Getting to the Pro Level

Q. I am 15 and have been playing tennis for almost a year now. My coach tells me I have improved a lot in just this short amount of time. I've read all this stuff about pro athletes, of them starting at a young age and here I am 15 years old. I love tennis but I worry I won’t get to a high (pro) level because of time.

A. You have the same amount of time as the rest of us! Do with it as you choose…

If you love tennis, that is the most important reason to play. This joy will drive you to play more and to seek ways to get better. I have no earthly idea of whether or not you possess the potential to become a world-class player. I am certain, however, that if you continue to love tennis and are willing to put in the time to get better, that you will have an excellent chance to fulfill your potential as a player.

Q. How do you become a professional tennis player? Do you have to take like 3 or more private lessons a week?

A. Yes. If you take three or more private lessons each week then you are bound for glory.

Q. I am 14 years old and I have been playing tennis for some time now. I have never played any tournaments and I do not have a ranking. My dream is to become a professional tennis player when I turn 18. I am afraid that I will not be able to do this because I don’t have a ranking. My question is do you have to be a junior player and have a ranking before you can become a professional tennis player?

A. Nobody in professional tennis gives a damn what your junior rankings were. The only requirement is to be good enough to win matches so that you actually earn money.

However, it would be fairly unprecedented to arrive among the professional ranks without any competitive experience. I would urge you to begin competing to learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, about your “ceiling” and/or your limitations, and- ultimately- to determine if this is really something that you are willing to pour your heart and soul into. Good luck in the process.

Q. I am 16 years old and dream of one day becoming a pro tennis player. I've only recently started taken tennis seriously and realize it will be extremely difficult for me to get to the pro level. Is it possible, if I have natural talent, that I can still make it to the pro level? If I don't, can I reach a level where I can still play tournaments around the country? What advice do you have for me?

A. Anything is possible. If you are an exceptional athlete and possess the necessary natural talent, then you stand a chance. It is important that you realize that generally the process of becoming a top-ranking professional player includes at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of training and competition. It may be more realistic to set your sights on a national junior ranking first, and then a college scholarship. If you still improve, then you can “give it a go” on the professional tour after you have completed your education.

If you were to achieve professional success, given the scenario that you described, it would be the rare exception more than the rule. Success in tennis is meritocracy however. If you are good enough, and you keep winning, then nobody anywhere can stop you from advancing up the ladder.

Q. At what age do most pro players start to play? Is it possible to become a pro if you work really hard since the age of 13?

A. The best players in the world generally start when they are very young. In fact, when they are asked this question their response is typically that they have been playing as long as they can remember and do not even remember exactly when they started. However, not everyone needs to follow the same path.

America’s top young prospect is 19-year-old Sam Querrey, who played several sports (including tennis, soccer, basketball, baseball, and football) while growing up. He did not fully devote himself to tennis until he was about 16 years old. In his very first international junior tournament, which was the US Open Juniors, he reached the quarterfinals before losing a close match to eventual champion Andy Murray. By the way, Sam earned a wildcard into the US Open Juniors by winning the National 16s Championship in Kalamazoo. So… as Sam proves, it can be done.

Q. I would love to be a professional tennis player in the future, but I would also love to have a college degree. Please tell me how I can balance both.

A. Unless you are a “can’t miss” prospect, then you should positively go to college and enjoy the experience of competing at that level for four years. Realize that many junior Wimbledon champions and other players ranked among the top-ten in the world for the 18 & under division do not enjoy sustained success at the professional level. If you are not in position to compete- and win- at that level of junior tennis, then dreams of success on the professional tours should be put on hold until you finish college.

By the way, your improvement over those four years of intercollegiate competition can be dramatic. It allows your mind and body additional time to mature, and this should never be underestimated. The world of professional tennis is harsh, and trying to enter that level before you are fully prepared will mean severe disappointment that is often difficult to ever recover from.

Q. I am fourteen years old and want to become a professional tennis player. I've been playing tennis since I was eight but only seriously for the last year. I am very athletic and have plenty of talent (my coaches have said), so I am improving extremely quickly. I know I still have a few years, but I am worried that it is too late to go pro. Do I have a chance, or should I just shoot for college tennis?

A. It is not too late to achieve your career aspirations in tennis. Keep plugging away by competing in tournaments and enjoy the process.

Becoming good enough to compete at the collegiate level should not be viewed merely as a consolation prize. Andy Roddick is the best American player of his generation. Through his formative years, a long-term goal for him was to become good enough to earn a college scholarship (as his older brother, John, did). Ultimately he became better than he expected. When he became the ITF’s top-ranked junior player in the world in 2000, turning professional was the next logical step.

Unless you are a “can’t-miss” prospect, then you ought to go to college for four years. You can earn your degree while working to improve your tennis game, fitness level, and perspective. Two other exceptional players, Todd Martin and James Blake, would likely NOT have enjoyed such professional success without their respective experiences- on and off-court- in college.

Q. When I look at professional tennis, players tend to have a solid winning background in their junior days/high school days/college days. Some players starting when they are as young as 5 years old! I never had any professional instruction or introduction into the sport at a young age, simply because it's not a real popular sport where I grew up. My question is would it be possible to start playing professional tennis at an older age, like early 20's with no "young tennis background"? If you believe it is possible, what kind of steps would one take?

A. Anything is possible, but this development process would certainly buck the trend. As I have written many times, it typically takes ten years and/or 10,000 hours of dedicated training and competition for a player to fulfill his/her potential. This type of devotion seems to become more difficult as we age and our responsibilities shift. Good luck if you are going to ride down that trail.

Q. I'm 19 and I have been playing tennis for one year. I have really fallen in love with the game and I would like to try and go pro in a few years. I wanted to ask, being so late getting started, is this a realistic goal? If so, what do I need to do to prepare myself?

A. This is not particularly realistic, but I do not want to be the one throwing cold water on ANY dreams. If you really believe that you are talented enough, and have drive to succeed, then I encourage you to give it a go. Enter as many tournaments as possible so that you hone your competitive instinct. Work diligently on developing your technique and building up your fitness level.

Realize that it typically takes 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of training to become “expert” in our sport. Even if you do fulfill ALL of your potential, there is no guarantee that you will become good enough to make a living trying to play. Nonetheless, if this is something that you want more than anything in the whole world- and the desire NEEDS to be that strong- then try and try and try and try. Best of luck in the

Q. I started playing tennis when I was 12, and tournaments when I was about 13, is it too late for me to go pro? I find that I’m catching up to a lot of players that used to beat me. I play tennis obsessively on my free time and I love the sport. I want your opinion.

A. It is never too late… as long as you have the talent, drive, athletic ability, emotional/psychological skill set, and passion. Be advised that it typically takes 10 years and/or 10,000 hours for players to fulfill their potential, so be patient. It will be a long road, but do not worry about any “expert” setting a limit on whether or not you can achieve all that you want.

Q. I want to play a 2006 tennis tournament. My mom says that I need more time but I really want to go pro by 14 and I only have 5 years and 4 months until that time. July 8th I will be nine. I know the USTA rules and what a let is, but I still need to work on my backhand and serve, do you think that I can play a tournament in October or November or December? I'll be upset if I can't do as good if not better than my mom, who reached a ranking of 12 in the Venezuelan juniors leagues.

A. Take your time. If you really want to become a professional tennis player, that is terrific. Develop athleticism during your formative years so that you have strength, balance, quickness, agility, stamina, and explosiveness as you get older and bigger. To accomplish this, you might participate in other sports while you are very young.

Over the next few years, find (and stick with) a competent, high-level coach who can provide you with a great foundation for all of your strokes. Once you establish that, then it will be with you forever. Enter tournaments as soon as YOU feel ready. In fact, compete frequently so you develop a feel for how to construct points, deal with nervousness, change tactics mid-match, etc. Remember, though, this is not a sprint. When/if you become a professional player someday, nobody will be asking you what your ranking in the 12 & under used to be… For your information, it usually takes professionals about ten years and 10,000 hours of training until they fulfill their potential.

Q. I have a 14 year old step son whom is playing/practicing tennis everyday. I mean EVERYDAY. His Dad tells him that if he misses 3 or 4 days, that it will "set him back" one or two months in his effort to get better. This 14 year old is a very good player for his age and he has expectations of being a pro player one day [I think his Dad has bigger expectations/hopes of that]. My question is, 1 - Do you think missing a few days of practice, is going to have a major effect on your game? and 2 - What type of practice schedule would be effective in consistently improving one's game? [7 days a week?, 6 days a week? 5 days a week?].

A. Every player develops differently, and I will trust that your step son’s father (coach?) knows his game/body/personality/ambition well. However, his comment that taking a few days off will compromise his development for a month or more borders on the unreasonable. In fact, a few days of rest (or “active rest,” where he gets exercise but takes time away from tennis) is often exactly what a young athlete needs to improve.

In terms of his practice schedule, again every player is unique. Keep a watchful eye for chronic (overuse) injuries. In the end, most player development experts tend to agree that it takes about ten years and/or 10,000 hours of training for a developing player to approach his full potential. You can do the math on that one, but remember that your step son’s development is a long process and that patience from his “handlers” is essential.

Q Well, my family and I are immigrants. I'm thirteen years old, and play tennis for 3 hours, per day and play for 5-7 days a week. Tennis is an expensive sport to have private lessons for, and my family is not that sound yet financially. We are immigrants and my dad thinks we should save money not spend a lot of it. I'm not old enough for a job, because I'm 13. I record any match I can see, and rally against walls in my spare time. I still want to make it to the pros, but I need guidance. What should I do?

A. Start to enter sanctioned tournaments. Even more than formal instruction, organized competition is the best way to learn the quickest. Why? Because you will find a level (either immediately, which is likely, or eventually) where your opponents are better and/or more experienced than you. And you will lose. Nothing provides you with more direct data on what areas you will need to improve to compete at a higher level than some losses. When you endure a few setbacks, then go to work on the areas of your game that let you down, and then enter some more tournaments.

By the way, some of our greatest champions in the United States are children of immigrants (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jennifer Capriati jump to mind immediately), so you are in good company.

Q. What can short tennis players do to be successful at the pro level? What are some tactics or strategies to beat the tall majority?

A. I believe that “short” players have certain advantages over their taller opponents. Did you get to watch Olivier Rochus from Belgium in the recent Davis Cup tie against America? He whipped the taller James Blake in straight sets in the first rubber. He lost in five grueling sets against Andy Roddick, although he actually won more total points during the match than the big serving American. Rochus stands 5’ 5” tall.

A short player will not have the luxury of being able to hit the serve with as much leverage. He/she will need to structure points more soundly. Typically, shorter players at the professional level are very quick, and they need to press this advantage against the larger, and sometimes clumsier, “big guys.”

There will always be room for players of any size at all levels of our game. That is one of the greatest aspects of tennis. About seven years ago, I recall Brad Gilbert predicting that we would never have another sub-six footer win a major in men’s tennis. Since that prediction, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Thomas Johannson, Gaston Gaudio have seen to it that at least EACH major has had a champion who stood under six feet tall. Gilbert is right most of the time, but he was wrong about that prediction.

Q. Hi, I have recently started tennis for about a year. I am 13. Due to my natural athleticism, I've developed greatly and have picked up aspects of the game with ease. My confidence in the sport has increased incredibly and I'm really interested in taking the game to the highest level possible for myself. I've even surpassed the skill levels of other players my age that have been playing for years. What steps can you recommend for me to excel to the top of a college or professional career. Please help.

A. First of all, Matt, I want to commend you for your considerable confidence. As long as your self-assuredness is genuine, it will serve you well in our sport.

If you have proven capable of beating players “at your level,” then move up a level. Enter some sanctioned tournaments. There is no substitution for competition if you sincerely want to test yourself. Ultimately, to become a top collegiate or professional player you will need to demonstrate a pattern of success in tournaments. So… get started!

Q. Hello, I am 10 yrs old, and I have currently gotten VERY interested in tennis. There is a tennis court at a high school nearby, and my dad and I play there often. I am dreaming of becoming a pro tennis player, which I know the chances are slim to none. Since I am 10 years old with no REAL tennis lessons, do I have any chance of becoming pro?

A. Your chances of becoming a professional player are as good as any ten-year-old player in the world. As long as you love the game, and are willing to practice and put in the time, then you have a chance. There have been some prodigies in tennis, but almost every great champion was also once just a “regular ten-year-old kid” like yourself. Good luck!

Q. My sister and I have been playing tennis for up to 6 hours a day for 7 days a week. We've only been playing for 5 months and have beaten players who have been playing for years and have high rankings. My dad says our objective is to go professional in 3-4 years. When he tells other parents that they look at us like we are from another planet. Is it unrealistic for us to dream of going professional in just 3 years? I started when I was 10, I have great foot speed, I am 5'9 and have a great instinct for the game. I model and do pageants so getting endorsements and sponsorships isn’t that hard for me. What do you think.... do we have a shot or should we stick to college? Be as honest as possible.

A. I will be as honest as possible…

Anybody has a chance to do anything they choose if they want it badly enough. Please realize that typically it takes a minimum of ten years and/or 10,000 hours of training for a player to become “expert.” After that, it will have much to do with innate talent, desire, athleticism and fitness, an ability to emotionally handle the difficult challenges and losses that come from playing full-time, etc. Best of luck!

By the way, you mentioned that you model in beauty pageants. If, for example, you are interested in pursuing an acting career, the following statement might help provide a certain perspective. It is more likely for an actress to win an Oscar than for a tennis player to win Wimbledon. But… anything is possible.

Q. I’m starting tennis this year, and every year we have a tournament. The person who got first last year was an 18-year-old, and my coach had me play him, and I won 6-1, 6-0. I was wondering, should I go pro?

A. Yes! You should turn pro immediately! Good luck!

But… before you do, realize that every professional player that you watch on television has devoted most of his/her life toward the goal of playing tennis professionally. In fact, a fair estimate is that every successful touring pro has spent at least 10 years and a minimum of 10,000 hours of training and competition to reach the highest levels of our sport. Further, there are thousands of other players who have spent this same amount of time and effort, yet have not enjoyed this same success.

Professional tennis is a tough sport to succeed in, but if you have the talent and have devoted the necessary time and effort toward fulfilling your potential, then go for it!

Q. I am going to be 9 years old in July. I have taken lessons once a week since I was 4. To become number 1 in the world how many times should I practice a week?

A. I am impressed, and maybe a little surprised, that you are worrying about becoming the world’s top-ranked player at such a young age. Perhaps you are a very goal-oriented elementary school student. If so, then your goals should be more performance-based (trying to improve an area of your game) than outcome related (trying to attain a certain ranking). While you are in the formative stages of your “career,” try to develop all aspects of your game. So much goes into becoming a champion, but this path is easier when you have solid fundamentals.

In the meantime have fun and enjoy the game. I can assure you that if you play solely to attain a certain ranking, you will not become as good as if you are consumed by the joy of playing, or improving for that matter.

You have a long, long way to go and I wish you the best of luck. For now, practice and play as much as you can. If you have enough talent, then your results will come. Just so you know… there has NEVER been a world’s #1 player who didn’t LOVE the sport of tennis.

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