Not everybody is an “All-American”

More than 300 players swooped into Georgia this past weekend for the NCAA Division I tennis championships; nearly half are foreign students whose rapidly increasing numbers are raising serious questions about the future of the sport on college campuses.

They’re highly talented. Some have played professional tournaments in their home countries. They’re generally more emotionally mature and focused on their lives than their U.S. teammates.Their burgeoning presence is also leaving some coaches wondering how many is too many, and what it all means for American teenagers who are being bumped out of a chance to play for a university team.

“I’ve been fighting this trend vehemently for 10 years,” Clemson men’s coach Chuck Kriese said. “You can see the deterioration of junior tennis in this country. It may be alive and healthy right now. But that will change because there are going to be fewer and fewer places left for them in college.”Of the 161 men on the 16 teams that made the NCAA tournament this week, 46 percent were citizens of other countries, most of them on tax-supported scholarships.

A spokesman at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of all players on NCAA rosters, for men and women, are foreign students.

The figures become even more dramatic when you examine the list of elite players ���� those on scholarships.

In the Division I men’s rankings, Alex Kim of Potomac, Md., who attends Stanford, is No. 1, but seven of the top 10 and 59 of the top 100 are foreigners.

On the women’s side, Stanford’s Laura Granville, of Chicago, is No. 1 and only two of the top 10-ranked women are citizens of other nations. But 45 of the top 100 are not American.

“I don’t know how it can grow anymore,” Kriese said. “In Division II and the NAIA it’s probably already reached 90 to 95 percent. That’s the greater harm there. Those are the smaller schools where American kids should get a chance.”

Efforts have been made in the past 10 years to limit the number of scholarships to foreign players.”We did a lot of surveys and there was definitely interest,” said David Benjamin, retired men’s coach at Princeton who is president of the ITA. “Some high-powered law firms told us it would be unconstitutional or discriminatory.”

As a result, the increase in the number of foreign players has continued unabated. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, all seven players on the men’s roster this year were from other countries. At Mississippi State, the seven-member women’s team was composed entirely of foreigners, leaving coach Tracy Lane a bit conflicted.

“Of course I would strongly love to have more Americans,” she said. “But it isn’t so much who I want to recruit as the level I need to recruit to. We’re in the strongest conference (Southeastern) in the nation, and when I got here five years ago we were 12th out of 12 schools. I had to raise the level for us to compete.”

If she had not improved the school’s record, she might be working elsewhere. Because along with the steady stream of foreign students have come higher expectations in college tennis competition and a quicker hook for coaches who don’t win.

The close-knit community of coaches also is changing. It’s less a fraternity today than it was years ago because of the competition to get foreign players.

“It has become more like football and basketball,” said Dwayne Hultquist, Florida State men’s coach. “There are people out there you don’t trust, talking to kids before they’re allowed to or recruiting off other people’s teams. There isn’t as much professional courtesy.”

It’s not difficult to develop a pipeline to foreign players. The Internet is a common starting point. You can find results at junior tournaments in Europe, Asia and South America easily. From there, it’s easy to contact the player’s national tennis federation. Also, coaches such as women’s coach Andy Brandi at Florida have extensive foreign connections.

Though Brandi doesn’t give scholarships to many foreign players, he has no philosophical objections to the practice.

“It’s a good thing,” he says. “You’re bringing quality players in and it raises the level of the game. Today, the recruiting is worldwide. To be competitive you have to look everywhere.”

One of the “good things” Brandi and other coaches like about foreign players is that they’re more realistic about their futures than Americans. They come to the United States for the education, says Brandi, not because they think they can make it on the pro tour. They stay in school longer, and they have high grade point averages.

No one questions that players from France, Germany, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, India and other foreign countries have raised the quality of NCAA tennis.

“It has increased the level of competition,” Benjamin said. “But I also realize that there are some programs where the entire team is international. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.”

Even Kriese, the most outspoken critic of the tennis foreign legions, is wavering.

“I used to be completely patriotic,” he said. “In 26 years of coaching, I’ve had only five foreign players. But I’ve changed my attitude. Not just because I have to, but because our upper middle-class kids are hothouse flowers. They’re spoiled. Their philosophy is, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try something else.'”

“I’m going to the inner cities and find hungrier kids. But I’m also going to have to look abroad. For next year, I will be recruiting two international students. The way things are going, you can’t win with just American kids anymore.”

Unlike basketball and football, it’s not a breeding ground for a professional career. Few students who remain in college more than two years have substantial pro careers.

It could be as pure a university sport as lacrosse or golf if the schools could set a quota on foreign players.

Until they do, there will be a zeal to win that seems almost out of hand, and it’s affecting not just young Americans who can’t beat out better, more experienced foreigners, but also the people who coach the game and who are being forced to turn down U.S. prospects because their jobs are at stake.

Soon after the NCAA team and individual championships wind up at Stone Mountain and Athens, Ga., the ITA will examine the stars for 2001 and name its All-Americans.

A great number of them won’t be American.