That's what the largest college tennis tournament is named - "The All-American". It's not the most prestigious title you can win playing college tennis. That honor goes to the NCAA Singles and Doubles tournament in May. It's not the hardest tournament to qualify for. That distinction is held by the ITA Indoor Intercollegiate in November, with its 32 person singles field. What the All-American lacks for in exclusivity and prestige, though, it makes up for in sheer size.
It's also the best pre-season indicator of how good your tennis team could be this year.
A little know fact about college tennis is that the NCAA has farmed out running the sport to an organization named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The ITA runs college tennis much like the professional side of the sport. There are tournaments almost the entire year. When college tennis players aren't playing in team matches in the spring, the ITA offers many opportunities to compete individually throughout the summer, fall, and into the winter. Many of the top flight tennis programs (Virginia included) will supplement ITA events with their own tournaments on weekends in the fall.
The premier fall event is the ITA All-American.
Most professional tennis tournaments have a main draw, and a qualifying round. Players without a high enough ranking to get into the main draw compete in qualifying for the chance to get into the main draw. The All-American takes it a step further with a Pre-Qualifying round. That's right, you can attempt to play your way into the Qualifying round, and once there play your way into the Main Draw, and then play for a national title. The All-American winner is considered a national champion by the ITA. Every Division 1 tennis player that can make their way to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the last week of September can take a shot at the title.
For most of them, it will be the only shot at a national title they get all year. The NCAA singles bracket is limited to 64 players, and is heavily weighted towards major conference players. The All-American had 150 players in the Pre-Qualifying bracket alone, plus the players that were automatically given spots in the Qualifying and Main draws.
But enough about the tournament, let's talk about Virginia's players. For years, the All-American singles title was the only major college singles or doubles title that the Virginia program had not won. Even program legend Somdev Devvarman never won the singles title. The Virginia men, however, have taken the last two All-American titles - Alexander Domijan in 2010 and Mitchell Frank in 2011. Frank and Domijan both won in their freshman seasons. They both also failed to defend their titles because of injuries.
In this year's event, Virginia sent four first year tennis players to the Pre-Qualifying draw, with Ryan Shane - Justin Shane's younger brother - winning his way into the Qualifying draw. Fellow first year Harrison Richmond also made it into the Qualifying draw despite losing in the final round of pre-qualifying, thanks to some players withdrawing.
In Qualifying, four of the five Virginia players entered lost in the first round, including Justin Shane, who was the #1 seed in Qualifying, and fourth year player Julen Uriguen. The lone survivor was first year Mac Styslinger, the most heralded player in Virginia's large recruiting class this past season.
In the main draw, 2010 champion Alexander Domijan has advanced to the quarterfinals, where he will meet Emilio Gomez of Southern California. Stylsinger upset fourth year Hoo Jamere Jenkins (the #2 seed in the tournament) to get to the round of 16, and then rolled over his next opponent to reach the quarterfinals. He'll play Peter Kobelt of Ohio State.
The early implications for the men's team are encouraging. While seeing Justin Shane and Julen Uriguen lose in the first round of qualifying is not ideal, they were the #5 and #6 players on the team last season. Styslinger's performance is exciting, since it means that he should be more than capable of filling the lone hole in Virginia's lineup - the #4 spot vacated by Drew Courtney's graduation. Additionally, the doubles pairings (a constant struggle for Virginia at the highest level of competition) are winning some solid matches early on.
Even more thrilling news, however, comes from the Women's All-American tournament in California. There, first-year Julia Elbaba has climbed all the way from the pre-qualifying draw to the main draw, and knocked off the #1 seed (also the #4 player in the country) to reach the round of 16.
Elbaba's performance makes her a heavy favorite to play at the #1 spot for the Virginia women in the spring. The possibility that she may also be able to go toe-to-toe with the top players in the ACC is a welcome respite for the consistently improving women's team that has often had to rely on their strength in doubles and depth to compete against ACC squads with better overall talent at the top of their lineups.