MASON, Ohio—Changes in the format of college tennis announced by the N.C.A.A. Wednesday have drawn a furious and seemingly one-sided response across social media, with players and coaches weighing in with their objections.
Under the new rules, singles matches will no longer be played as a full best-of-three, but with a first-to-10-points tiebreaker played in lieu of a third set. Doubles has also been shortened from an eight-game pro-set to one six-game set, and the gap between the doubles matches and singles will be only five minutes. Changeovers have been reduced from 90 to 60 seconds, and opponents will no longer warm up with one another before playing. The changes only apply to Division I matches.
The rationales given were that no other collegiate sport makes its athletes compete for up to four-and-a-half hours in a day, and that a shorter duration would be more media- and fan-friendly.
“By shortening the format and bringing greater excitement to the dual match, programs will be able to attract fan support and attention to tennis,” the N.C.A.A. said.
An additional clause in the rationale section of the decision explained that shortened tennis matches would be more television-friendly, despite college tennis never having had much of any footprint on television.
“The shortened format may provide exposure opportunities through television coverage, live streaming and local media coverage,” the N.C.A.A. said. “It is difficult and cost prohibitive for television to air a 4.5 hour college tennis match. In addition, it is very challenging for local media (television or print) to watch and cover an entire dual match. Therefore, the sport lacks local and national coverage, which will be improved with a format that consistently finishes within a three-hour time frame.”
As soon as the changes were confirmed, the backlash on social media was nearly instant. A Facebook group opposing the reforms quickly gained more than 2,000 members, and the hashtag “#savecollegetennis” was created.
“Well looks like effective September 1st I can start eating all the burgers I want since I won’t be playing any three set matches,” tweeted Emina Bektas of the University of Michigan.
“This new NCAA tennis format is a total joke,” tweeted Aaron Pfister of Michigan State. “Beyond disappointed to hear about it. Changes the way matches will go 100%. #furious”
Pfister added: “I think people looking to go pro will look to avoid college tennis because those format matches don’t help.”
“Disturbing news re: future NCAA tennis format,” tweeted University of Georgia coach Manny Diaz. “Will kill our college game as we know it today.”
“Or we could just flip a coin for doubles point,” Diaz added. “That would shorten it. Don’t see baseball playing 6 innings or BB 3 quarters.”
Reaction was also negative from overseas, as Mark Edney of Athlete Development for Tennis Australia also tweeted his disapproval.
“The more I think of it, the new NCAA rules may be a detriment,” Edney said. “Recruiting athletes could be impossible as it is not longer ‘real’ tennis.
N.C.A.A. champion Nicole Gibbs of Stanford was also outspoken about the changes. “@NCAA thank you for reducing my sport to a joke at the collegiate level #wasteoftime,” she tweeted.
“I play tennis for tennis, not for tv coverage and frat boy attendance,” Gibbs added. “Playing a tb for a third set compromises the integrity of the sport!”
Recent Stanford grad Bradley Klahn agreed.
“It is unfortunate that in this era media accessibility and popularity trumps the best interests of those student athletes who have sacrificed much to achieve their dreams,” Klahn tweeted. “You can’t sell your program as a stepping stone to pro tennis with super breakers for a third set.”
“I don’t think I love it,” said Brian Baker, the current A.T.P. No. 78 and a former coach at Belmont University. “Just for the fact that, typically, the shorter the match, the more luck that can come into play, and sometimes the better team doesn’t always come out on top. I know maybe they did it to try to shorten some matches, you know, try to get it done earlier, but I would rather see the full third play out. It adds another element of fitness to it, and that’s a big part of tennis. That’s why the Grand Slams are played three-out-of-five, to try to get the best players to win. I guess it’s going to have to play out and see how it goes, but I would think that most of the people that have played college tennis would prefer to play the longer match, just because you feel like you have more chances to showcase who’s the better player.”
“If college is used as developmental step for kids to then play on tour, it would help if it was the same scoring, obviously,” said Rajeev Ram, the current A.T.P. No. 100 in singles and No. 55 in doubles who played one semester of college tennis at Illinois before turning professional. “If I’m going into a match knowing that all I’ve got to do is win one set and then I’m into a breaker, I think I would play a little differently. And out here that never happens.”
Ram said that the new scoring system would have hurt the appeal of college tennis to him as a stepping stone to the professional ranks.
“I think it would, just because I think it’s not the same,” he said. “And there’s a big part of fitness, a big part of spending time to figure out your opponent that now is kind of taken away from you a little bit, because you don’t have that luxury of playing your way in, seeing if it’s going to work, maybe if it doesn’t work then changing it. By the time that happens you already know that the best you can do is a breaker.”
Ram appeared skeptical about the possibility for massive improvement in media coverage for college tennis, one of the intended results of the change.
“If all the sudden college tennis becomes a media phenomenon, then I’m going to give it to them,” he said. “I mean, I was fortunate to be on a team where we would have 800 to 1,000 people come to our matches.”
“I think there’s still a lot of benefit to it,” he said of college tennis. “You still get practices, you still get ability to play with the team, a coach, and everything is taken care of. I think they can get a lot of benefit from that, even if the matches are not like normal conditions.”
Credit. This is the NY Times artile by Ben Rothenberg. The accompanying photo is Nicole Gibbs returning serve against Serena William.