ASU looking to become a national tennis hub

With the Intercollegiate Tennis Association now in Tempe, ASU hopes to push forward as a leader in college tennis.

After partnering with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association last April, ASU is now hoping to put that partnership to good use; moving the University into the forefront of collegiate tennis.

When Dr. Timothy Russell took over as the ITA CEO in July of 2015, one of his top priorities was to connect the ITA with higher education.

"The primary motivation was to position the sport of tennis not just within the world of intercollegiate athletics, but more importantly within the world of higher education," Russell said.

As a result, he sought to find a "forward-thinking university" that shared his goals.

This is where ASU comes into the picture.

After being named Vice President of Athletics and Athletic Director in January 2014, Ray Anderson made it a priority to create innovative business models to grow the University's Olympic sports.

This progressive approach to athletics most notably had a large effect on the wrestling, swimming and triathlon programs, however, Anderson wanted to make sure tennis got the same attention.

Having taught at the ASU School of Music for 22 years before retiring and becoming a professor of emeritus last June, Russell saw first hand how President Michael Crow transformed ASU into an innovative leader.

Other universities recruited the ITA to come to their school, but, in Russell's mind, ASU was the best choice. In April 2015, this collaboration became a reality.

"We like to think of ourselves as a fast-paced sport for a fast-paced world," Russell said. "To have a global education leader and a global sport partner, it just seemed like the perfect vision match."

Often times, all the focus of an athletic department at a major university is placed on the revenue-earning sports; namely football and basketball.

There is no question that Anderson and his staff have invested a lot of resources into their two major programs, however, that doesn't mean tennis has gone by the wayside.

One month after the partnership between the ITA and ASU was officially finalized, the men's tennis program was reinstated. For Russell, this was a huge reason why the two parties came together.

"Ray and Buffie Anderson are a large part of why this is happening," he said. "To have your AD not only believe in tennis, but to personally invest a million dollars of their own money it's just unheard of.  We think it's a game changer for college tennis to have a power five school reinstate men's tennis. It is not only a boost to ASU, but to all of college tennis."

Going forward, the primary objective of this partnership is to grow the sport. This is all part of an "overarching vision" of expanding college tennis to the broader community, according to Russell.

One way to do this is to create what Anderson has referred to as an "Olympic Sports Villiage." This includes a new tennis facility shared by student-athletes and recreational players.

Matt Hill, the head coach of the ASU men's tennis team, was hired in part because he believes in this larger vision.

Hill, who comes to ASU after four successful seasons at the University of South Florida, certainly cares about what his team does on the court, but that is not the only priority.

The three-time American Athletic Conference coach of the year wants to build a program, which to him entails serving the community. This means getting to know the people that come to matches on a personal level, and he wants his players to be a part of that.

"I don't want to have a really high number next to our name on a computer screen," Hill said. "That's a small piece to a much larger puzzle. It shows to (his players) that look, were committed to a bigger picture here, and if you're interested in building something phenomenal, this could be a place for you."

Women's tennis coach Shelia McInerney also played a key role in the ITA partnership.

She is excited that the men's program will be competing again in 2017 after an 8-year hiatus, and she said the ITA aspect is icing on the cake.

"This can only be a positive," McInerney said when the news of the partnership first broke in April. "It's going to make the program more visible, and put more eyes on the sport of tennis around here."

The hope is that ASU will be the guinea pig from which this plan can expand. With everybody now on the same page, it would seem that the plan is off to a good start.

"The ITA wants to help demonstrate, using ASU as a model, how college programs around the country can be great community assets beyond just their competitive teams," Russell said.


Reach the reporter at jjacquez@asu.edu or follow @joejacquezaz on Twitter.

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