Commentary

College a good investment for pros?

Updated: September 5, 2012, 3:08 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Lisa Raymond, the pride of Norristown, Pa., was the quintessential college player. She won NCAA singles titles in 1992 and 1993 and led the Florida Gators to their first-ever team championship.

Liezel Huber, a South African by birth, turned professional the same year Raymond won her second NCAA title. She was 15.

Nearly two decades later, these players from disparate backgrounds came together last year and became U.S. Open doubles champions. This past April, at an age when most players are retired, they were ranked as the WTA's No. 1 team. They may not have the eerie telepathy of the Bryan brothers, but Raymond and Huber play a pleasing, fluid and intelligent game.

[+] EnlargeLisa Raymond, Liezel Huber
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesLisa Raymond and Liezel Huber took vastly different paths to professional tennis. It's working out for both of them.

They arrived at the same place after traveling vastly different paths; the college experience might be the biggest difference between them.

Ask Huber if she has any regrets and she'll surprise you.

"My husband [and coach Tony Huber] disagrees with me, but I wish I had gone to college," Huber said. "I think it would have benefited me. I partied a lot. I didn't eat right. College would have allowed me to be undisciplined, so I could learn to develop discipline."

The success of so many young Americans during the first week here has underlined the difficulty of the college choice for the elite 17- and 18-year-old players.

To go -- or turn pro?

Andy Roddick was ready to go out of the box at the age of 18, when he went pro a dozen years ago. He was the youngest player in the year-end top 200 and three years later won the U.S. Open just after turning 21. James Blake went to Harvard for two years before matriculating to the ATP World Tour. Being part of a team, he has said, was good for him. The Williams sisters? They are their own team. They skipped to the head of the class, with Serena winning the U.S. Open at 17; Venus' first title here came at age 20.

Three young U.S. wild cards opened eyes here, winning their first two main-draw matches. One was Blake, recovering from a lingering knee injury. The other two -- Steve Johnson and Mallory Burdette -- went all in for college. The increasing physicality of the game demands that players be stronger and fitter. As a result, players are succeeding at older ages than ever before.

A college education is always a good investment, but even budding professional tennis players are now seeing an immediate return.

Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Orange, Calif., led USC to four consecutive NCAA titles. The two-time singles champion won his last 72 collegiate matches but found the transition to the professional game a bit jarring.

He lost his first ATP-level match against Steve Darcis in San Jose in straight sets. His first victory came against Donald Young -- we'll examine Young's decision a little later on -- but Johnson was 1-4 when he decided to skip qualifying in Cincinnati in lieu of a softer, gentler Challenger in Aptos, Calif. Johnson blew through the field (the highest-ranked opponent was No. 150 Dmitry Tursunov) and won the title.

"I felt a little more pressure because I had come off a great college season and I hadn't lost in a while," Johnson said. "I just didn't feel comfortable with the surroundings. I had a nice week to train back at home. I think everything worked out pretty well."

He brought that confidence to New York. After beating fellow American Rajeev Ram, Johnson stunned Ernests Gulbis in the second round.

This was roughly the trajectory that Burdette followed into the third round, beating Timea Bacsinszky and Lucie Hradecka to get there. Still affected by a violent stomach virus, she eventually lost to No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-1.

[+] EnlargeMallory Burdette
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMallory Burdette maintains college prepared her for life on the tennis tour.

In her previous news conferences, Burdette had always qualified her responses about returning to Stanford for her senior year. Would she have considered immediately turning pro if she had beaten Sharapova?

"Possibly," she said carefully. "I'll sit down with my parents in a few days and talk about what I'm going to do going forward."

There were rumors on the college circuit Tuesday that Burdette is going to forgo her senior year.

College, Burdette said, taught her to manage her time -- and people, too.

"As a captain, I was managing classes, teammates, myself," she said. "It gives you a great preparation for the pro tour; teaches you to juggle a lot of different things. Your focus for each one has to be intense.

"You practice from 2:30-5, work out from 5-6 -- and that's just tennis. You have no choice but to get everything done."

Her first year was a huge learning experience, she said. There was the inevitable Freshman 15 and never enough sleep.

"The next year I took better care of myself," Burdette said. "I got more rest because I was more organized. You know, not waiting to the last minute and staying up all night to write a paper."

The best example of the long-term benefits of accepting a scholarship and playing four years of college ball is John Isner. A four-time All American, he played at Georgia and carried the Bulldogs to the NCAA title in 2007, the same year he reached the singles final.

He turned pro that year, at the age of 22.

"Without college I wouldn't be here today," he said emphatically. "I can say that with 100 percent certainty. I wasn't nearly good enough to go pro after high school. I didn't even have pro aspirations.

"I got so much better at Georgia. Once I did get so much better, I realized I could maybe play professional tennis. For me it was the right decision. I had to go there. But everybody's different."

Which brings us back to Donald Young.

Born in Chicago in 1989 to tennis teaching professionals, Young was a certifiable phenom, at age 16 becoming the first American to win the Australian Open junior title and finish the year at No. 1 since Roddick in 2000. He won Wimbledon juniors in 2007 -- three years after he turned pro.

Young never developed the tools to fully succeed on the ATP World Tour. By all accounts, he didn't practice hard or long enough to hone his physical and mental stamina. He finished the 2007 season ranked among the top 100 but spent the next three years on the outside -- formative years when many kids are in college.

In 2011, though, with a more professional attitude, he rose to a career high of No. 31. This year, after beating Grigor Dimitrov in the first round at Memphis in February, Young managed to lose 17 consecutive matches over a numbing six-month period.

"The game is more physical," Isner said. "The average age of the top 100 is 26. It's not how it used to be in the '80s and '90s where you would have 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds inside the top 10 in the world. It doesn't happen like that now.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
Elsa/Getty ImagesRyan Harrison has been dubbed one of the next budding stars. Would he have made faster progress if he'd gone to college?

"In my opinion, it takes longer for guys to develop. Look at Mardy Fish. He's playing his best tennis and he's 30. A guy like [Janko] Tipsarevic is playing his best tennis at 27. The game has gotten more physical and more mature, for sure."

Ryan Harrison, a 20-year-old native Louisianan who passed on college, is considered the young American with the best chance to become a top-10 player. Jack Sock, a 19-year-old from Lincoln, Neb., has promise, too. He won two main-draw matches here and, in the third, pushed No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro into three tiebreakers but lost in four sets.

"Even through junior year, senior year of high school, I always thought college is what I was going to do," Sock said. "I was really looking forward to playing on a team, having teammates, enjoying that experience.

"But I felt I was ready. Just made the decision to turn pro. Just still getting used to the traveling and playing week after week."

Raymond feels strongly that every young player thinking about turning professional should experience at least one year of college. After all, it got her enshrined in the University of Florida sports hall of fame; she's officially a "Gator Great."

"Even one year," Raymond insisted, "goes a long way. It teaches you independence and how to organize your time. There are so many benefits; I can't begin to count them."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.