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'I would choose college every single time': Why today's tennis players are maintaining their amateurism

Photos courtesy of Lara Crochik, Jennifer Tran and Adobe Stock.

It's a few hours before match day at UNC's Chewning Tennis Center, and Taylor Swift blares through the speakers as fans trickle in. Moments before play begins, the music winds down and by this point, the noise has been replaced by the raucous cheers from players and fans alike. 

It’s loud. It’s exhilarating. It’s a stark contrast to the quiet and polite clapping found in sparse crowds at pro tournaments.

And for UNC tennis players, this atmosphere is why they keep coming back. 

"You're never going to get people screaming in your face, stuff like that," sophomore Reese Brantmeier said of pro tournaments. "I've grown so much as a competitor during college.”

Many North Carolina tennis stars are now choosing to stay in college rather than go straight to the pros. For players like Brantmeier, who already have professional experience, that decision is based on a desire for further development and an unmatched team environment.

“The level of competitiveness in this isn't matched in pros,” she said. “The level [of competition] is so high, but you're never going to get that team atmosphere."

“For the whole team” 

Will Jansen, a London native, was considered one of the top junior players in Europe. But instead of pursuing a full-time professional career, he decided to enroll at UNC.

Unlike in the ATP, the facilities, coaches and trainers are provided for him in Chapel Hill. Most importantly, he said the team aspect of an otherwise individual sport makes competing in college special. He can watch his friends play beside him and relish in their encouragement. He’s not competing for himself, but for a team who counts on him to put up points. The crowds are rowdier, too. 

“It’s quite easy to get pumped when there are so many people watching,” Jansen told The Daily Tar Heel after a home victory on Jan. 28. “Last year, in some tournaments, there were like two people watching — your coach and the fitness coach. It's just great to have that amount of support and it really fired us up.”

For Brantmeier, who achieved a WTA Singles Ranking of No. 555 in 2022, playing professionally feels more isolated and lonely. While she plays in pro tournaments, she travels alone because players outside of the top-100 often can't afford to travel with a coach or team.

At UNC, she’s rarely by herself. 

Former North Carolina standout Rinky Hijikata won the 2023 Australian Open doubles title after leaving UNC in 2021. As a college player, he said he quickly learned how to deal with hostile crowds — a skill he taps into now as a pro. 

“There are people in the crowd that are yelling out to you, chirping at you and saying some stuff that you probably can't repeat," he told The Daily Tar Heel in September. "But a moment like that — a bit of a pressure cooker — then going out and playing these pro matches is fairly easy. You feel like you've been there before in those environments.”

'Not just one way to the pros'

Hijikata is just one of many recent success stories that demonstrate collegiate tennis as a growing pathway to the professional level. 

14 former college men's tennis players are ranked in the top-100 of ATP Singles Rankings, including No. 73 Hijikata, with six former college women’s tennis players in the top-100 of the WTA Singles.

Timothy Russell, CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, said the ITA partners with the International Tennis Federation, WTA and ATP to “accelerate” the transition from the college level to the pros. In September, the ITA announced the creation of the ITF/WTA College AcceleratorProgramme. This program allows the top five women’s singles players, NCAA Singles Champion and runner-up to receive main draw wild cards into pro-level tournaments. UNC's Fiona Crawley was included in the group of inaugural recipients.

On the men’s side, the ATP and ITA have hosted a partnership since January. This allows the top 20 men’s singles players who have completed their education, as well as those who finish in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Singles Championship, to earn spots at professional tournaments.

“Everybody needs to look at the overarching context of what's going on in the world of college athletics, which are at the moment being dominated by conversations about football and things like conference realignment,” Russell said. “But we're really wanting to make sure that Olympic sports like tennis have a great future.”

Regardless of an athlete’s goals, Russell said the ITA promotes teaching invaluable life skills to young adults and preparing them for whatever stage comes next. The organization wants to show that there's more than one way to the pros, and Tar Heel tennis stars are taking advantage.

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“I would never give it up," Crawley said.  "I would choose college every single time.”

Gwen Peace contributed reporting to this story.


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