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Break Point: College Tennis Tries to Rally

(photo shutterstock.com)
(photo shutterstock.com)

The college tennis world is undergoing a quiet revolution. Or not so quiet, as anyone attending a Big 12 Conference match this past season would tell you. The new Roditi Rule, named after Texas Christian University men's tennis coach David Roditi, encourages fans to cheer for players (and heckle opponents — within reason) as they would at a football or basketball game. Combined with free pizza, contests and other activities to keep spectators engaged, the new rule created a noticeable difference in the fan atmosphere at Big 12 competitions.

The changes are part of an effort to attract more fans and curb a growing national disinterest in tennis, with 600 collegiate varsity programs shutting down since the 1970s. "Everyone is very worried," Intercollegiate Tennis Association executive director David Benjamin told The Wall Street Journal. "In the history of the NCAA, there has never been a period like this."

Many college conferences also experimented this spring with shortened competition formats, including no-advantage scoring, shortening doubles matches to one set, and best-of-three-set singles matches. The format changes were recommended in July 2014 by the ITA, the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Tennis Committee and the United States Tennis Association.

"What an exciting time for college tennis," USTA senior director of marketing Virgil Christian Jr. said at the time. "Increasing the relevance and profile of a varsity tennis match on campus is vital to the sustainability and growth of the sport. These changes will play an instrumental role in accomplishing this goal — and will draw more fans."

Not everyone is quite so excited. Purists lament that the changes are a blow to the integrity of the sport and a disadvantage to student-athletes aspiring to compete on the professional level. The NCAA Division I Championships/Sports Management Cabinet declined to implement the recommendations this season, leaving it up to individual conferences to decide whether to use the new format during regular-season matches but keeping the traditional rules for tournament play.

The Pac-12 Conference men's teams elected to use the shortened formatting this season, reverting to the traditional format for their conference championship. The first matches on the first two days lasted more than four hours. "We have had great tension in both formats," Stanford men's coach Paul Goldstein told the Ventura County Star. "I would love to find a way to maintain the regular scoring while reducing the length of matches. There is really no easy answer."

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