Long before Kevin Anderson, Steve Johnson and John Isner were considered the poster-boys of playing college tennis, and then having that experience translate over to success on the professional circuit, Billie Jean King was known as the greatest player ever to display her skills as a collegian before going on to a Hall of Fame career.
King’s four US Open singles title between 1967 and 1974 all came after she played for Cal-State Los Angeles. Another Southern California college player from Pomona College, Darlene Hard, also won US National singles title (before the Open era in 1968) in 1960 and 1961.
From 1954-74, five American women who went to college - King, Hard, Althea Gibson (Florida A&M), Shirley Fry (Rollins College), and Doris Hart (University of Miami) - accounted for 11 US Open singles titles. All are now enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
This historical homework comes on the heels of former UCLA star Jennifer Brady becoming just the second former college tennis player in as many years to reach the women's singles semifinals at a Grand Slam, joining compatriot Danielle Collins (Virginia), who reached the semifinals at the 2019 Australian Open.
Brady became the first former college player to reach the US Open women's semifinals since Lori McNeil (Oklahoma State) in 1987. Should Brady reach the finals, she would be the first player since King to do it since 1974.
College tennis player having success at Grand Slams is not unprecedented. John McEnroe famously enrolled at Stanford University and attended classes in Palo Alto just a few weeks after making the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1977 as an 18-year-old amateur. McEnroe went on to help the Cardinal win the 1978 NCAA team title and also won the singles crown in his only year at Stanford. Sweden’s former Top 10 player Mikael Pernfors actually played two years at Seminole Community College before becoming the first player since Dennis Ralston two decades earlier to win two back-to-back NCAA singles titles in 1985 and 1986 playing for the University of Georgia.
College tennis has been one of many ongoing storylines of the 2020 Open, and winning players who competed on the collegiate level – notably USC alum Johnson, former UCLA stars Mackenzie McDonald, Maxime Cressy, Marcos Giron, and Ena Shibahara, Pepperdine's Luisa Stefani, and San Diego’s Brandon Nakashima (Virginia) – have not been able to escape questions about it.
Like most others, Brady didn’t seem to mind the questions about growing as a college player, playing at school versus turning pro, and how college tennis elevated her game. She credited her UCLA coaches with really helping her mature during her time in Westwood.
"I didn't have the confidence in my game and the confidence in myself, or really a plan to go pro," Brady said after taking down fellow American CiCi Bellis, 6-1, 6-2, in the second-round. "Going to UCLA was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. Stella (Sampras Webster, women's tennis head coach) and Rance (Brown, associate head coach), they helped me mature on the court and off the court and helped me grow as a person and take responsibility for myself and my actions."
Added Brady: “If you were to tell me that when I left, if I were to go to college in 2013 at UCLA and seven years from then I would be in the QF of the US Open, I would probably laugh. I wasn't ready when I went to college. I wasn't ready to play on the big stage.”
Like Brady, Maxime Cressy credits his UCLA coach with sticking with him when he struggled his freshman year and didn’t even crack the singles lineup and played only at No. 3 doubles.
“The biggest thing at UCLA was that Billy (Martin) really put in the work on the court with me on the technical and tactics side,” Cressy said in an interview before the Open. “I struggled a little bit my freshman year and was really only playing doubles. I just kept focusing on what I could control. UCLA was an incredible place for me to improve as a player and a man. I had four fabulous years there. And my improvement curve was incredible while I was in college and I attribute that to how happy I was with being there.”
Yet another US Open player formerly coached by Martin, Jean-Julien Rojer, has also tasted success on the biggest stages in tennis as he is a former Wimbledon (2015) and US Open doubles champion (2017). Rojer and Horia Tecau of Romania reached the semifinals this week at Flushing Meadows.
It is astonishing to note that nearly one-third (21 players) of the men’s doubles field consisted of former college tennis players. In the quarterfinals, eight of those players remained plus two in women’s doubles (including Stefani, the former Pepperdine Wave).
The dilemma of turning pro versus playing college tennis will be debated ad nauseam, but for many of #TeamSoCal's future stars, the experience has placed them in the center of it all - the US Open.
Steve Pratt's columns appear weekly at USTAsocal.com.
PC: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports