I am writing this article while sitting in front of the TV watching Rafael Nadal carve up David Ferrer in the semifinals of the 2012 French Open. I cannot even imagine what it is like to play at such a high level. The talent these top players have is off the charts compared to the average player. Maybe I just stated the obvious, but watching these super human beings compete at such a high level is hard to ever comprehend.
The difference in the level of play from the top of collegiate tennis is still a far cry from the top professionals. However, "when" are we going to give credit to the players in college who sacrifice their time at school just for the joy of competing on a tennis court? "When" are we going to acknowledge the tennis players in college who, after their practices and workouts, have to go to study and be successful not only on the court but in the classroom?
"When" are we going to acknowledge that these men and women, for the love of the game, play in cold and windy conditions outdoors in March, while many club level players will complain if their indoor courts are two degrees off from perfect conditions, even though there is no sun, wind and cold to deal with. "When" are we going to acknowledge that these men and women simply just want to play competitive tennis, and in order to do so, sit in a van for four or five hours traveling to and from other colleges just so they can play a match.
Nobody is forcing these young men and women to do this other than the desire of being part of an NCAA collegiate tennis team. "When" do we acknowledge many of these talented athletes who play second fiddle to the football, basketball, lacrosse and soccer players because tennis simply, in the majority of cases, continues to operate under a radar screen like our sport does in most high schools. "When" do we notice that the men and women who play collegiate level tennis, on the average, continually outperform many athletes when it comes to their GPAs. "When" do we applaud tennis players for their mental toughness which helps them later in life as it relates to perseverance. "When" does this all happen?
Recently, I finished coaching the men and women's tennis team during my inaugural season at SUNY Oneonta. I never met so many dedicated young men and women, not only on my team, but from many teams across the country. These men and women play tennis for the love of the game and play their matches before sparse crowds because tennis, as far as the layman is concerned, just does not strike the fancy of the average sports fan. They play their hearts out, and in most cases, the only accolades they get are from their school and teammates. I know how hard they work and they will be rewarded. They will be rewarded because they learned to dedicate themselves to a cause and learned many life's skills through tennis which will help them to succeed in life and ward off any challenges that may be thrown their way.
I was recently contacted by some student athletes from another local university who eliminated their varsity tennis programs. These student/athletes were looking to gain admission and play for SUNY Oneonta. Is it always about money? I say "shame on this local college and do not even try to rationalize your decision.” I will always question that, when the sole purpose of a college is to help prepare men and women for life after graduation, they will actually eliminate tennis from their varsity sport offerings. Tennis, as we know, is the game that can be played for a lifetime … business and professional relationships can develop as a byproduct.
I am not sure if I am even writing this article to the correct audience because I suspect most of our readers do understand. It is the non-tennis players who do not get it, right? The best players in the world … I applaud you for your talent. The collegiate and high school tennis player also do some extraordinary things both on and off the court. Let's applaud these efforts as well. However, if you are an ambassador of our game and if you are reading this, you are now appointed as such whether you like it or not. Stand up, be proud of the game you play and let the world know what you do in your spare time. "When" you do that you change the world and can influence the next potential collegiate player or parent. Yes, you change the perception "when" you show somebody how great our game and its players really are.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.