Turning Pro

Q. “I am a highly motivated Division II college player, with an NTRP rating hovering between 5.0-5.5. It would be my dream to play professional tennis, at least for a little while. I am wondering if I’m already 21 and not one of the top college players, do I even have a prayer of being a serious player on a professional circuit? What actions should I take to get myself to this level? Or is it just a waste of time and money?”

From Linda

The only thing in your way is yourself! Reach for the dream; failure is NOT TRYING. Give yourself a chance. You are 21, go where you can train, get yourself a job – so you can eat – and then go on the Satelite tour.

From Mack, Bloomsburg, PA

One of the real beauties of the game of tennis is all the levels there are in the game. You mention that you are a Division II college player and also admit that you are not one of the top players. If you examine many of the top ranked male players in Division II, you will notice that many players are in their mid 20s, which would appear too old for the average college tennis player. The reason you see players at this age is because these players have made an attempt to play on the professional tour and do not have the talent necessary to win at that level. So they bring their talents to America where they receive a scholarship to continue their tennis career.

The Division I level also has very many fine players, but only a small number at this high level can earn a living as the professional. If you look at the past champions (http://www.ncaasports.com/tennis/mens/history/divi) you need to go back to the mid 80s to find a singles player who was a consistent performer on the ATP tour. Many Division I players do continue to play at the challenger level, but few crack the top 100 where you can actually make a decent living playing tennis.

If you decide you really want to give professional tennis a try, attend a futures event, the lowest level of professional tennis in the US. I believe you will be amazed at the level of play.

My advice to you would be to enjoy every aspect of playing college tennis. The team aspect of college tennis is one of the most fulfilling experiences of your collegiate life.

From Skip

Whether you decide you can or you can’t, you’re right! I read somewhere that every player knows they have arrived when just going for it is greater than the fear of winning or losing. Keep working hard, and maybe look into the “mental” side of tennis. Sounds to me like you might need a confidence boost. When you’re ready, maybe play in a couple of Challenger tourneys. This will give a good idea of life on the circuit as well as where you stand with everyone else.

From Doug, Medford, MA

Calvin, consider what you define as “serious.” If you are an exceptional athlete with mental and physical talent, then it is possible. There is nothing wrong with trying to make the tour for fun.

Make the best out of your college tennis now. Get good coaching and plan your schedule diligently. Practice with some players who have some points (1000-1500 ATP) or former players to gauge your progress. Start trying ITF, Futures and qualifying rounds. Persistence, planning and sponsorship will have a big role. Develop a couple big weapons and consider developing your doubles game (an edge for college players!). If you are not a doubles or power player, it might be a great deal more difficult.

Getting to 1200 in the world, while possible, won’t really make money. There are a few late bloomers who didn’t have great junior rankings or didn’t play DI in college and did OK on the tour. Currently, Eric Butorac has had some recent success on the doubles side and he went to a D-III school. Commit to at least two years since climbing up will take some persistence. You may probably lose money...but don’t consider it a waste of time. Never regret trying to pursue a dream.

From Adi, Somerville, MA

I love tennis and I think it’s the greatest sport ever invented, although I am nowhere near your level of play. I believe that you can be a professional tennis player; it would be LOTS and LOTS of hard work, but I think you can make it on the circuit! Just remember that nothing in this world is impossible. If you truly desire something, and are genuinely willing to live your dreams, it would come true. It happened to me once despite all odds, and I think your chances are somewhat favorable. As a young 10-year-old Indonesian boy who did not speak a word of English, I came to a foreign English-speaking country and made it to the number-one high school in the nation which admitted less than one percent of its own citizens. I worked my butt off for a few years and nobody believed that I could do it, but I did. There is so much power in believing in yourself no matter what other people say. Life is really not about winning, being number one, being the best or impressing others... it’s just about trying your best, having fun, living your life and living your dreams, and last but not least opening yourself to new, exciting (and perhaps risky) opportunities.

From Lou, New Hempstead, NY

Let’s be honest. You should not waste your time. It takes a lot more to be a pro than a 5.0-5-5 player in college. My suggestion is, if you really want it bad enough and you can afford it, get a pro coach to work with you for a couple of months and if you have not made significant improvements, don’t waste your time. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you asked for it.

From Mary Sue

As long as you have the motivation, and the finances, you should try it! There is so much talent on the pro tour, but there are different circuits you can start on to get your feet wet. Good Luck!

From Don

I applaud your courage in asking a tough and personal question. I think that your instincts are probably telling you that 21 years old may be over the hill to begin thinking about and preparing for a life on the pro tour, and conventional wisdom would say you’re right. Most, and by most I mean 99.9 percent, of the players on the pro tour today were well on their way to a successful career by the time they were college age. Many were junior champions, having won their country’s 16-and-under and 18-and-under championships on one or more surfaces. Most also competed very well in international competitions, such as the Orange Bowl. Most competed in the Junior Grand Slams, and many were in the top-10 in the ITF junior world rankings. All have been 6.0 or 6.5 players when they hit the pro circuit. For example, James Blake, who could be considered a late-bloomer, was already the top-ranked junior player when he entered Harvard, and he dropped out of school after his sophomore year to pursue his tennis career. Most of the really successful American players, including Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, were so successful as juniors that they either never went to college or dropped out after their first or second year.

Here’s a quick look at the NCAA Division I men’s singles champions since 1990:

1990 Steve Bryan (Texas)
1991 Jared Palmer (Stanford)
1992 Alex O’Brien (Stanford)
1993 Chris Woodruff (Tennessee)
1994 Mark Merklein (Florida)
1995 Sargis Sargsian (Arizona St.)
1996 Cecil Mamiit (So. California)
1997 Luke Smith (UNLV)
1998 Bob Bryan (Stanford)
1999 Jeff Morrison (Florida)
2000 Alex Kim (Stanford)
2001 Matias Boeker (Georgia)
2002 Matias Boeker (Georgia)
2003 Amer Delic (Illinois)
2004 Benjamin Becker (Baylor)
2005 Benedikt Dorsch (Baylor)
2006 Benjamin Kohlleoffel (UCLA)

Reviewing the illustrious names above, you can see that only a handful have made a mark on the ATP tour. Jared Palmer was a Grand Slam doubles champion and Davis Cupper with Don Johnson (North Carolina), while Bob Bryan, with brother Mike, is the most successful of them all, again in doubles. Chris Woodruff had a few moments in the sun, taking the title in Montreal in 1997 and leading the U.S. to a Davis Cup tie victory. Sargis Sargsian was a top-100 player for many years, but was best known as one of Andre Agassi’s friends and favorite sparring partners. Cecil Mamiit, Jeff Morrison and Alex Kim are competing on the ATP tour and make occasional inroads, but most of their successes come on the Challenger circuit. Matias Boeker and Amer Delic’s careers are just getting off the ground, so their successes also are mostly on the Challenger circuit. Of course, Benjamin Becker (Baylor) is now a household name, after defeating Andre Agassi at this year’s U.S. Open and sending Agassi off into the sunset. Of the 16 NCAAA Division I champions since 1990, five are retired (Steve Bryan, Jared Palmer, Alex O’Brien, Chris Woodruff and Sargis Sargsian), and only one is winning on a regular basis – Bob Bryan – in doubles play only. Benjamin Becker’s future looks very bright, but only time will tell.

Remember, however, that success is something each individual must define for himself. When I played Division I tennis in the early 80s, I defined success as getting at or near the top of the lineup and competing against players from all over the country and world, players I’d never have had a chance to compete against if I hadn’t pursued my dream of playing college tennis. I was not a highly ranked junior player, and really blossomed in college. After college, I entered a few tournaments in one segment of what was then called the Penn Circuit (now the USTA circuit), and one one match out of four. It was a hard-fought match on composition courts against a ememb and combative South American dirtballer I’ll never forget, but clearly I was not going to make a living on the tour.

So, my advice to you is to first set down your goals on paper, and then determine what you think it will take to reach them, including the things you’ll need to improve upon technically and tactically. Don’t overlook or underestimate the fitness goals and the level of commitment you’ll need to make to be able to go from a 5.0 or 5.5 player to a 6.5 player. Give yourself a time frame for each successive (and more difficult to reach) goal, and every six months go to your “goals” sheet and plot your progress. If, for example, you write, “Goal #1: to be an ATP touring pro,” then you have certainly skipped several steps and will likely fail before you even get started. You must identify the steps along the way, and accept nothing less than success in each step. You might start with something like this:

Goal #1: to be the #1 singles player on my college team

Goal #2: to win my conference championship at the #1 flight

Goal #3: to enter and place in the top-8 of the NCAA Division II individual singles championships

Goal #4: to enter my first USTA circuit tournament, and win two rounds

Etc.

But emember to give yourself a realistic time frame and identify a series of steps you’ll need to take along the way to improve your game, your fitness, and your mental approach in order to reach each of these successively more difficult goals.

Best of luck, Calvin. I hope you reach all of your goals!

From Phil, Briarcliff Manor, NY

It is a dog-eat-dog circuit out there, according to the scuttlebutt. Give it a shot, but have a plan B. Ask your college coach what to do to get to the next level. Conditioning is key. Eliminate weaknesses. There is a documentary out there about the grind of the pro circuit that would be good to look at.

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