College Spotlight: Bobby Reynolds

May 31, 2006 09:17 AM

By Christine Staudinger Ezra,

"I think college is good for everybody. It gives you a chance to grow up as an individual.” -- Bobby Reynolds

Bobby Reynolds is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. At 23 years old, Bobby’s already put in three years at Vanderbilt University, gone down in history as one of the school’s best men’s singles tennis players ever and is now making a name for himself on the ATP Tour. Last year, he finished in the world's top 100 for the first time in his career and is now striving to improve that ranking every time he sets foot on the court.

Here, Bobby talks about what he learned in college – both on and off the court – and what life is really like as a professional tennis player.

Discovering a Passion
There was nothing unique about Bobby Reynolds’ introduction to tennis. When Bobby was young, the family relocated from Cape Cod, Mass., to Atlanta. A family friend recommended a tennis coach in the area for Bobby’s older sister Debbie. Seven-year-old Bobby tagged along for about a year before starting up lessons of his own.

Eventually, the whole family became involved with tennis, and Bobby's mother Joyce took it a step further by becoming a tennis instructor. Debbie went on to play tennis at Wisconsin and Georgia Tech, while the youngest sibling, Michael, played tennis for College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Bobby’s story is a breath of fresh air compared to much of the tennis society we live in today, in which kids as young as four and five years old are being groomed for a professional tennis career at the urging of parents and coaches seeing dollar signs and glory. Instead, Bobby was a kid following in the footsteps of his big sis – the sport just happened to be a great match for the entire tennis-loving Reynolds household. As Bobby put it, “We’re the tennis family.”

As the years went by, Bobby’s skills improved and became in sync with his love of the sport. “When I was younger, playing pro was always a goal, but I never really felt like I could reach that level,” he said. What he did think he could realistically accomplish, and was shooting for, was to play tennis for a great college and hopefully earn an athletic scholarship.

In fact, as a junior player, Bobby hadn’t done many of the things that today’s kids are told are musts for anyone looking to be a pro tennis player. “I had never played a Future, or even knew how the whole system worked,” he admitted. “To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even played in too many ITFs.”

One of the few ITF tournaments he did compete in was an experimental experience suggested by Bobby’s coach at the time, David Drew, who thought it would be good for the young player to get a taste for international competition. The two went to France, and Bobby quickly realized that the life of a tennis player isn’t necessarily glamorous. “It was in the hills of France. No one spoke English, the food wasn’t great, and the hotels were pretty bad. I thought, ‘This is awful. I’d hate to do this,’” he remembered. “I was thinking, ‘If this is what the pro life is like, this isn’t any fun at all!’”

Bobby returned home with a goal to succeed on the junior level and earn himself that college scholarship. “There was never any thought of not going to college,” Bobby confirmed.

Facing Down a Dream
When the time came to look at schools, Bobby had options. An array of tennis achievements throughout his junior career made him quite a catch for top Division One colleges looking for the next “it” guy.

Bobby with doubles partner Scoville Jenkins at the 2005 US Open. Getty Images
As a teen, Bobby earned such accolades as the No. 10 national ranking in 2000 for the boys’ 18s; he was a finalist in the Boys’ 18s Doubles Clay Court Nationals in 1999; he also secured the No. 3 rank in the South in 1999 for juniors and was named Georgia’s Most Improved Player in 1998.

His list of potential colleges included Georgia, Notre Dame, Illinois, Virginia and Vanderbilt, the school David Drew played for. After visiting the schools and meeting the tennis coaches, Bobby was sure he’d end up at Illinois. “I even told Illinois, ‘I’m almost positive this is where I want to go. I just have to check out Vanderbilt for my coach.’”

But in the end, the best school for Bobby – Illinois or Vanderbilt – was dependent on whether or not he saw himself pursuing a professional tennis career in the future. “If I wanted to pursue pro tennis, Illinois was the better tennis school on paper,” he said.

But Bobby had other things on his mind besides tennis. “I wanted to get a good education, and Vanderbilt offered all the other factors I was looking for – it was close to home and I loved Coach Ken Flach.” These factors, combined with the fact that he didn’t see himself pursuing a career in tennis, was the push Bobby needed to accept a scholarship to play Division One tennis for Vanderbilt.

On the court, Bobby had an impressive freshman season, tallying more than 20 overall singles wins. He was an alternate in the NCAA Doubles Championship and finished the season ranked No. 43 in the nation in doubles.

But most of what he learned happened when he wasn’t playing tennis. One of five freshmen to join the team that year, Bobby was immediately part of a close-knit group. Looking back now, he says the team and his fellow players still stand out as the best part of his college career.

Coach Flach also played a big role in facilitating the team’s smooth inner workings. “Not only was he an unbelievable coach, but he was also like a best friend,” Bobby said. “Basically, what I miss at this point are the guys on the team, the van rides and all the things we worked through together.”

But college wasn’t all fun and tennis games. Like most other college athletes, Bobby had to find ways to juggle playing a sport with a tough academic load. As an athlete, he also wasn’t allowed to join a fraternity. “I had to buckle down. If I wanted to do OK in the school, there were nights I had to give up going out to study for a test,” he said.

As difficult as the balancing act was between tennis and his education, Bobby never felt any additional pressure from his professors. “In the three years I was there, I never had any problems with my teachers. They were all understanding if I had to miss a test or a paper was due while I was away for tennis,” he said. It was a simple matter of approaching his professors with his schedule ahead of time and agreeing when his missed work would be due.

Bobby was so sure that playing college tennis was the end-goal of his tennis dream that after his freshman year he took a break from tennis. “I just wanted to be like a regular teenager. When I was done with school, I came home, worked a little and hung out with my friends.”

A New Goal

Bobby Reynolds returns a shot to Sam Querrey at the 2006 Pacific Life Open. Getty Images
Time away from the courts must have done Bobby good, because he returned to Vanderbilt for his sophomore year hotter than ever. He became the second Vanderbilt men’s tennis player ever to earn ITA All-American honors and win 30 singles matches in a season. He made it to the second round of the NCAA Singles Championships and, during the season, defeated the NCAA singles champ Matias Boeker and national runner-up Jesse Witten. Bobby ended his second season ranked an impressive No. 15 in singles and No. 32 in doubles.

Bobby’s junior year was also a knockout success. He was once again given All-American honors, becoming the first two-time singles All-American in Vanderbilt history. He was ranked No. 1 on the Omni Hotels Collegiate Tennis Rankings, named ITA National Player of the Month a record three times, as well as the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.

His third season ended when he led Vanderbilt to the NCAA final, only to lose, ironically, to Illinois, 4-3. Bobby had a season singles record of 46-7. To this day, Bobby still owns the school’s records for career wins (99) and single-season wins (46).

After such a successful showing, Bobby was left reevaluating what he wanted to do with his clearly dominant tennis skills. “Basically, the only other thing I could accomplish in college was to win team and singles championships, but there was no guarantee that I’d be able to do that the next year,” he said.

Bobby realized that his dream of going pro was no longer some far-fetched fantasy. The clincher to leave school after three years came with the knowledge that he had to complete an internship during his senior year as part of his business major that would have him working 42 hours each week at a job site. “I knew that if I stayed and went to school, my tennis would suffer. I felt like if there was ever a time to try going pro, it was then.”

Easier said then done, Bobby still had to relay the news to his teammates and Coach Flach. “The hardest part was telling them I was going to leave. We’d all been together for three years, grown up together there, but luckily they were all very understanding.”

His parents, the tennis lovers that they are, saw the decision as a win-win situation. If he stayed in school, he could always try tennis later and have a degree to fall back on. But if he wanted to give the pro tour a shot, Vanderbilt had offered Bobby the opportunity to come back and finish his degree at any point. This was all the reassurance Bobby needed to take a leap of faith.

Now, almost three years later, Bobby has never once regretted the decision to leave when he did. While the pro tour has been known to be a lonely path at times, Bobby tours as part of the USTA Touring Pro program in a team-like atmosphere. He travels with fellow tour players Brian Baker, former college rival Amer Delic, Rajeev Ram and Coach Ricardo Acuna.

“I feel like it was the best situation that could have happened to me. Whereas if I had come out a year later, who knows if that team would’ve still been there, or they would’ve obviously been at a higher level than I would’ve been starting out,” Bobby explained. “Looking back, I think I made the right decision, and the timing was right.”

Some Professional Advice
While he may have yet to finish his final year at Vanderbilt, there is no doubt in Bobby’s mind that he will go back for his degree. “That’s the one thing I said to myself when I decided to leave. If I put in three years at Vanderbilt, one more year is well worth it.”

Having seen first-hand the pros and cons of tennis at both the collegiate and professional levels, Bobby can accurately dish some advice to players contemplating between the two. “There may be a player here or there that has the ability to go right from juniors to the pros, but I think college is good for everybody. You’re starting your life off by yourself, without your parents or anybody else. You work on time management at school. You have to be able to put your classes in there with your athletics and social activities. It gives you a chance to grow up as an individual,” he said.

Bobby recommends college for the simple fact that it’s possibly the only time a tennis player can be part of a team. “It gives you another aspect of tennis. The camaraderie with the other guys and working together to basically achieve the same goal, I think that’s something that I grew from.”
Teammates are also great for the ego – keeping it from getting in the way that is. “If you come in as a freshman and have a couple seniors on the team, no matter how good you are, they’re going to put you in your place. You learn from the older guys,” he added.

Constant coaching is another plus. On tour, players can only speak with their coaches following a match. But during college, you can benefit and learn from the experience of a coach throughout the entire match. “Coach Flach helped me tremendously,” Bobby said. “You’re playing a match, and he gets to sit on the sidelines and talk to you, if you want, every point.”

Bobby also points out that the tour is a tough place to be at 17 or 18 years old, when you’re playing people who are 28 and 30. “I don’t care how good you are – unless you’re basically like Roddick, where you come out and shoot up that quickly – there’s something to be said for experience. These guys that are older, they’ve been in this situation time and time and time again, and they know how to use that.”

“When you’re coming out that young, it’s tough to find a group of guys that are your age that you can hang around with. It tends to be, I imagine, lonely for some guys if you’re traveling just you and a coach. You don’t have that same social aspect as if you’d gone to college for a couple years.”

Case in point, many of Bobby’s collegiate rivals are now his pro tour cohorts. “Amer Delic and I were enemies back in college, and now I consider him one of my best friends on the tour,” he said.

For all these reasons, Bobby is certain that players with some college experience have the edge on those who never gave it a shot. “Even if it’s just for a year, just to grow up, get yourself ready for the tour. You can play one year of college and dominate, and then you’ve got that under your belt.”

This doesn’t mean he’s blind to the temptations juniors face, seeing the $18,000 prize at a tournament and thinking that the opportunity to go pro may not be there after college. But he doesn’t buy into this way of thinking. “Kids coming out of high school see the dollar signs and say, ‘I can’t pass this up, I’ve got to take it right now.’ I think that’s a lot of pressure. Take that year and go play college tennis and see how that works out,” he advised.

Despite the glory many young players associate with being a professional athlete, Bobby can attest to the fact that the pro tour is a difficult life for a variety of reasons, hardly any of which have to do with the tennis part.

“The week in, week out traveling is tough. It’s not so much the different guys and the competition; it’s all the other stuff that you have to take into consideration, like traveling from this place to that place and putting in the training weeks. You leave first round, and you have a week off – what are you going to do? It’s all the other stuff, rather than just being out on the court and hitting the tennis ball.”

Looking back on all that he’s accomplished at the tender age of 23, Bobby’s content with the path he chose. “If somebody would’ve told me that I would make it to the third round of the Australian Open last year after two years on the tour, I would’ve been like, ‘You’re crazy!’ To be where I’m at right now, I’m happy, but hopefully I can do even better.”

So What does Mr. Reynolds have his sights set on now? “I’d like to get into the 50s and 40s. Hopefully with hard work, that will come true.”