in New Jersey. She takes classes at home and limits her tournament schedule to roughly one event per month. While Ahn has yet to make a decision about attending a particular college, she believes that she can find a balance between attending college and competing in professional events.
“Everybody says that college is the best four years of your life and I really want to experience that,” said Ahn. “Even if the level of play in college isn’t that strong, I can still play pro events during the summer.”
While there will always be exceptions to the rule, Dr. Jack Ditty, the tournament director in Ashland, feels that many players are short changing themselves by not getting an education.
“So many of these girls invest their entire lives into tennis and leave with no money, nothing to show for it, and no education,” said Dr. Ditty. “What kind of life is that?”
He cites his daughter Julie, a current pro on the WTA Tour, as an example that a player can get a college degree and still be successful in tennis. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2002 with a degree in early childhood education, Julie turned pro. After five years of competing on tour, she had a breakout year in 2007 and finished just outside of the top 100. In January of 2008, she made her main draw debut in a Grand Slam at the Australian Open. At the age of 29, she became the oldest player in WTA history to make their debut showing at a Grand Slam.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely still have gone to college,” said Ditty. “It takes the pressure off me as a player because in the worst case scenario, I have a degree to fall back on. I don’t know if I would have achieved more as a pro by starting earlier, but by finishing up at Vanderbilt, I now have something that will last me for the rest of my life.” #