The Relevance of College Rankings  

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David Mullins

Last month I asked if the Coach matters when deciding where to take your tennis talents. This month I am turning my attention to college rankings, and asking if they should hold any relevance when making a final college decision.

Whenever I peek at Facebook, there is some coach posting their teams current ranking, and milking it for every bit of publicity they can get. Settle down Coaches, I did the same thing too! These posts get lots of those wide open mouthed emoji responses and will lead to a nice write up in their college newspaper, but what value do these rankings hold when it comes to deciding which college to choose?

I found that many college prospects not only pay too much attention to their I-phones, but also to the ITA college rankings! They often start and finish their college recruiting process based on these numbers, but what do these numbers mean?

I have no data to back this up, but my experience is that those players fortunate to visit several colleges and hold more than one offer at the same time will typically select the team that is ranked the highest when the signing period is bearing down upon them.

Rankings are an extremely poor indicator as to how a prospect’s experience is going to unfold over their four-year playing career

The college rankings change constantly, especially over the course of a season. One team may possess a high ranking to start a season but have recently lost several key players to graduation. Their ranking is weighed heavily upon their previous year’s performance. I have witnessed teams, including my own, drop from a top 20 ranking in January to outside the top 75 by the end of February.

It is very natural to want to back the winning horse. Children grow up supporting the team that is dominating a sport they like during their formative years. Kids in New York are walking around in Golden State Warrior shirts, and children down in Southampton are wearing Leicester City Jerseys! It is nice to have bragging rights when it comes to supporting a team, but is not particularly important when it comes to playing for one.

There is more depth in the college game now more than ever before

Small margins separate teams from around #15 – #75. The ITA are publicly publishing the top 50 rankings rather than the top 75, which they have done in the past. I believe long term they will move to publishing just the top 25 (which they are doing at the commencement of the college tennis season) to fall in line with the ranking models of most other college sports.

Personally, I believe this is a great initiative as every program ranked outside the top 25 can claim to be number 26! Every coach from number 26 to 247 will be telling you that they are knocking on the door of the top 25! My personal hope is that this will allow prospects to focus less attention on the college rankings, and get down to the details that are superior predictors for their future college tennis experience.

Here is a scenario that occurs too often. Super future prospect, let’s call her Annie, has four scholarship offers. Annie has narrowed her decision down to two colleges. One is ranked # 23 while the other is ranked # 49. Deep down Annie knows that the team ranked # 49 is the better fit for her, but she wants to be able to tell her friends, family and peers that she is going to the # 23 college in the country. She would be a little embarrassed to tell people that she has accepted a scholarship offer to a program that is only ranked # 49, especially when she was perceived to have a “better offer.” Oh, the shame of it!

When I began my head coaching tenure at the University of Oklahoma, the team was not ranked, within three years we were in the top 25. A few of the recruits that would not come to OU when I first started were now on teams that we were beating, and ranked much lower than when they arrived at their college of choice.

A lot can change in the time between your commitment to a program and your arrival there, and don’t forget that teams can be decimated by injuries, compliance issues, academic problems and many other uncontrollable issues that destroy their chances of having a good ranking in any given year.

There are more than a handful of Universities at the Division I level that are going to be in and around the top 20 in the national rankings every year despite who they have as their head coach. They have massive built-in advantages such as location, academic prestige, winning tradition and scholarship options. These coaches are selecting players rather than recruiting, and have a small, predetermined pool of players from which they will select each year.

It is tremendous to see some interruption to this party in recent years, with the likes of Ohio State and Oklahoma State disrupting the status quo on the women’s side and Oklahoma mixing things up on the men’s side. I hope this trend endures, and there continues to be more homogeneity between teams, more potential for upsets and an even more exciting game. For right now, there are many fantastic programs, led by truly dynamic coaches, that are not able to get a foothold into the higher echelons of the rankings for any number of reasons.

College rankings are reasonably good indicators for recruits as to the likely future success and placement of a team

Similarly, college rankings can be a good indicator for college coaches when selecting a recruit. It is not a terrible way to start your college recruitment process, but you need to give it a large scope and not allow it to be the final determining factor as to where you want to attend. You probably don’t want a coach offering a scholarship to some player that has a slightly higher ranking than yourself, even though you believe yourself to be a better player.

Take some time to think about your college choices, what you want in a coach, a team, a location. Recognize that there is always more than what you see on the surface. Think deeply about what your daily life will look like in a college setting, and how YOU want it to look. Don’t get caught up in the hype or making a decision you are expected to make because of your ranking or success as a student or player. Do your homework and be true to yourself.

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The data in American tennis tell the story

In the past 30 years American tennis has seen a 73% decline in the amount of top 100 players in the ATP tour

This alarming number basically tells us that we lose every decade 25% of our players in the higher echelon of worlds’ tennis. What then will happen in the next ten years with the new massive investment by the USTA in Lake Nona and the new crop of American stars who seem to be on the rise?

Will this change the clear trend line that the sport is basically slowly dying for America at the professional level? When you talk to the people at the USTA, they will tell you that things could not be better and that the new crop of players will reverse the disappearing number of Americans. Of the current top 100 stars, we will lose the older players and replace them with the younger players. Essentially this will mean that over a 40 year period we managed to keep our declining rate at 73%.

In my opinion here is how the top 100 will look like for the next decade

We will lose the players in Yellow and replace them with the players in green. These new kids are truly remarkable as breaking the top 200 at such a young age, truly means that they are very, very talented.

However the number of players in the top 100 still remains low, for the largest and richest country on earth. This makes me want to learn further more about the way these new group of young stars came up through the system here in the US?

So, I wanted to see if there is some sort of pattern to figure out of a career path that these guys have taken, so we can try to replicate it and have instead of 8 new stars 80. The first thing that comes to mind as I read these names is how close to tennis (having a tennis family or coaches as parents, or ex. players is so significant) Escobedo, Fritz, Koslov, Tiafoe, Mmoh, Rubin (father had tennis knowledge). This in essence means that of the eight future American stars 75% have a solid tennis family tradition.

The reason this number is important is because then it stands to reason that if you as a current 18U player do not have this tradition, if you thought the odds of becoming a pro were low, I can tell you with a 75% chance of being right that in three out of four kids if your parents don’t have years of knowledge of the sport the chance for you to make it as a pro is even worse than you think.

What about the other 25% the other two players? Reilly Opelka has the physical advantage of size (like Isner) and the last kid Jared Donaldson, took 2 years of training on clay in Argentina, a surface that here in America we don’t play in.

Ok, got it so what does that mean to me as a parent? Why should I invest in this sport? The hours, the trips, the never ending tournaments, the rankings, the way the tournaments are governed and award points, the way the sport is targeted for who can afford it and not who is most likely to be a pro.

While on the surface this looks like a great reversal of fortune of American tennis. In essence I think it reveals the exact opposite, I know, I will get a lot of mail, telling me how incorrect I am. But, follow me, I may be able to present my case to you.  Who knows you may end up agreeing with me.

The data reveals three important things that are at the core of tennis in America that remain flawed and only enable the further destruction of American tennis supported by system in place and the governing body structure.

  • Tennis is simply not reaching the very people who will make it grow.
  • Coaches and academies in general must not be that good if for 75% of the future top players the coaches are the parents coaches of the stars who have years of knowledge of the sport by being regular coaches. The other 12.5% Opelka is a big guy who was coached very well, but his size is his differentiator (though he was lucky to train with a well-known coach) and Donaldson the other 12.5% trained for two years on clay. In summary, if you have a coach-parent you are most likely to be in the highway to become a pro, if you are not (which means 99.99 of the population, you are out of luck). Then your only option is to have good coaches around where you live, but who can tell if they are good or not if you don’t know tennis?
  • The tournament and competition structure does not bring up tennis stars.

Let me show you my arguments for these three key issues:

1. Tennis is not reaching the mass of people who can grow the game 

There are roughly 9.9 Million (*) core tennis participants (that play more than 10 times a year in the US that is only 3.1% of the 318.9 million population. This number is extremely low if you consider that of 75% of our next stars come from people who played, coach or had been for a lifetime in tennis in this small group.

Please realize that maybe there are 100,000 tennis coaches in the US (this number is very high only for calculation purposes). This number represents 1% of the tennis population.  This effectively means that about 99.9% of the population remain separated from tennis and with no way of connecting, much less to aspire to be a professional athlete? As the pool of players is so small, the vast majority of possible tennis people is simply not reached.

What is the USTA’s plan to reach 99.9% of the population if week in and week out, it plays under a competition system and ranking system that feeds the impossible numbers? Within the US population there are ethnic groups that are growing at a faster rate than the rest; Hispanic and Asians. Yet these ethnic groups are not known for being physically big and the same USTA states that the future of tennis is for the bigger sized players given the new equipment and speed of courts.

Another aspect is the cost of playing as a junior. We all know that tennis is an elite sport, given its costs and years of training it requires. So, from a financial point of view tennis is not only played by only 3.1% of the population, it is so expensive that it excludes the masses of people who cannot afford it. Yet, the number of the future pros and their own financial backgrounds tell us that it not need be so expensive as for 6 of the 8 new players for the next decade come from modest background and modest income. Being a coach is not a high income profession. It is about the proximity, knowledge and passion for tennis.

What is the USTA doing to address this? This clearly reveals that who tennis currently attracts and gets to travel and compete every week are the same very people that have the lowest chance of being a pro even though they may be highly ranked, or under the current system attended a high number of tournaments and therefore acquired the rankings with cash. This makes no sense, yet the sense that the USTA conveys is as if these kids were under a pro path and nothing can back that up in the last twenty years.

Finally, if we know that there is a direct correlation for 75% of the new stars of having a tennis coach and family, the key group to target then are adults ages 25 -40 who are the vehicle for growth of tennis in America.  What is the USTA doing about them? Nothing.

2. The knowledge level of the average coach in the U.S. is unable to produce pro-prospects  

If you then consider that of the next stars: Fritz, Escobedo, Koslov, (all parent coaches), Mmoh (dad a pro), Tiafoe (he lived at the facility in Maryland- 24 hr. tennis exposure) and Rubin (McEnroe Academy and dad high school player). Where does that leave the vast amount of kids that are left along the way who with the best intentions and support but who are never with the proper professionals.

Here the weakness of tennis in America is the poor level of coaching and the lack of a standard basic USTA driven certification system to validate coaches and facilities. For the 99.9% of parents who want the services, yet do not have the knowledge of who they are hiring.

So, in a marketplace where it is driven by no standards, we have the suppliers of the service with no real knowledge of what is a world class forehand is and the country’s governing body certifies no facilities or coaches so ignorant parents waste time, money and dreams.

Nothing is tied together, the coaching, the kids, the USTA, each work on their own and everyone loses. This weakness revealed and the initiatives the USTA takes show how it does not understand what are the root problems of tennis in America are and how it has no plan to address the problem.

I live in Miami, sun 80% of the time, warm weather 95% of the time. Yet the providers of tennis services is extremely weak. Imagine how it is in other parts of the country where there is not a tennis court in every neighborhood or park or condo. Unless something is done to address this, the next decade will produce the same poor results we have been for the last two decades even with all the investments, and hoopla.

3. Tournament structure does not encourage participation 

The current structure and system of competition makes the pool of participants smaller and smaller as the kids get older. All one has to do is see the pool of players from ages 8-12, 12-16, and 16+. Tennis needs to have a complete change of shape.

The way to do this is to grow the game, to create competitive environments and competitions that are “out of the box”. Not the century old tournament structure and point allocation that is giving us results that are low under any parameter and only shrink the pool of players.

  • One day Tournaments Round Robin by level.
  • USTA camps for the masses in each age group, not the top players. Good education.
  • Training for local coaches who may have great prospects but not a competitive program.
  • Some form of match play for all.
  • Promote competitive team tennis locally.
  • Allow tournaments where coaching is allowed.
  • Create a structure to increase the appeal of tennis as opposed to the current structure that only encourages individual participation (remember this individual participation is boring, has produced the best results 30 years ago, it is dead, yet the structure and results we get continue to be the same).
  • Other ideas and input from players and parents.
  • Pricing structure revisit, ex, two tournaments a month cost $100 for 4 matches. In other words to play a match in the US we need to pay $25.00. This is absurd. We need thousands of match play hours that need to be FREE, In South America and Europe kids play match play every day at no cost. Here in the richest country on earth that produces the least amount of tennis players and pays the most amount of money we have the fewest hours of match play? How does this make sense?
  • Working together is the key, we don’t as a common group work together as parents, kids and coaches. It is the failure of vision and leadership at the USTA that creates this void and poor results.


The next decade of men’s pro tennis has clear data as to where the kids will come from. They will come from tennis parents and coaches with kids. So, if you are a parent whose kids love tennis and you know little about it, you are out of luck. Why do we make this so hard, so exclusive of the very people who will grow the game and so expensive that it allows the people with hunger and attitude to be excluded and the people with resources and not attitude to endure the journey and both with poor results.

We need critical analytical thinking of business people for the benefit of tennis in America. The way it is, it is announcing its death. The worst part is that it will be our fault.

I wish the USTA leadership would open its mind and hear other perspectives because from where I stand I only see what will never happen. Expecting different results from doing the same things is the definition of insanity.

I can be reached at @palenquej or

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Don’t be a Baby!  

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John Cavill

The title of this article is something I said to one of my 10-year-old boys, who is striving to be a great tennis player. This isn’t something I would usually say to someone I’ve first met or would be easily offended, but I felt this was a harsh but necessary thing to say to someone who I’ve known for 5 years with a huge amount of mutual trust.

In a nutshell, I am pointing out the reality of tennis and life and that unless he grows up, he’s never going to be able to cut it with the best. Like many sports where a player aims for high performance, the mentality and maturity expected from a young child is usually beyond their years. Self-discipline and high levels of responsibility are a must for any budding tennis star as the challenge they are embarking on is a long and undulating one with hours of hard work and twists along the way.

Over my 22 years of coaching I have met and seen a lot of people and one common trait with the best players are that they are very independent from a young age. Some may say that they grow up too fast but if they have decided that they want to achieve a specific goal, they will do anything but everything to make it possible.

It’s not coincidental that the aspiring children come from families who dedicate a lot of time and effort into their kids and tend to also be very successful in their careers or chosen hobbies. I think that the parents who understand what it takes to make a success of something appreciate the journey their child has to follow to also achieve.

There is only so far a parent can take a child and there is no amount of money that can buy tennis success. Financial support is essential as it costs a lot of money with all the travel and training, but again, if a parent sees the real value in what their child is doing then they are prepared to do everything they can.

Coming back to the 10-year-old boy…he is fiercely competitive and a great athlete. He has the financial and family support. He wants to achieve and believes he is very capable, so I think we have some great ingredients. Most things in his life have come easy and he has never wanted for anything.

Will his comfortable lifestyle be a hindrance on his tennis? Will he and the parents opt for a more traditional life or will they sacrifice everything to be a tennis player? It’s getting to the point when these questions will have to be answered as he steps into 12&U tennis very soon.

Parents will send their kids to academies around the world to live and breathe tennis in full time programmes, so is this something the parents of the child your coaching is prepared to do?

There are some very testing questions that have to be asked and posed to the parents as playing tennis 6 hours a week just isn’t enough to get to a top national standard. If the player and parents are prepared to make these sacrifices then there is still a huge place in tennis for them with club championships to win, representation of their club in team events and making the county teams. All of these are very rewarding and achievable but the realism is what will determine if it is a success or not as false expectations cause disappointment and discontent.

I’m sure many people may have conflicting opinions to mine, but I think that if you are trying to do the best for your player, you must share the same values and be honest with them otherwise it won’t do anyone any favours, even if you think you could get a few more years of lessons out of them which financially lines your pockets or makes you look good being the coach of the best kid in your county.

Being able to say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t deliver that’ is not a sign of weakness but a sign of control. People who say ‘yes’ to everything may end up doing things they can’t do well for the fear of losing the player. Again, if you over promise and under deliver, then the results will be evident.

My personal approach is to help find the pathway for the player whether it is with me or not. The way I have done this is to surround myself with numerous contacts and influences so that I can call on them when needed. I have contacts abroad where I know they do a phenomenal job with players and have an environment that I would help those trying for pro tennis. I also have local and national contacts who I also link with depending on the player’s aspirations.

Although I know that I will miss spending time with certain players when they move on, but this isn’t about me and if they are going to grow they need to be in a place where they can do this. This doesn’t mean our relationship is over but hopefully it will be stronger as the player grows up over the years to be the best they can and the person they will hopefully thank is me!

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Why top ITF female juniors stay on the top?

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Marcin Bieniek

Travelling around the world and being a coach on the ITF Junior Circuit is a great possibility to learn and increase tennis knowledge. Looking at own player’s development, results, and responses are all steps important in the process of athletic career so coaches who go to the tournaments have much bigger opportunities to help players achieve their dreams.

One of the crucial areas in my coaching is learning from others and by watching top players compete I can easily transform this knowledge into my coaching sessions to make it more effective and transfer the work into results.

There are some really significant differences between male’s game and female’s game even at the junior level. Boys are solid and stable so that is why it is not surprising that player ranked #250 is able to beat the guy who is constantly playing junior Grand Slam tournaments. All boys have great serves, good footwork and consistent baseline game so the final result depends on a given day performance.

Girls’ game is completely different. There are some critical areas that differ top 50 juniors from players who are only 40 or 100 places behind. Even the ranking position is pretty close between 2 players the reality is that top 50 females have skills that let them win 9 of 10 matches against rivals ranked 50-200 ITF.

If you want to improve your game and achieve better results you have to make sure that you are better every day than you were before. Only long-term vision with conscious daily work will guarantee that you walk the right way and even when you lose it doesn’t mean that you step back. Being able to watch players compete at various highest-grade ITF Junior tournaments in Morocco, Osaka, Cairo, Prague, Porto Alegre, Barranquilla and many more interesting places I was able to see the reasons why top ITF females stay on the top.

Most of the athletes included in this group are there because of their good results during the whole year. Of course there are few players who achieved great results only in 1 or 2 tournaments but these ones won’t stay there for a long time. So how can we get our player to become top 50 junior girl in the world? How to make her stay there for a long time? Here are the areas that you can learn from athletes who are already there:

Stable and solid performance

Do top 50 players play their best match of life every time they step on the court? Absolutely not. Do they have skills at much higher level than players ranked 50-100 ITF? Definitely not. The secret is in their ability to play at solid level for the whole course of the match. That is the difference. Top players play well for the long time without any significant ups and downs. They don’t play spectacular – they play solid but it is enough.

Players who are not in the top are able to get the lead 2:0 or 4:1 while playing against top female junior but they are not able to close the set or the match. They get the lead because of extraordinary performance that they can’t maintain for more time than that. If you want to get into top 50 you have to be able to find your level of play that you are able to maintain for more than few gems.

Opportunities don’t change anything

Great champions look for opportunities and try to give their best when facing crucial times in match. Top juniors do it too. When they face the break point they don’t slow down the racquet, won’t change the strategy or move few steps back behind the baseline. They are in the top because they have courage to trust their shots when it really counts.

Completely different story we can observe while watching players who are ranked outside the top. When facing a pressure moment they change strategy „from winning the point” to strategy „not losing the point”. Only brave athletes achieve great results so if you want to join this group you can’t doubt your abilities in crucial moments.

Fitness side is not a weakness

Looking at lower ranked players we can spot some weaknesses in physical preparation. Player A has lazy footwork. Player B needs some air after 20 shots rally. Player C can’t ace rivals because the speed of the serve is really slow. All these factors are related to poor fitness abilities. When you look at top 50 ITF juniors you won’t see these weaknesses. All players are well-prepared physically so that is why they don’t have down times during the whole match. If you take care of your base you can build a great game on it.

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Don’t try to find flow or be in the zone 

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Adam Blicher

Sometimes when you step out on the court you feel like everything is easy. You move effortlessly & you feel like even if you tried you wouldn’t even be able to miss the court. You have a little bit of a tickle in your stomach, but not too much. You’re excited, but it is still pleasant.

Then after that experience you try to get back to that experience. But on those other 364 days during the year it’s really difficult for you. So you visualize, you try to listen to calming music, some upbeat music or maybe even some heavy metal to get yourself fired up. But you are still not able to find that same feeling again.

The reality is if you ask the best tennis players in the world about their best ever performances they will tell you the thoughts, feelings and emotions going on where quite different. In other words they perform well with different thoughts, feelings and emotions going on. It’s not about finding a particular state of mind or a specific tension level and then you have the opportunity to perform well.

Remember that you do not win any tennis matches because you have the most calm inner state.

There is absolutely no need to be in the zone or chase the feeling of flow. Of course it is pleasant and it is nice to have a calm inner state, but remember that the best tennis players in the world are performing at totally different ends of the scale of arousal levels and totally well balanced tennis players are loosing matches for totally different reasons.

So performing well is less about how you feel, but a lot more about doing the right things. We associate to big of an importance on the way that we feel.

Performance is not determined by what you feel but what you do.

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