US pros sound off on NCAA tennis rule changes

By John Delong, special to 
College tennis is about to undergo sweeping and dramatic rules changes, and the outcry has been passionate and overwhelming.?       
At this week’s Winston-Salem Open, those who played college tennis are firmly in the corner of the critics, particularly over the rule changing singles matches from a best-of-three-set format to a third-set superbreaker to 10 points.?   
The other changes – shortening doubles from an 8-game pro set to a regular 6-game set, eliminating pre-match practice between opponents, and shortening the time of changeovers and time between doubles and singles – aren’t as controversial, but are great fodder for discussion nonetheless.?   
The NCAA has cited a need to speed up the matches and to attract more fans as its biggest reasons for the changes.?       
Defending WSO champion and World No. 10 John Isner, who played four years at Georgia, has tweeted his displeasure with the rule changes this week. His coach at Georgia, Manny Diaz, has said that the rule changes will kill the college game, and Isner tends to agree.?     
"I guess I could somewhat see both sides, but I definitely side on most of the players and most of the coaches I know," Isner said. "I don’t agree with it. You know, sometimes college matches can go long, but tennis in general can go long, as I have proven many times. I just don’t think it would be good for the development of players.?       
"It seems to me that nowadays a lot of junior players are going the college route. They’ve seen players before them not go to college and really, really struggle. So I think the top American juniors are going now, and that’s a good thing, but if you play a tiebreaker for the third set, I don’t think that that’s going to develop them. If anything, it’s going to stunt them."?       
Former World No. 4 James Blake, who played two years at Harvard before turning professional, is even more outspoken. ?       
"I really don’t like them at all," Blake said. "I think they need to keep it two out of three sets. I think they need to keep the doubles longer, keep the break. Just from what I’ve heard the argument is it makes for a better package for television, but I think that’s a little crazy with the fact that college tennis has gotten more marketable just from myself, John Isner, Paul Goldstein and soon to be Steve Johnson – guys who had success in college tennis – we went to college and we prepared the same way we were going to play on tour.?       
"In a two set with a match tiebreak, and only one set for doubles, you’re not getting the same type of fitness level, you’re not getting the same kind of pressure you would get in a two out of three set match. You need to prepare the players in college tennis for pro tennis if that’s what you want to get," Blake continued. "You don’t want to get guys only playing college as a last resort because they can’t make it in the pros, you want them to go to college and moving toward the pros. I don’t agree with changing the rules at all. There’s more luck involved, it’s more of a crapshoot instead of making it better for the top players."?       
Kevin Anderson, who played three years at Illinois and has a brother currently playing at Morehead State, agrees with some of the measures to speed up play.?       
"I’m personally a big fan of the no-warmup before the matches," Anderson said. "When we warmed up, you would warm up for an hour and then you would go back out for the national anthem singing and then you would go straight to your matches, so if they want to salvage some time, I have no problems with that. The shorter break between singles and doubles, I think that’s fine, too. And as far as doubles, playing to six now, I don’t think it’ll take away from it that much. If they want to make up some time with that, again I’m OK with that."?       
But Anderson was squarely on the side against the third-set 10-point tiebreaker in singles.?   
"I just know from my experience playing doubles that it definitely changes the complexion of matches in terms of winning the first set, how that plays out, the fitness," he said. "I was just saying the other day that my match in the Sweet 16s when we made the finals in Georgia in ’07, we were playing Ole Miss and it came down to my match and we were still in the second set at 4-3, and we were out there for hours. I was just thinking what it would have been like playing a super breaker for the third set. It would have been very different. So that makes me very hesitant."?       
Anderson points out that these rule changes are no less controversial than when doubles were originally cut back from a best-of-three set match to one pro set.?       
"Change is always tough," he said. "I’ve spoken to people from back when doubles was after singles and doubles was two out of three sets, and the amount of uproar and outcry over them changing it then was probably more than it is now. And looking at it now, I think it’s a much, much better rule.?       
"If by doing this it will help get college tennis more in the media and stuff, I mean, that’s hard to say. But I think from a tennis standpoint, it will definitely change the way people go about the singles. I hope it won’t affect the standard, that’s the biggest thing. I hope it doesn’t affect kids coming out of college playing third sets and stuff. That would be my biggest concern."?       
Doubles player Eric Butorac, who played collegiately at Ball State and Division III Gustavus Adolphus, has a unique perspective. When he’s not on the ATP World Tour, he serves as a volunteer assistant at Harvard.?       
"I don’t think the format involving a superbreaker for the third set is a fair format," Butorac said. "I think what it does is, the player who won the second set has a lot of momentum and may be the potentially the stronger player, and the weaker player knows there’s a finish line. They know, ‘OK, I can lose this set but all I have to do is play well for five minutes in a tiebreaker’ and they can get through it. There are a lot of momentum changes in those superbreakers, and I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of how the match should play out, or how the match would play out in a tour setting."?       
Butorac agrees that the singles rule change could hurt college recruiting and tempt top junior players to go ahead and turn professional instead. And he has some interesting comments about the purpose of college tennis to begin with.?       
"In professional sports, we are entertainment," he said. "We in doubles, we do ours strictly because we’re in the entertainment industry. That’s why we changed the format, to get more fans, to get more singles players playing doubles along with their singles.?       
"Now, I don’t think college needs to be in the entertainment industry, unless they’re going to generate income and massive fan bases, or get a massive ESPN contract to help fund the programs. If that’s the case, then let’s make it more of an entertainment industry. But if it’s not entertainment, let’s focus on the competition and the development of these guys for the future."