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Drastic Changes to NCAA Tennis: It Starts with an Earthquake

We briefly interrupt the last two weeks before football season to bring you some collegiate tennis news that first hit the streets a few days ago. Changes are in store for Division I tennis that have current and former college players, including our own Men's Tennis Coach Manny Diaz (UGA '75) deeply concerned about the future of the sport, responding with a fury. As Dawg Sports retweeted on 14 August:

As you can see from the Report of the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Tennis Committee, July 10-12 Meeting, these changes are not slight. And as you can see from the response on Facebook, the reaction is strong in its opposition, and tennis players themselves are at the core of that opposition. Details after the jump.

The committee decided that championship tournament matches are too long. In an effort to shorten them, ostensibly with a motive to escalate exposure by making them more attractive for a few TV hours and live attendance, there are five changes: (1) eliminate the pre-match warm-up between opponents; (2) allow only five minutes between doubles and singles play in each match; (3) shorten each changeover to 60 seconds; (4) reduce singles matches from a two-out-of-three full sets to a two-out-of-three sets with the third played as a tiebreaker (first to 10 points wins); and (5) reduce doubles play from eight sets to six. All of these changes are meaningful, and general discussion of them can be found at the New York Times tennis blog, USA Today, and even the thoughtful blog of a self-styled "tennis mom".

While all troublesome, the worst changes are those that shorten actual tennis play in the doubles and singles matches. Professional singles tennis on the biggest stages plays best three of five sets. College team play has long used a best two of three format, which already shortens singles play but adequately accommodates the dual match combination of doubles and singles and team play. Eliminating two doubles sets and slashing and burning singles by replacing a full third set with a tiebreaker further distances the college game from the professional ranks. And this is where the player development ladder starts to clatter. Many current professional players, like our own John Isner, went to and stayed in college in large part because it provided the opportunity to develop as a player and prepare for a professional playing career. Imagine what would happen if college football rules changed to the point that it made no sense to play college ball before heading to the pros. The NFL would rethink its draft policies if the NCAA suddenly replaced tackling with tear-away flags, and the college game would cease to exist as we know it.

Need I say more?

No, I need not, but you know me. Interestingly, of the 32 programs (men's and women's combined) who came to Athens this spring for the championship tournament, only two were represented on the committee deciding on these changes, and both of those lost in the first round. While not every policy should necessarily be decided by the likes of Georgia, USC, and Stanford, I think it's fair to say that programs of that caliber ought to have a say. I reached out to Coach Diaz, and he took the time to share a few of his thoughts. He pointed out that one of the impediments to televising collegiate matches is the production costs, but the lion's share of those costs is bringing cameras and crew to the matches, and those costs are fixed, regardless of how long a match lasts. And with the abruptly abbreviated play, the odds that any given match will not be won by the better team increases. He added that similar changes were tried by World Team Tennis, a professional league started by Billie Jean King in 1974, and there is no indication that the changes led to an increase in exposure for the league.

As for exposure with match attendance, I'll confess it's been several years since I attended an NCAA tennis championship, but I do not think attendance has been a problem when the tournament's been in Athens. I can't help assume there is similar interest at the other venues who host. However, even if greater exposure could be achieved by the changes, there are some prices that are too high to pay, and in my opinion, the NCAA needs to offer better solutions and better alternatives, because it's become obvious that college tennis as a whole declines the ones being offered.

And this affects UGA tennis, specifically. With an outstanding conditioning program and training for endurance, longer play means more opportunity to win. Shorter play increases the role of luck in the outcome.

I encourage you to check out the Facebook page dedicated to opposing the rules changes. There, you can see thoughtful and impassioned comments by players, coaches and fans opposing the changes. There also is a Twitter event scheduled for noon eastern tomorrow, Saturday, 18 August 2012, when you can join in to let your opinion known. #SaveCollegeTennis @ncaatennis @NCAA @ustacollege10s

Please share your thoughts in the comments. For one thing, I'd like to know if you would be more likely to watch a watered-down version of the game if it took less time. Personally, I don't see how less play is better. I'd be less tempted to make the trek to Athens for a shorter tennis match, just as I'd be less inclined to go to the trouble of attending a shortened football game (unless it was the commercial breaks that were reduced).

We'll be keeping an eye on this to see if the NCAA reconsiders these changes in light of the enormous backlash from people who matter most: the athletes.