For years, top-tier athletes bypassed collegiate tennis. The tide is turning.

 By Gabin Villière, CNN Week

Updated 11: 57 Pm August 31, 2023

From outside the stadium, fans could hear the echoes of the doubles match happening inside, but they still cheered and celebrated as if they were there on the court. The excitement was palpable as former college tennis stars Ben Shelton and Mackenzie McDonald showcased their skills at the DC Open.

One young boy, proudly sporting a Florida Tennis T-shirt, couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "Ben is literally the coolest player in the world," he exclaimed from atop his father's shoulders just outside the court gates. It was a testament to the growing popularity and admiration for players like Ben and Mackie, who have successfully transitioned from college tennis to the ATP Tour.

The resurgence of college tennis as a pathway to professional success is becoming increasingly evident. It has been almost four decades since a former college tennis player won a major singles title or became the face of the sport. However, with thirteen former college tennis players now in the ATP top 100, including notable names like Cameron Norrie and Chris Eubanks, the tide seems to be turning.

McDonald expressed his appreciation for the support and recognition they are receiving. "It's not always easy for us former college guys to get as much love, but this atmosphere is amazing," he said after losing in the doubles final at the DC Open. "The people really appreciate us taking the college route and then finding success on tour, and that means a lot because it wasn't always like this."

In the past, college tennis served as a stepping stone between junior tennis and the professional circuit. Players like Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe used their college years to hone their skills while also providing themselves with a safety net. However, as professional tennis grew and financial opportunities increased, the allure of college tennis diminished.

Tennis academies began producing talented young players who could compete at a professional level at a younger age. This led to a decline in the quality and reputation of college tennis, with many top players opting to skip college altogether. The perception was that going to college for tennis was a career-limiting move.

But as the landscape of professional tennis changed, so did the perceptions. Shelton explained, "Over time, success with a certain style or path becomes a trend, and perceptions change. Just as going from juniors to the pros became a thing, playing tennis in college can now be seen as a viable option too."

The resurgence of former college tennis players in the ATP rankings is a testament to the value and potential of college tennis as a pathway to success. With more players like Ben and Mackie making their mark on the professional circuit, the future looks promising for college tennis and its role in shaping the next generation of tennis stars.

"It only took a few pioneers for people to start believing," says Mackenzie McDonald, currently ranked No. 40 in the world. When McDonald was approaching the end of his junior career, he had numerous endorsement offers and the option to turn professional, thanks to his ranking of No. 12 in the ITF World Tour junior rankings. However, after seeing former college stars like John Isner and Steve Johnson achieve success on the professional tour, McDonald decided to commit to UCLA, where he won national championships in both singles and doubles.

Since turning pro in 2016, McDonald has earned close to $5 million. He explains that at 18 years old, he didn't feel ready to go pro from a maturity standpoint. Seeing players like Isner and Johnson thrive in college made him realize that rushing into the professional circuit wasn't necessary. He saw the benefits of going to college for free and undergoing a natural progression, rather than being forced to become an adult or grind through the futures tour for several years. For McDonald, the decision to attend college was an easy one.

Vesa Ponkka, president of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., hopes that young players continue to adopt this mindset. While some players may possess the talent to compete with professionals at a young age, professional tennis is an unforgiving sport. Without traditional contracts and guaranteed paydays, the difference between winning and losing can determine whether a player can afford to eat or not.

Ponkka emphasizes that regardless of how good a player is, they are likely to experience many losses when they transition to the ATP Tour. Setting aside the physical disadvantages, it is incredibly challenging for players who have been winning consistently in juniors to suddenly struggle to win even one or two matches against professionals. Ponkka believes that young players need those years in college to mature and learn how to face adversity independently, separate from their family and friends.

Alex Shelton, with a peak ranking of No. 306 in the ITF World Tour junior rankings, is a prime example of the benefits of the college pipeline. When he finished high school, playing professionally was the last thing on his mind, so he chose to play at Florida. There, Shelton had access to full-time strength and conditioning coaches and dietitians for the first time. Between his high school graduation and sophomore year of college, Shelton gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, which greatly improved his serve.

After clinching the NCAA singles national championship in his sophomore year, Shelton made a name for himself by defeating then-No. 5 Casper Ruud at the Cincinnati Masters in straight sets. This victory convinced him to give up his remaining college eligibility and turn professional.

Shelton's impressive performance at this year's Australian Open, where he reached the quarterfinals, propelled him into the top 50 rankings. He currently holds the No. 47 spot.

According to Brateanu, Shelton embodies the success of college tennis players transitioning to the professional circuit. He believes that in the early stages of a player's development, it is crucial to focus on building strength and gaining experience through consistent matches. Shelton was able to achieve this during his time at Florida. In contrast, as a professional player, losing in the first round of a tournament means losing an entire week of valuable development. However, in college, even if you lose on Friday, you can bounce back and play another match on Saturday, which is incredibly beneficial.

During their match at the DC Open, Shelton and McDonald took the spectators on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. They celebrated every point they won in the dominant first set with fist pumps and called upon their fans for support when they struggled in the second set.

In the decisive third set, Shelton and McDonald initially fell behind but quickly turned things around. They soon took the lead, resulting in loud cheers from the crowd. Shelton even flexed his muscles and sprinted across the court, embracing a fan who was leaning over the railing.

With the next point, they emerged victorious.

"We're a minority out here," Shelton expressed after the match. "Our story is different from everyone else's, and it's about time people paid attention and learned about it."