By Griffin Kurzius
Noah Rubin never seriously considered attending college until 10 months ago. The 2014 Junior Wimbledon Champion’s plan had always been to immediately pursue a career on the ATP Tour. But after looking into the data with his father and his coach Lawrence Kleger, the 18-year-old began to reconsider his dream.
“In the past, 18- and 19-year-old players were competing and winning Grand Slams. Now, the best players are 27 to 30 years old,” Rubin said at the 2014 Winston-Salem Open, where he received a wildcard. “A year of school will add to my progress.”
The precocious American committed to play tennis at Wake Forest starting the fall of 2014.
Rubin’s decision follows in the footsteps of many top American tennis players today. Two of the three Americans in the top 50 attended college for four years, based on the 2014 U.S. Open rankings. John Isner, who attended the University of Georgia and Steve Johnson, who went to the University of Southern California, both credit going to school for their physical and mental maturity. These factors, they add, have sustained their ATP success.
So why do teenagers no longer break through on the ATP Tour? And how has the college game become a launching pad for world-class players?
The first reason has to do with changing tennis technology. The development of high-powered rackets and strings means longer rallies, making each point and match more physically exhausting than in the past. Until the early-2000’s, rackets were made of heavy-weight titanium and aluminum. Now, rackets are composed of light-weight graphite and fiberglass that combine racket head acceleration and power. While strings receive less attention, they are equally as important. Historically, players strung their rackets with natural gut — yes, cat guts. Now, many players use scientifically-developed strings to generate greater power, control and rotation. Rafael Nadal’s Babolat RPM string, for example, is an octagonally-shaped, co-polyester string designed to enhance ball revolutions and speed through the angle at which the ball leaves the extruded monofilament strings.
Twenty years ago, top players like Pete Sampras blasted serves and immediately sprinted to the net to end the point. Due to inferior technology, finishing points from the baseline was not a feasible strategy. Instead, pros dictated play by taking the ball early to limit their opponent’s response time, controlling the net, and closing out the point. Sampras, a winner of 14 Grand Slams, was the perfect build for the speedball tennis of the 1990s. “Pistol Pete” was impenetrable at net because of his dominant serve, masterful volleys and condor-like wingspan. At that time, baseliners could not generate enough power or consistency to pass the imposing Sampras. And no, lobbing the ball over his head was not an option. Sampras would respond with his signature “tennis slam dunk,” where he leaped like a shooting guard and spiked the ball like a volleyball player.
However, serving-and-volleying is only sparingly used by pros today. Due to powerful rackets and strings, players dictate points at the baseline versus the net. The technological advancements have given players the ability to hit winners from anywhere on the court. For many players today, being at net is a position of vulnerability instead of strength. Because players hug the baseline, court altering, body-contorting 20 ball exchanges have become the norm. Footwork, court positioning and maintaining consistent, hard, deep, heavy topspin balls from the backcourt are imperative now more than ever for ATP success.
To meet the demands of an ever-more physical sport, players are becoming more fit through intensive training routines. Not only do these sport-specific methods enable top players to remain at their peak for longer, but it poses problems for still-developing teenagers.
While Donald Young has been playing professional tennis for over 10 years, the best has yet to come for the 25-year-old. The Chicago native became the youngest Junior Grand Slam Champion and the youngest player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the ITF world rankings. At 15-years-old, the speedy southpaw took a seven-figure contract from Nike, ending his amateur status. While Young quickly ascended to No. 73 at 18-years-old, his career has had more twists and turns than a high speed roller coaster. Young fell off, then achieved a career high No. 38 in 2012, only to lose 17 straight matches and plummet to No. 190. With a regained focus and dedication, the second-ranked American is finally playing some of his best tennis.
When asked about the physical demands of the Tour, the baby-faced Young said, “You have to get in shape and get bigger and grow into your man-body to be able to compete on a consistent basis.” Currently*, there is only one teenager in the top 100: Nick Kyrgios from Australia. Only six players in the top 100 are under 23. Five of the top six players in the world are at least 28 , and the average age of the top 100 is 28.17 years old.
Compare this to “The Golden Era” of American Tennis 20 years ago: Michael Chang reached the top five at 17, Andre Agassi at 18, Pete Sampras at 19, Jim Courier at 21.
However, the demands of intense physical preparation and training to handle today’s physically-tolling rallies is just the tip of the iceberg. Competing against the world’s top ATP players day-in and day-out is equally as mentally tolling. Following in the footsteps of Donald Young, Ryan Harrison was expected to be the next face of American tennis. Harrison became only the tenth player ever to win an ATP level match before turning 16-years-old. After jolting up the rankings to No. 43 in 2012, the broad-shouldered Louisiana-native has faltered to No. 184. While he has faced a slew of injuries, Harrison’s real problem has been coping with the daily pressures and demands of being a professional tennis player. He remains among the top ATP players under 23, but compatriot Jack Sock has surpassed him in ranking, media attention and expectations.
As a candid Harrison expounded on the troubles facing younger players on the tour, the 22-year-old’s boyish appearance quickly faded. “This day and age of sporting… is difficult. It’s… the fact that people are expecting you to be a man as a kid,” he said at the Winston-Salem Open. “At that point, it’s not only tough to be physically ready but mentally ready.
“It’s always tough to be a young guy and handle yourself with the [same] composure as someone who has been doing for 10 years. It’s just a matter of trying to figure it out and the quicker you figure it out the more success you’re gonna have.”
On the contrary, the top ranked recruit of 2011 by TennisRecruiting.net, Marcos Giron chose to attend UCLA. The 2014 NCAA Singles Champion elaborated on the benefits of attending college before turning pro, “[College] is a good time to learn about yourself and what you need to do to get better. Coming [directly from high school], it is easy to get down on yourself. You go out to Futures [tournaments] and you don’t do well at the beginning and all of a sudden you have a little bit of self-doubt, ‘I should have gone to school as well.’ Now, it’s a good back up and there’s good guys to practice with there.”
With the onset of longer rallies, point development and strategy have become tennis’s most unspoken skills. During these elongated rallies, the top players think five or six strokes ahead to turn the point in their favor.
After playing in his first main draw ATP match in the Winston-Salem Open, a 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 108 Aleksandr Nedovyesov, Giron discussed the biggest difference between top NCAA players and professional players, “[The ATP players are] there point in and point out. They won’t hand you free points.”
While the temperamental Giron hit a harder and cleaner ball than Nedovyesov, the wiry Kazakh kept Giron off balance by angling him off the court on his weaker, backhand wing. Nedovyesov frequently played biting, low backhand slices to keep the ball out of Giron’s preferred strike zone. These subtle strategies forced mistakes and got Giron flustered and impatient. “You have to make sure you focus and know that they’re gonna come after you and you need to come back and take care of business,” he said.
After years of preparation, the backwards hat-wearing California kid still has some work to do, but proved he has the game to compete at the ATP level, “Now I know that I have reached the top [in the NCAA] and can move on to the bigger ocean.”
Fittingly, the premiere match on the first day of the Winston-Salem Open was between a college legend and a budding college star. The match featured Bradley Klahn, a four year player at Stanford, and the incoming freshman at Wake Forest, Noah Rubin, playing in his first ATP match. Under the stadium lights, Rubin displayed electrifying quickness and maturity beyond his years. The boisterous crowd chanted his name, but Klahn’s overpowering lefty forehand and guile were too tall a task. The 24-year-old dinked and dunked on his backhand in order to set-up, load, and fire, on his forehand. Klahn won the match in a third set tiebreaker.
When asked about his college experience in comparison to going straight pro, the exhausted Klahn took a deep breath and exhaled. His eyes lit up and his dimples emerged. In a calm California tone, Klahn said, “I think college was great for me. Well, I wasn’t ready to go pro out of high school. But I loved the college atmosphere… I lived a normal life outside of tennis. It put balance in my life.”
The poised Rubin was visibly disappointed, but the bearded 18-year-old felt his performance proved his ability, “I can play with these players. If people didn’t know that then I proved that today.”
Reading through his confidence, some entertained the idea that Rubin should forgo college. Rubin, however, quickly backpedaled and thought about the data he analyzed with his coach and his dad. Only one teenager- Rafael Nadal- has won a Grand Slam since Pete Sampras in 1990. Rubin slammed the door shut and reiterated, “I am still in developmental process. There is a lot to learn. I can still grow as a person and player.”
*Rankings from the 2014 US Open