The Pro Choice

Go to college or turn pro? Catch up with five players who went to college and still made names for themselves in the big leagues.

Published August 30, 2010 12:00

The Pro Choice
Jill Craybas

Most players join the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour during or after high school, continuing their studies through correspondence courses. However, a handful of women opt for a different route: college tennis. Spectacular facilities, intense competition and great camaraderie, college tennis in the USA is unforgettable.

Lisa Raymond is a great ambassador for college tennis, using her scholarship at the University of Florida as a platform for a sparkling career. Now a doubles specialist, she is the holder of nine Grand Slam doubles titles; but her singles achievements are impressive too, going as high as No.15 in the world in 1997.

Another Gator, as UF student athletes are called, is Jill Craybas, who counts ousting Serena Williams from Wimbledon in 2005 as a career highlight.

"College tennis is completely different to the Tour," Craybas said. "In college, you have the pressure of playing for your school and your team while trying to manage your studies. On the Tour, you have the pressure of playing for yourself and making a living. They are both tough but each can teach you life skills."

Craybas handled the pressure well. As a senior at UF in 1996 she won the NCAA singles championships, which earned her a wildcard into the US Open.

"It was a magical year. We had such a great team, we all got along so well and we won everything. I won the individuals, two girls on the team won the doubles crown and our team won the NCAA Championships."

Not only does Craybas cherish these victories but also the relationships she built with her fellow student athletes: "The best thing about college tennis was the camaraderie I felt with my teammates and all the other athletes. There were always tons of other athletes watching our matches. That is what's so great about college sports - there's an atmosphere there that is hard to explain."

Fellow American Lilia Osterloh, 32, played tennis for Stanford University and will be inducted into their Hall of Fame this year, joining greats such as John McEnroe. In 1997 she won the NCAA singles title and four years later reached a career high world ranking of No.41. Like Craybas, the team spirit she felt was what made the experience so special: "It was great to be part of a team at Stanford. Team practices were fun and travelling together to matches made for some great memories! I improved not only as a player but also as a person. College tennis gave me time to assess my options to either focus on my studies or pursue my dream of playing professional tennis."

Another Stanford University alumnus is Laura Granville. The 29-year-old American won consecutive NCAA singles titles in 2000 and 2001 and says her most memorable moment was winning the team championship in her sophomore year. After two years at Stanford she left to pursue professional tennis on the Tour, reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon twice.

"I didn't feel like I was ready, tennis-wise or as a person, when I was 18, to go on the Tour," Granville commented. "Plus it was always my dream to go to college and play tennis. I am so happy I made that choice."

Balancing studies with tennis requires exceptional organization, something Granville initially found difficult. Now she is going back to college for her final two years and is excited to be able to focus all her energy on her studies.

Ipek Senoglu, 31, played tennis for Pepperdine University, a college located on the stunning Malibu coastline. In 2004 she became the first Turkish woman to compete in a Grand Slam, playing in Wimbledon qualifying, and the first Turkish woman to compete in a Grand Slam main draw, at the US Open, reaching the third round of the doubles with Granville.

What made her decide to play college tennis instead of going straight onto the Tour? "Everyone in my family did well academically. Also, since no one from Turkey had played Grand Slams before me, I wanted to make sure I guaranteed my future and a degree on the side in case one day I wanted to stop playing."

Senoglu majored in International Business and Finance; however, it is the life lessons she gained that are most precious: "I grew up with my teammates; we were between the ages of 18 and 22 so had a lot of growing up to do. We had good times and bad times but we stuck together, it was like having a family.

"If you aim to win a Grand Slam at the age of 18 then that's another thing but there are only so many people who make it into the Top 10; a lot of players have to work after tennis, and college tennis gives you the social skills for this."

Senoglu's college career was illustrious: she was ranked No.1 in doubles by the NCAA and named an All-American athlete three times, an honor awarded to outstanding amateur athletes. However she considers her most memorable moment to be when Pepperdine beat Stanford University: "I won the decisive doubles and my dad was in the US to watch."

What is clear in all of these women's college careers is the camaraderie they experienced. College tennis transforms the sport from an individual game to a team competition; successes are shared and friendships made for life.

But is college tennis the right path for all aspiring players? "It is a tough decision to make for a young woman interested in both education and pro tennis. I believe if they listen to their heart, they can't go wrong."

Wise words from Craybas.

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