In one of the most bizarre stories in college tennis–or college sports in general–the Arkansas Razorbacks women’s tennis team schedule Tennessee State six times on Sunday. It was a grueling full day of tennis, with the first match beginning at 8:00 AM and the final match concluding around 9:00 PM. Arkansas prevailed in all six, jumping their record on the season to 16-16 from 10-16. Reaching a .500 win percentage was extremely significant, as a team must be at least .500 to be selected to play in the 64-team NCAA tournament beginning on May 12th.
If They Have Six Wins Against One Opponent, why would they be selected?
The primary reason Arkansas scheduled this unreasonable day of tennis was their incredible run of matches toward the end of the season. They finished the regular season an unimpressive 7-15, with a 3-10 mark in conference. However, this may not be as bad as it seems; they play in the SEC Conference, which boasts five of the top ten ranked teams in the country. They entered the postseason SEC tournament as the #11 seed out of 14 teams. Arkansas also finished the regular season strong, defeating #35 Tennessee in their final match.
They proceeded to play by far their best tennis of the season at this point, winning three consecutive matches en route to the semifinal. The road to the semifinal included victories over #19 ranked Auburn and #7 ranked South Carolina. In the semifinal, they were able to put up a decent fight against #9 Florida, though they did not come out on top. Similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the selection committee (at least unofficially) tends to have recency bias, with an emphasis on postseason tournament play. Arkansas likely felt that with these impressive wins to finish off their year, they would have a legitimate shot to play in the NCAA tournament. However, they still were only 10-16 on the season, and needed to get to .500 by Sunday, April 22nd, the last day of the season.
How Did Something Like This Happen?
It is difficult to tell what prompted this scheduling, or how it came to be. Arkansas was eliminated from the SEC tournament on April 20, and scheduled and played the first match soon after at 8:00 AM on April 22. They had to find a school nearby who could host Arkansas on short notice, and most importantly was willing to play six matches in a day and lose all of them. Most likely, money was the main factor.
Sports such as college football and basketball bring huge revenues to universities, but smaller sports like tennis rarely charge for admission and generally operate at a loss. Tennessee State could have had a struggling program financially, and was offered a significant amount of money from Arkansas. This is not illegal, as large schools pay small schools to play them often in many different sports. It would also be a win-win for the schools, as Tennessee State’s women’s tennis program will be well funded, and Arkansas not only has a chance to make the tournament they believe they deserve, but will also make additional money from their postseason play. If money was the reason for this match-up, it makes sense from both sides and follows NCAA rules, though it may not be the right thing to do.
Why did Arkansas have to travel to Tennessee to do this? Why not just host a nearby school? Well, the Arkansas athletic department has an odd rule. They view all smaller in-state schools as rivals that they refuse to support, so Arkansas won’t give them money by playing them. Because of this rule, which spans all sports, the Razorbacks had to travel to Nashville to face Tennessee State.
Just as expected, Arkansas won all six matches to finish the season 16-16. The matches were not quite as easy as expected. After winning the first five dual matches 4-0, the final match was decided by just one individual match. Tennessee State captured three singles wins, and their number two player was forced to retire one game into her match. This 4-3 win cemented Arkansas’ .500 record on the season by the smallest of margins. Because Tennessee State does not have a large team, the number two was forced to play her sixth singles match of the day and her body understandably did not hold up. All in all, Arkansas received what they wanted. However, there may be long-term consequences from this. They played nine different players, but with six singles matches required per dual match, this meant each player was required to play four matches. Even though many of them were quick 6-1 6-2 wins for example, this still takes a toll. These consequences are yet to be seen, but playing this much tennis is not good for the body.
Next Tuesday, May 1st, at 5:00 PM Eastern, Arkansas will find out if their gamble paid off during the NCAA Selection Show. It is easy to expect the NCAA to leave Arkansas out because of this stunt. They still proceeded to attempt to get in this way, meaning the Arkansas athletic department figured they had a shot. It will be intriguing to see how the NCAA treats this rare and unique situation. Going forward, it is fairly certain that the NCAA will enact a rule preventing more than two matches played in a single day. This may turn out a win for Arkansas, but it could be at the expense of their athletes and another team that legitimately finished .500 on the year.