US & Canada

Debate over foreign players in US college tennis

In US college sports, a debate is raging between opponents and proponents of international players receiving scholarships and competing in collegiate sports. The BBC's Franz Strasser gathered the opinions of leading tennis coaches and officials.

Craig Tiley, Tournament Director, Australian Open

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Tiley, who used to coach the successful men's team at the University of Illinois, made it a point to recruit local American players and says it is a bit of a stretch and not in the best interest of college tennis to have a team with all foreign players. He would like more coaches to focus on developing players and have less pressure to win.

"You have to be willing to have a down year as you develop. If more coaches do that then the sport really grows," says Tiley. "It is about aggressively promoting the matches and showcasing college tennis to the community."

"I don't buy the argument about there not being enough good American players. They may not be good now but you give them a great coaching environment and you can make those players great."

Jill Hultquist, women's tennis coach, University of Washington

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Hultquist currently has six players from outside the US on her roster of eight and says she made a conscious decision to recruit foreign players as well as Americans. "It's hard to rebuild a team if you lose the top 20, 30 American players to the traditional powerhouse programmes each year."

Sensitive to the ongoing debate, she picks a few select American players each year and offers them scholarships first. If they don't take them she goes international.

"The coaching world is competitive and our jobs are on the line. So we are just looking to compete," says Hultquist, who points to the large number of scholarships available to female players each year. "If you work hard enough you should be able to succeed and get what you want."

Tim Cass, Associate Athletics Director, University of New Mexico

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Cass, who has coached the men's tennis team at Texas A&M University for 10 years, says the mix of international students throughout American campuses adds great value and is positive for a team. But he feels strongly about limiting the number of international players and the number of scholarships they are awarded.

"I don't think that was the mission of college tennis to basically fill your team with internationals," says Cass, adding that universities are limiting the chance for Americans.

Universities are investing more money into their athletic programmes but also putting more pressure on winning, he argues. "It's a moral question to some degree. Is that the mission of your program to use your scholarship money in that way?"

Ben Belletto, men's tennis coach, Pomona College

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Belletto coaches in a lower tier of collegiate tennis and has seen a trickle-down effect for a number of years. With international players taking an increasing number of scholarships in Divisions 1 and 2, he says more American players are forced to look at other options.

"Look at a school like Amherst and the quality of tennis players there. Five, 10 years ago that would have been unheard of."

"I'm sure some grow up wanting to play for Stanford and UCLA and not to have that option anymore is heartbreaking," says Belletto who cannot offer scholarships in Division 3. "Coaches want to win and they will do whatever they have to do."

Geoff MacDonald, women's tennis coach, Vanderbilt

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For MacDonald the debate is mostly a fairness issue. He is not opposed to one or two international players but a whole team of international players doesn't feel right to him. He says Title IX law forced colleges to spend as much money on women's athletics and provide as many opportunities for them.

"I don't know if the intent of Title IX was for a European pro player to come here and take a scholarship away from an American kid who might not be as good."

It is not uncommon for MacDonald to encounter coaches who go strictly overseas and make friends at pro tournaments in Europe. "If we were handing out math scholarships we wouldn't go to Finland and get the best mathematicians. Because this is competitive people are willing to go all over the world."

Rodney Harmon, former USTA men's tennis director

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Harmon sees a tremendous opportunity for young American players to play against top players from all over the world on a college level and it helps them in preparation for the game on a pro level.

He knows that there is a problem for Americans who are lower ranked and who don't get the scholarships that they used to.

"We have to prepare our American players earlier and work on the skill sets they need to get to college," says Harmon who now coaches at a club in Florida. "College tennis would not be nearly as good with just American players."

Every coach wants as many American players as they can get, he says. "But to keep your job you have to win."

Tony Minnis, men's tennis coach, Louisiana State

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The phenomenon of internationals playing college tennis in the US has been going on for a while, but increased over the last few years, says Minnis, who has coached great international players over the years but tried to make it a point to recruit some American kids.

"I got an opportunity and a very solid career and I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't have the chance to play collegiate tennis," says Minnis. "It has raised the level of college tennis but it has gotten to a point where schools say we are only going to recruit internationally."

Schools and coaches should at least attempt to get American players, he says, and keep the winning-now mentality in perspective.

Mike Lancaster, owner

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Lancaster, who runs a sports recruiting service, says tennis has the most international appeal out of all the NCAA sports. "There is a real move with European players in the last 10 years. When they go back home they tell their friends and the word spreads quickly."

Over 100 players contact his site every day for all sports. Only the athletes pay for the service, coaches receive the information for free.

"If you are a college tennis coach and you want to have a strong team, it's much easier to recruit international players than it is to just build a team with American players."

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