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Outnumbered On The Court

High school tennis players are finding that scholarships are hard to come by as they're being given to foreign players

April 07, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Woodbridge High's Adam Artunian went looking for a college tennis scholarship last summer, he figured his main competitors would be teenagers from Southern California and Florida, tennis hotbeds in the United States. Artunian didn't realize 20-year-old Australians or 23-year-old Germans were vying for the same scholarships he was.

"I didn't even consider it at all," Artunian said. "I didn't think they'd come over here to compete with us, not 22-year-olds with pro experience."

International players aren't just competing, they're dominating the American men's college tennis scene. This year's preseason Rolex Collegiate Tennis Rankings looked like a guest list to a United Nations dinner. Thirty-four of the top 50 men's singles players were foreigners, representing 12 countries. In the latest rankings, eight of the top nine players were foreigners.

"It's kind of ridiculous," said Artunian, 20th in last year's boys' 18s Southern California rankings. "But I don't blame them [for wanting to play in the U.S.]. There's a lot of competition over here."

Artunian's father, Rich, sounded a warning to parents of American male junior tennis players.

"I would tell kids to go into tennis because you like playing, not for the scholarship," he said. "It's a real eye-opener. The problem is unlike any other sport. You're competing with foreign players for maybe one or two spots, sometimes three. I think it's totally wrong. They should really limit the number of foreign players."

If there were more men's tennis scholarships, the number of foreign players wouldn't affect Americans as much. But when each Division I coach has only 4 1/2 scholarships to give, each scholarship becomes extremely valuable. Foreign players also stand out in women's college tennis--30 of the top 50 singles players are foreigners. But since women teams are allotted eight scholarships, U.S. women don't face the numbers crunch men do.

Proposal Fails

There was a time when men's tennis coaches also had eight scholarships to give. But in the budget-cutting days of the 1970s, men's tennis was one of the sports to take a hit. Scholarships were reduced from eight to five and later to 4 1/2. As more foreign players discovered the benefits of American college tennis--a free education and an opportunity to play against top-level competition--the percentage of Americans getting scholarships began to dwindle.

Four years ago, college tennis coaches tried to create more opportunities for American junior players. Sixty percent of Division I and II tennis coaches surveyed favored a rule that would mandate giving U.S. players at least 50% of the scholarships per team. However the Intercollegiate Tennis Assn. never pressed the NCAA on trying to implement such a policy, fearing it might be ruled discriminatory by the courts.

So although a majority of men's coaches object to the increasing presence of foreigners in their sport, many don't practice what they preach.

"I got the feeling when I was talking to a lot of these coaches, they'd like to have an American on their team but they didn't have the money," Artunian said.

Mission Viejo senior Eric Bachelor, ranked one spot behind Artunian last year in Southern California, said he got a similar feeling.

"Most schools said other schools were recruiting foreigners, so they had to do the same thing in order to stay competitive," said Bachelor, who has a 4.0 grade-point average and a Southern California doubles ranking of four.

It wasn't long ago that players with Bachelor and Artunian's credentials were getting the scholarships they desired. Foreign players were part of the college tennis landscape in the 1970s and 1980s, but they were scattered all over the country and they rarely numbered more than one to a team. Until that time, track was one of the few sports in which foreigners made their presence felt in American colleges. These days, many college tennis teams consist solely of foreign players.

Alabama Birmingham and Northeast Louisiana met in the finals of last month's UC Irvine tournament and started entire lineups of foreign players. Andrew Kim, whose son Kevin was a freshman player at UCLA last year, didn't realize how much college tennis had changed until he attended a match against Arizona State.

"They were all speaking in their native tongues and nobody could understand what they were saying," Kim said. "It made for an interesting match."

Limited Options

Bill Smith, Bachelor's coach at Mission Viejo, doesn't find the limited options facing American juniors very interesting. Smith, who has coached tennis for nearly 40 years, said Bachelor and players like him deserve better.

"If you're at a certain level, you don't have to worry," Smith said. "But if you're at that next level, you're going to be scratching around."

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