Victoria Chiesa – USTA
The USTA National Campus will play a crucial part in a grand finale for the college tennis season this May as the host site for the 2023 NCAA Division I, II and III Tennis Championships.
The National Campus boasts a recent track record of success in hosting the collegiate national championships. It held the Division I individual and team championships for the first time in 2019, and again in 2021; last spring, the Division III championships came to town. But the 2023 championships mark a new era for college tennis, in Orlando and beyond: It is the first time in history that all three NCAA divisions will compete for season-ending trophies—in any sport—at a single site.
The USTA, in conjunction with the Greater Orlando Sports Commission; university partners of UCF, Rollins College and Oglethorpe University (Ga.); and community partners of the City of Orlando and Orange County, was awarded the joint bid by the NCAA for the 2023 finals three years ago—a move that Craig Morris, the USTA’s chief executive for community tennis, predicted would be a game-changer for the sport.
“Bringing all of these championships to one site will create a true celebration of college tennis, and we could not be more excited and honored that the USTA National Campus was selected to host this historic event,” Morris said at the time of the announcement. “College tennis is incredibly important to the growth of tennis in this country, and we feel the Campus is the ideal location to showcase every level of college tennis like never before.”
Brian Hainline, the current USTA president who’s been the chief medical officer of the NCAA since 2013, agrees—and says that a successful staging of the 2023 championships is a tangible reminder of the possibilities that exist for the future.
“This is an exciting moment for collegiate tennis, and a celebration of all NCAA college tennis players through a remarkable collaboration among the USTA, ITA and NCAA,” he said. “We hope that the 2023 grand finale will become the springboard for a ‘Road to the USTA National Campus’ each spring.”
In eight weeks, the first step towards that vision will be a reality—but making history isn’t easy.
A total of 1,578 men’s and women’s tennis teams complete in Divisions I, II and III at colleges and universities across the country, though only a fraction of those will make it to Orlando compete over the two-plus weeks. Hosting a combined championships is a massive undertaking, but it’s one that Timothy Russell, CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) since 2015, says can not only transform tennis, but the ecosystem of college sports as a whole.
“I think first-ever occasions can often be terrific,” Russell said. “For everyone to be intersecting at the National Campus, it’s an incredible opportunity. One of the things that I think all sports are trying to figure out is, how are we elevating the sport; how are we lifting it up? How are we calling attention to it? I think this idea, it shines a light on all divisions, and that there are future leaders in all of them.
“One of the messages that I’ve had for years is that there’s a place for everyone who wants to play college tennis. … Whenever we can shine a light on our sport in new and unique ways, I think it brings new people to the game.”
The USTA will utilize the 12 courts at the Campus’ state-of-the-art Collegiate Center—with a maximum capacity of nearly 2,000 fans—for the duration of the championships, as well as multiple of the Campus’ Team USA courts for select days of competition. The Division III individual singles and doubles finals will be played on Campus’ hard-court stadium court. A best-in-class experience isn’t only guaranteed for competitors; on-site activations for fans are expected to include a kids’ day, a seminar for high school juniors and seniors interested in playing college tennis, a military appreciation event, and elevated hospitality offerings.
“Since we bid on this tournament years ago, we have viewed this event as a phenomenal opportunity to showcase our great sport while also celebrating with tremendous student-athletes and coaches through these 17 days of competition,” Elissa Hill, the USTA’s senior director for college tennis, said.
“In addition to the championships taking place, our team has committed to a tremendous focus on community outreach, inclusivity, and providing engagement for all tennis enthusiasts. We look forward to welcoming both existing and new tennis fans to the USTA National Campus in just a few months.”
In addition to all three NCAA divisions competing at a single site, the 2023 championships will be doubly historic as they will also include the title match of the USTA’s Collegiate Wheelchair National Championships, an event that has been held for more than 20 years. While wheelchair tennis is not currently sanctioned by the NCAA, a new initiative announced jointly last month by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and NCAA Office of Inclusion could be the first step in changing that. In an effort that seeks to seamlessly unite adaptive and able-bodied athletes at high-profile competitions in basketball, tennis, and track and field, these organizations are set to work together to build game-changing initiatives for the future of these Paralympic sports. The ITA, the governing body and coaching association of collegiate tennis, for example, will soon implement a wheelchair collegiate tennis coaches’ category within its structure to open a pathway for future collegiate wheelchair tennis committees, rules, rankings and awards, and will look to add a wheelchair event to the 2023 ITA National Fall Championships.
USTA director of wheelchair tennis Jason Harnett says opportunities such as these will open up wheelchair tennis to new audiences—with that awareness a logical first step in the progress to full inclusion.
“Collegiate wheelchair tennis has become the heartbeat of our competitive pathway,” he said. “The dream of not only having our wheelchair athletes compete at the NCAA Championships, but actual inclusion, and ultimately being a part of the governance that the NCAA and the ITA provides, has been the end goal for us.
“This is the beginning of that journey into full integration and inclusivity, which will be transformative for the collegiate adaptive sporting space.”
“Hosting the USTA’s Collegiate Wheelchair National Championships with the NCAA Championships is a major step forward for all of tennis,” Hainline added. “Whenever we speak of tennis, we are doing so with an inclusive voice–emphasizing that tennis is for athletes of all abilities, and disabilities. Our wheelchair athletes are phenomenal athletes and human beings competing side-by-side with their collegiate colleagues.”
While Harnett says this year’s championships will be transformative, Russell used another word beginning with the letter ’t’ to describe why they are already a success: teamwork.
“It’s a product of the vision of three organizations,” he said. “To actually have this synergy is good for our sport, and I think other people are figuring that out for sure.”