By Mark Fallati (Swarthmore ’18)
When I sent my first round of emails to college coaches in the fall semester of my junior year, signaling my interest in playing tennis for their programs, half went unanswered. One responded succinctly, “You will need to significantly improve your ranking to be considered for our program.” Another sent only a thin facade of interest: “Thanks for update.” I was becoming conscious of not only the looming life-changing decision I would soon have to make, but also the challenge to fit the right level of tennis into my preferred college lifestyle – and I was not aware how to use recruiting to my advantage.
Like many students my age, I possessed a general outline to guide the search for my optimal school, but the path was nebulous and uncertain. Attending the highest-quality academic institution I could attain was my foremost priority; that narrowed the scope of my search. I felt I would be most comfortable at a small or mid-size school, eliminating a few more choices. And I wanted a chance to contribute to a strong tennis team – but having barely cracked the top 500 on Tennis Recruiting by my junior spring, I found my options limited.
I’m fortunate to have attended and played tennis at Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia where the first half of “student-athlete” is written in bold, italics, and underline. Our program became a fixture in Division III’s national top twenty rankings; my teammates have become my best friends; and the education I received was second-to-none. At the outset of my recruiting process, this outcome was by no means guaranteed. By strategically communicating my personality both as a player and as a person to supplement coaches’ on-court impressions, I learned to position myself to achieve the best possible outcome for me.
My experience as a recent college athlete who experienced the intensity of the recruiting process, and as a client of and summer assistant with Donovan Tennis Strategies, has illuminated a few perspectives for current and future recruits to positively impact the impressions they leave on coaches. Many aspiring collegiate tennis players, particularly those interested in Division III, share circumstances and considerations every year similar to mine. High school juniors and seniors must navigate testing, college visits, and academics with an increasing pressure to perform well in tournaments, often with an aim to optimize the UTR ratings that may seem to define their college tennis prospects. To best leverage the recruiting process to their advantage, recruits instead should recognize themselves as multidimensional candidates whose potential impact on college teams stretches beyond what the numbers might suggest.
Thinking Beyond the Numbers
For academically well-rounded students, who are likely to consider a specific subset of colleges, fitting tennis into the equation has become an even greater challenge in recent years due to the “arms race” permeating Division III tennis. Elite academic institutions have evolved into D-III’s elite tennis programs, a direct result of admitting large classes of four-star and even five-star recruits who seek premier educations at small schools rather than Division I participation. The rapid addition of talent to the top echelon has cascaded throughout the D-III landscape, which has improved noticeably across the board. But the ramification of this “growing-up” phase is that recruits, from the national top 100 down to recreational players, face a more difficult path to gain access to tennis at the schools which now are both academically selective and athletic powerhouses.
The swift influx of talent at the top and middle tiers of Division III tennis has placed a premium on rankings, tournament success, and the number of stars on recruiting profiles. TRN, UTR, and other junior tennis outlets collectively present ever-growing bundles of information on young tennis players. UTR, in particular, has become ubiquitous among coaches, as it can compare high school players not only to each other but also to current college team members. Though by no means a perfectly accurate model, UTR has the potential to offer future athletes predictive insight into collegiate opportunities, suggesting a measure of knowledge in an inherently uncertain process.
Generating new knowledge and data across the sport has in many ways been a game-changer for all involved parties, but its easy accessibility and increasing importance in the college recruiting cycle constitutes a fresh source of anxiety among junior tennis families. Tennis recruiting is understood to rely, now more than ever, on quantitative analysis and ratings. High school juniors and seniors face an increasingly complex and hypercompetitive atmosphere at the intersection of strong academics and high-level tennis. An expanding market of players jockeys for a limited number of coach-supported slots at prestigious schools. Ratings and results, understandably, are at the forefront of recruits’ minds to stand out from their many talented peers.
Coaches, however, take into consideration much more than rankings and tournament performance. I believe that, at the D-III level, the numbers simply provide a baseline for coaches to understand their potential options. Metrics are not the final determinant to offer recruits coveted admission slots; they offer rough frames for coaches’ images of the players. The entire portraits are filled out more holistically – and what coaches see is well within recruits’ control.
Competing against the top players in the nation, I’ve learned that achieving an exceedingly high level of tennis requires some essential characteristics: intrinsic motivation, a devoted work ethic, and poise under pressure. These intangibles are required to reach the pinnacle of the game, yet might not be encapsulated by ratings. Some of the top players in the college game had already parlayed these natural qualities into impressive junior careers; others possessed such traits but only accessed their latent skills once they stepped up to the collegiate level.
The 2018 NCAA Division III Singles Championship offers a case study in the relationship between high school rankings and collegiate success. The national singles tournament features the most prestigious collection of players in the college ranks, with 32 of the best women and men selected from across the country. For all the attention paid to the college arms race, particularly on the men’s side, the season’s preeminent championship found one-half of the top women and nearly one-third of the top men had been ranked outside the top 200 prior to entering school. Still, the quality was undoubtedly stellar: all of the men had UTRs of 13 or 12, and the women 10 or 9 (with one 12).
Coaches are closely attuned to the intangibles that form the bedrock of growth and leadership among elite athletes. I believe that coaches, as they search for the next generation of players, are most enticed by recruits who vocalize their desire to improve and want to make the most of the talents they possess or hope to develop. The crux of effective recruiting is to discover the clutch player who clinches the winning point when the team faces its rival or plays for a championship, or the captain who devotes many hours preparing team practices and workouts during the long winter offseason. The value of a player’s contribution to a program is by no means perfectly correlated with TRN stars.
Define your “tennis personality”
Hunger to win, willingness to fail, and enthusiasm to learn are all essential parts of a recruit’s “tennis personality.” This is rooted in the idea that a well-rounded perspective of your potential is reflected in your current and desired future identity as a player, more so than in your past rating history. The burden is on the recruit to demonstrate these intrinsic traits to the teams they seek to join – completely unrelated to any single result or rating. Both on-court and off-court factors are essential to projecting a personality that coaches can buy as the reason why a recruit can contribute to their programs’ success.
On the court, details like calculated risk-taking, balance between aggression and safety, and overall composure and demeanor are never lost on coaches who carefully observe players at showcases or tournaments. Off the court, coaches learn quite a lot about personality from conversations. These are opportunities for recruits to talk about training and improvement rather than past results; to express their goals and motivations as collegiate athletes; and to thoughtfully speak and thoughtfully listen. From a recruit’s perspective, the objective is to prove that she or he is an eager partner for a relationship through which both player and coach will learn and grow.
Defining your own “tennis personality” requires introspection to prevent anyone else – including coaches – from defining it for you. Setting expectations and goals for collegiate tennis – an iterative process throughout high school – helps guide both players’ and coaches’ decisions. Are you hoping to become the top player in a lineup? Does joining a championship-caliber program sound like the ultimate prize, even if it means riding the bench for four years? Is being a reserve for a year or two a risk worth taking, if breaking into the lineup is on the table as an upperclassman? Answering questions like these involves assessing one’s own priorities, potential for technical and physical development, and willingness to commit to a difficult balance of tennis and academics – concepts that are difficult to even comprehend as a high school junior or senior.
Coaches sometimes seek to assuage recruits’ concerns – or fill the void when players don’t know their own expectations – by suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, possible outcomes from joining their programs. A common line that many of my peers have heard from coaches and shared with me is that a recruit “can play 5th or 6th singles as a freshman.” Implied is that the player will receive a lineup position as a freshman and continue as a starter for all four years of school – a much more appealing scenario to imagine than spending some time on the bench. Statements like these, in my opinion, have little bearing on reality due to numerous unforeseen elements: players’ growth or decline as high school seniors and throughout college, size and quality of a team’s incoming class, and future recruiting objectives as coaches shoot for even better talent, to name just a few. Such predictions can give recruits false hope on the upside if some of these factors, within or out of their control, change.
On the downside, recruits can be assessed by coaches to have limited potential. This, I learned the hard way: I was told by the head coach of one of my top-choice programs that I would be welcome to attend, but I ran the risk of not being a meaningful lineup contributor during my career. I was a 2-star seeking to join a program that planned to bring in several 4-stars; my participation on the roster would be guaranteed, but my chance to be a starter would not. The coach presented his analysis to me thoughtfully and professionally in an hourlong phone conversation, with genuine consideration for my wellbeing as a student and athlete. His perception of my abilities carried no malicious intent, and his caring approach to the situation is a leading example of the professional style shared among nearly all D-III coaches. But this story reinforces that too much attention to ratings and models can lead to up-and-coming players being underestimated – not only by coaches, but also by the players themselves.
As a recruit, you are in command of your tennis destiny. While it can appear that the D-III recruiting arms race risks leaving all but the very highest-ranked juniors emptyhanded, the nation’s current cream of the crop represent a mix of highly-touted and less-heralded recruits. This is no fluke: the top athletes’ variety of backgrounds proves that many factors play into collegiate success which cannot fully be predicted by high school ratings. It is essential to not let coaches make concrete assessments about your potential or abilities based on the numbers; that can only limit your perspective as a recruit, and thereby restrict your options. Presenting your own “tennis personality” throughout the recruiting process – the intangibles, motivations, and goals that shape you – offer a window for coaches to properly assess your fundamental value.
Define your “total personality”
Critically, recruit evaluation is a multidimensional process, embracing more facets than potential on-court success. Recruits are desired to be a proper “fit” for the program: fitting with the coach’s standards for team culture, time commitment, and ethics; and fitting with the personalities and charisma of the team’s individual members. This was a valuable lesson I absorbed from my head coach at Swarthmore. His foremost concern during his four-decade career was to build a family based on intellectual rigor and caring and thoughtful friendship. Rudeness, selfishness, and poor attitudes were not tolerated. Campus leadership as male athletes, in an era where that identity is associated with complex impressions, as well as sportsmanship were the hallmarks of our campus and national reputations.
I believe D-III tennis coaches by and large believe in these ideals. Coaches are well aware that recruitment is simply the introduction to close partnerships and learning opportunities that are built with players across four years. Positive team culture forges tight lifelong bonds among teammates and between players and coaches, maximizing the reward of the collegiate tennis experience. Teams therefore seek to attract athletes who want to be committed, responsible members of their programs. Coaches undoubtedly recognize the immense value of the diverse, unique qualities of the players: they are the foundation for a thriving team culture – and a thriving team culture directly links to a winning culture.
Just as recruits can take the initiative to demonstrate “tennis personality,” they are also responsible for showcasing their “total personality” – encompassing all the other facets of life unrelated to tennis. To me, this category offers the most room for a recruit to differentiate from a crowded field jockeying for coaches’ attentions. The goal: convince coaches that they should want to give as much value to you as a mentor, as you can give to their teams as a player.
Recruits presumably pay less attention to sharing these non-tennis-related qualities when interacting with coaches, and more attention to presenting their on-court abilities. My personal experience suggests that should change: the vast majority of conversations I had with my coaches regarding future recruits revolved around character and intangibles. Coaches are constantly assessing whether new players can make positive contributions to their team’s ethos, even if those players are not expected to crack the top six of the lineup. They want to know, for example, if they can build a relationship with a given athlete to develop her leadership skills as a future captain, or if he will fit in with the program’s standards for sportsmanship and character.
No “one-size-fits-all” approach exists for recruits to portray themselves to D-III coaches. Collegiate coaches may have specific personality traits they engender in their team members and appreciate in recruits. Some prefer players who are loud and boisterous on the court, who generate intensity and energy that can feed the entire team’s spirit. Others are drawn to players who are low-key tactical calculators, quiet but no less potent. One program may spend a given year bringing in a few high-performing academic students to round out the team’s GPA; another could be reticent to extend offers to recruits who might conceivably drop tennis to focus on studies. A recruit cannot – and should not – attempt to contort her personality during matches and conversations to suit all coaches’ various tastes.
A highly effective way for players to demonstrate they “fit” into a program is to take an official visit to the school. Spending at least one day and night immersed in the lifestyle of a collegiate tennis player helps a recruit digest the unique pros and cons of the experience at a particular school. A visit is also an opportunity for the current team – the recruit’s potential future teammates – to understand at an intimate level the person’s natural interests and presence. It is a live experiment for both recruit and team to view what their worlds might look like together. Feedback is passed on from the current players to their coaches, and those reviews become another guiding influence in the process of giving offers. Official visits should be taken seriously by recruits as an avenue to focus coaches’ attentions on the “total personality” they bring to the table, and to learn which teams’ distinctive cultures best fit their personalities.
The essence of the recruiting process lies in communication and presentation. Both coach and player do their best to project optimal images of themselves. Defining yourself as a tennis player can feel like waste of effort when rankings and ratings appear to act as judge and jury in coaches’ eyes. But one’s identity as a recruit is truly a collection of sub-identities that cannot be captured by numbers and that only the recruit can expose. The persona of the collegiate athlete takes on many roles – competitor, student, teammate – and you can shape coaches’ perceptions of how you will fill each of those roles. Communicating your entire individual character – all the tangibles and intangibles of your “tennis personality” and “total personality” – can help you claim command of your own recruiting process and throw open doors that may seem closed.
Mark Fallati is a 2018 graduate of Swarthmore College. In his tennis career at Swarthmore, Mark played #1 singles and doubles and accumulated school, conference and national accolades. Mark navigated his college tennis recruitment with DTS and went on to serve as an intern and assistant at DTS and the DTS Showcases and is serving as a DTS Alumni Mentor. He currently resides and works in New York.