By Alex Botoman
Most tennis fans know about John Isner’s successful career at the University of Georgia. But many probably wouldn’t be able to tell you that all three of the highest-ranked Americans on the ATP World Tour played four years of college tennis before turning pro.
While they might not be household names yet, former Stanford star Bradley Klahn and USC standout Steve Johnson have surged into the top 70 in the ATP rankings, surpassing better known players like Sam Querrey, Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison and joining Isner as college tennis success stories.
And it’s not just American players reaping the benefits of time spent in the American college system.
South African Kevin Anderson, currently ranked No. 19 in the world, played at Illinois for three seasons, German Benjamin Becker played four years at Baylor before turning pro in 2005, former Oklahoma State star Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan recently broke into the top 75 for the first time and Slovakian Blaz Rola is ranked No. 121 in the world less than a year after winning the NCAA Singles Title at Ohio State.
Why has a pathway historically seen as an alternative to professional tennis turned into one of its primary breeding grounds?
The ATP World Tour has increasingly become the realm of older and more experienced players, leaving less room for the youngsters to find quick success. There’s not a single teenager currently ranked in the top 200 in the world – in 2005 there were five ranked in the top 100, including Rafael Nadal, who won his first Grand Slam title at age 19.
The American college tennis system offers promising players the opportunity to develop their games against increasingly strong competition without incurring the high costs of toiling on professional tennis’ lower levels for little prize money. In college, coaching, equipment, travel and meals are all provided.
After college, the top players have had time to mature and improve and are better prepared to rise quickly through the rankings. In less than two years, Johnson and Klahn have worked their way up through the ATP Challenger Circuit, tennis’ version of the minor leagues, to earn rankings that will allow them to compete on the tour level.
Klahn won back-to-back Challengers in Maui and Adelaide, Australia in January while Johnson has won titles in Dallas and Le Gosier, Guadeloupe this spring, defeating fields made up of up-and-coming prospects trying to reach the next level mixed with journeymen looking to grind out a living.
In addition to his success in Challengers, Johnson scored some breakthroughs on the ATP World Tour this year, reaching his first ATP semifinal in Delray Beach in February, one month after making his first quarterfinal in Auckland.
Johnson came through qualifying in both of those tournaments, as he did during a run to the third round of the Winston-Salem Open last year. Now ranked No. 68, his ranking, as well as Klahn’s at No. 65, is good enough to get him in directly to many ATP World Tour events without going through the qualifying slog.
In recent years the search for the next American tennis star has focused on talented players who turned pro at a young age like Sock, Harrison, Donald Young and Denis Kudla. Perhaps it should shift to campuses all around the country where players are including college as part of the path towards fulfilling their professional dreams.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Isner, Johnson and Klahn all come to the campus of Wake Forest University for the 2014 Winston-Salem Open, the only ATP tournament in the United States that is hosted by a university. And they might be joined by other former college players, American and foreign.
Last year current Wake Forest sophomore Romain Bogaerts received a wild card into the main draw of the Winston-Salem Open, following in the footsteps of Cory Parr, a Wake Forest alum who played doubles in the inaugural tournament in 2011. With the growth of college tennis as a pathway to the pros, it’s not absurd to think that one day a Demon Deacon might win an ATP tournament on the courts that he formerly called home.