What's it like to be a member of a big-time college tennis team in
the 90's? To find out Tennis Server spoke to former National
Amateur Champion Jeff Landau, a recent graduate of Wake Forest
University and a four year member of their Men's tennis team.
Landau came to Wake Forest in 1991 with impressive junior
credentials but quickly found the transition to the college game to
be extremely demanding and humbling. A 5-time nationally ranked
junior, Jeff's achievements meant virtually nothing to his new
"Every player in college tennis was a star in the juniors so my
record was nothing special", recalls Jeff. "I was the new freshman
and freshmen are not highly thought of. Seniority is very big in
college and the upperclassmen really stick together. They want to
beat the incoming freshmen very badly, particularly the guys who
are at the bottom of the line-up because they are afraid the new
players will take their spot on the team. As a result, cracking
the line-up as a freshman is extremely difficult.
"The upperclassmen have a big psychological advantage in that they've been there before and have strong peer support and incentive to beat the new guy, especially if he has come with a big reputation."
"In addition, freshman are treated as the lowest form of life and given all the jobs that no one wants to do. Things like filling the water coolers each day before practice, cleaning the towels and, when on the road, carrying the stringer into and out of the hotel.
After a road trip, while the upperclassmen are relaxing, the freshmen get down on their hands and knees and clean out the team vans. A far cry from the "star" treatment that Jeff was used to in the juniors. "The new surroundings and attitude toward freshman made my first few days very difficult," recalls Jeff "I felt very lost."
While Landau was one of the fortunate few who did manage to crack the starting line-up as a freshman, he quickly found the level of play as well as the depth of the college game to be much stronger than he anticipated. As one of the top juniors in New England, Jeff would rarely be tested until the later rounds of a tournament, however in college, every match, and even practice match was a challenge.
"Every player on the team is very strong which means that each day in practice I am working with someone as good if not better than me which is hard, but great for my game."
Asked to name the single biggest difference in the college game Landau says without hesitation, "The serves. In the juniors you had a couple of players with really big serves but in college everyone is capable of dominating a match with their serve. It's forced me to improve my return as well as my serve because college players are used to tough serves and, as a result, have very strong returns."
Landau also discovered that the fitness level of college players
is much higher than in the juniors. "There is much more power in college tennis and the players are all very strong" says Jeff. "In the juniors I'd practice for an hour or two a day and go to the gym and lift weights a couple of times a week. I thought I was in pretty good shape but my first four hour college practice convinced me otherwise. We spend much more time training on and off the court than I ever did in the juniors. It made me realize how weak I really was."
"We practice year round beginning in the fall one week after classes start. Our fall schedule consists mostly of tournaments while our main season is in the spring. It's a long year so we have to make sure that we're in shape and can hold up throughout the season."
While tennis is serious business in college, the players must also perform in the classroom. Trying to juggle tennis, school and a social life forces college athletes to become experts in time management.
"The biggest challenge for me was finding the right balance between tennis and school", says Jeff. "A lot of freshman make mistakes and it costs them. Some will spend too much time on their tennis and their grades will suffer or vice versa. It took me almost a year and a half before I was able to comfortably balance everything.
Landau's day begins at 9:00 a.m. and often doesn't end until 2:00 in the morning. Classes and tennis occupy fill the day until
approximately 8:00 p.m. By the time he has showered, eaten, wound down from practice, and attended any team meetings that might be scheduled, it is seldom earlier than 10:00 before Jeff can crack a book. With an average of four hours of homework a night, Jeff rarely gets to bed before 2:00 a.m. "It makes it tough to get eight hours of sleep."
With such a full schedule how does a college athlete manage to keep his grades up? "It was difficult at first because my study habits
weren't the best to begin with," admits Jeff.
"Most professors try to be helpful', continues Jeff, " but there are always a few who consider athletes to be dumb jocks and actually try to make things harder for us. Regardless, we have to keep our grades up. If we don't, we don't play. The coach is very involved with our academics and often knows the results of a test before we do."
Many schools, realizing the time management burden that their athletes are under, have initiated Academic Counseling Centers where athletes can go for tutoring or any additional help they may need.
"The Counseling Center is a big help", says Jeff, "but ultimately the responsibility is ours to budget our time and make sure we not only get our work done, but get it done up to Wake Forests' standards.
Jeff admits that learning to manage his demanding schedule was undoubtedly the most difficult part of the transition to college life. "It's been good for me in that it has forced me to improve my organizational skills. Since I only have a limited amount of time I am forced to be much more focused and concentrate intensely on what I am doing. This, in turn, has helped me a great deal on the court."
Asked to name the "best" part of college tennis Landau answers without hesitation, "the comrade of being a member of a team. It's like being in a fraternity," says Jeff. "In the juniors you were pretty much on your own but when you play in college you always have someone supporting you. Plus, because we are all under the same pressures, if you're having a problem on the court or in the classroom, there is always someone who understands and is willing to help."
A former National Amateur champion, Landau is now competing on the professional circuit and he credits college tennis for bringing him to a new level of maturity both on and off the court. "I've become much more comfortable with my game and the opportunity to practice and compete against so many strong players has helped me tremendously."
So if your dream is to play college tennis, you should work on your game, get in the best shape of your life and the next time your mother asks you to clean the family van, JUST DO IT--- it might come in handy!