SOUTH CAROLINA played a womens tennis doubleheader this past week involving Winthrop and USC Upstate. Of the 26 players listed on the three rosters, 19 called another country home from Algeria to Brazil to Russia.
College tennis, particularly on the womens side, has taken on an international flavor. So much so that when college coaches go abroad to recruit players, they often sit courtside with 30 or 40 of their colleagues.
Its all cats in an aquarium store, really, USC womens tennis coach Kevin Epley says. Were all looking at the same goldfish for a good dinner.
The feast of recruits appears to be much more bountiful outside the United States. The rosters of 11 instate Division-I programs show 51 percent of the players are from foreign countries. The percentage of international players on SEC rosters is 49.6. Its 40.8 in the ACC.
The extremes are represented instate where all nine players listed on the Winthrop roster are from outside the country, while College of Charleston counts one player from France and nine from the United States.
Coaches around the state say the predominance of international players in womens tennis is the result of a numbers game, one in which the United States has fallen short in producing top-level talent for decades.
A check of the current International Tennis Federation rankings for junior players bears that out. Of the top-100 players, 14 are from the United States. Most programs in the SEC and ACC must recruit among the top 100 players to be competitive for league and national championships.
Of those 14 ranked players from the United States, several might opt to bypass college and turn directly to professional tennis. The remaining top recruits tend to migrate to womens college tennis powers such as Stanford, Florida, UCLA and Duke.
Stanford and Florida have won 13 of the past 17 NCAA championships, and they continue to benefit from landing the top-level players from the United States. Combined, the Stanford and Florida rosters list 13 of 15 players from this country.
That leaves the remaining 250-plus womens tennis programs at the NCAA Division I level to look for the leftovers, or to look elsewhere for talent. That elsewhere has proved to be anywhere in the world.
If you want to compete with the UCLAs or the Stanfords, says Winthrop womens coach Cid Carvalho, you need to go overseas.
The depth of talent overseas has to do with a couple of factors. For one, nearly every country in the world plays tennis. Also, tennis like soccer is a sport of choice in most countries. By comparison, the most-favored sports in the United States range from baseball to basketball to football.
Tennis is a very skill-driven sport that you learn at a very young age, and it takes a long time to develop, USCs Epley said. Its not like we can go down the road and see a local kid that is not ranked in the top 150 and say, Hey, Im going to develop her in college. Generally, youre recruiting a player that has been dedicated to the sport their entire life.
That dedication to the sport is much more likely to be found outside the United States.
So, how do college programs go about finding the top talent on different continents? Well, the recruiting game has been simplified, and the tennis world made smaller, because of the Internet.
Much of recruiting by the mid-major programs, such as Winthrop and College of Charleston, is done via emails and contacts the coaches have made over the years. Those programs do not have the recruiting budgets of a USC or a Clemson.
While the major programs also utilize the Internet for rankings and emails for contacts, they can afford to send coaches on overseas recruiting trips two or three times a year. This past year, Epley recruited in England for two weeks in June, then went to France and Hungary for one week in October.
USCs current roster of 10 players includes those from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Paraguay, Peru, Russia and Sweden.
Scott Kidd, an assistant coach for the Clemson womens team, is considered among the top international recruiters in the game. In 2010 and 2011, Kidd recruited in Asia and South America. In 2012, he made three trips abroad with stops in Bulgaria, France, Germany, Lithuania and Serbia.
Clemsons current roster of eight players includes two from Indonesia, and one each from Germany, Italy, Russia and Taiwan. Interestingly enough, Clemsons current No. 1 singles player, Yana Koroleva of Russia, initiated her recruiting process by emailing the Clemson coaching staff while attending a tennis academy in Florida.
It is not always easy to persuade international players to attend American colleges, according to Winthrops Carvalho. He says the highest-ranked international players have pursued a professional career from a young age and do not recognize the value of first playing in college.
They dont want to study, he says. They want to play tennis.
Carvalhos story probably is more typical of the international recruit. In Brazil, he aspired to play professionally but recognized his limitations out of high school. Instead, he went after a college degree while playing tennis at Winthrop, eventually earned a masters degree and went into coaching.
In the 1980s, when international players began to infiltrate mens college basketball, TV commentator Billy Packer suggested that the NCAA should limit the number of foreign players in the game. Perhaps as a way to avoid any legal ramifications from such regulations, the NCAA appears to be making it more and more difficult for foreign players to migrate to the United States.
Any international player past the age of 20 is prohibited from playing in a sanctioned tournament prior to enrolling at a U.S. college. Just this year, the NCAA changed the rule that now says an international player must enroll in a U.S. college within six months of graduating from high school. The previous rule set a one-year deadline.
International players, like Americans, are required to take the SAT for admission. Additionally, they must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, although most international players are well-schooled in English as a second language.
Playing the international game is not for every coach and program. Angelo Anastopoulo is in his 22nd year at College of Charleston, including the past 12 as solely the womens tennis coach. His teams have won the past four Southern Conference championships and appeared in the NCAA tournament each year.
Anastopoulo recruits primarily players from the United States, and his 2011-12 class was ranked among the nations best, including top 50-player Samantha Maddox of Lexington, Ky.
We start recruiting (American) players and give them the opportunity first, Anastopoulo says. Weve had good success with that. From our experience recruiting American players, I know what to expect a little bit more.
Anastopoulo says mid-major programs often must recruit international talent sight unseen, which represents what he calls a bit of a gamble. So, he prefers to scour the United States for players.
There are different philosophies out there, says Winthrops Carvalho. My philosophy is that I should put on the court the best team that I can, regardless of who they are. I go to American tournaments, and I offer scholarships to the ones who could make my team. I also look at ITF rankings and offer scholarships to international players.
USCs Epley says his ideal team makeup would consist of half American players and half international players. He says that, because tennis is such an international sport, a good mix of players allows for more cultural diversity and a greater college experience for all the players.
Beyond that, every coach contacted said that the preponderance of international players has made for a vastly improved womens tennis game at the college level. They say the game will continue to improve as colleges pursue the best talent, not just in this country but around the world.