Will Your Child Play Pro Tennis?
by David W. Britt
Can my child make it as a professional tennis player?" Parents ask
themselves this question all the time. The answer is that no one really
knows. Every year a ton of kids go off to brave the Pro Circuit to see if
they can be the next Pete Sampras or Venus Williams, and at the end of that
year, a ton of kids realize they have come up short. Tennis is probably one
of the hardest sports to "make it" in. There is no draft, no free rides to
tournaments, no hotels paid for by the team, and no one makes $100,000
dollars every time he or she plays a game, or decides to be injured. It
really is up to the player. The money that is made is on the court. Those
who do make it really have something to say for themselves. Nevertheless, if
it is your child's dream then he or she must try it out!
In fact it was my dream
once, too. From the time I remember playing my first match, I wanted to be a
professional tennis player. I wanted to be the next Conners or Wilander.
Fortunately, that day came for me at age 17 when I played in my first
professional event, the United States Men's Clay Courts in Charlotte, North
Carolina. It was a $275,000 ATP tournament and some very big names were
there-Todd Martin, MaliVai Washington, and Tim Wilkison, just to name a few.
Horacio De La Pena won it that year. Unfortunately, I was taken out in the
first round of Qualifying by an Argentinean named Marcelo Charpentier, a
left-handed player with a huge forehand, but it was a great experience and
one I will never forget.
I also played some pro events while in college. After my freshman year, I
played in the Flow Motors Pro-Invitational in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and many other famous players had played in that
event. I played Paul Goldstein first round, who is one of the nicest guys
you will ever meet. As nice as he was, he beat me like a drum in front of a
few thousand people, but it was a blast. He was at Stanford at the time, but
a few years later was in the round of 32 at Wimbledon, so I did not feel too
bad. After college I also played professionally by playing in USTA
Pro-Circuit Satellite and Future Events. I did not stay on the road
full-time like many of my friends who tried, but while playing these events,
I had a good time and a great experience. Sometimes I wish I had committed a
longer time to traveling and playing, but that was a choice I made. While I
did not "make it" monetarily, as some would say, I did make it to the
pro-level. I had the opportunity to compete against some of the best players
from around the world and I would not trade that for anything.
playing at Wimbledon, I watch it on television. However, I get to point out
to my friends people whom I have played, which can be fun. Jeff Morrison,
who was a former NCAA champion at the University of Florida and at the time
ranked top 100 in the world, was playing at Wimbledon when a group of my
friends were over. My very supportive friends said, "There is no way you can
return that guy's serve." I had a bit of fun with them as I told them of the
story when I broke Jeff twice in a row in front of a big crowd at the
University of Florida and was up 3-0 in the first set. Unfortunately,
because of Jeff's stellar play and his eagle-like wingspan, I lost 6-4, 6-3,
but seeing my friend's faces after the story was priceless. Jeff, who is a
class act, has career wins over many great players, including Juan Carlos
Ferrero, who has been ranked as high as number 4 in the world.
Doug Root, a former pro player and All-American at Duke University, played
the pro-tour for almost two years, reaching a career high ranking in the 600
's. Doug was one of the top collegiate players when he departed Duke, but
the only problem was that he was playing professionally with a lot of kids
who were also top players at their schools and even more kids from all over
the world. Almost everyone equates the life of a professional athlete with
fame, wealth and smiles. However, Doug found out that life on the men's
professional tour was not nearly as glamorous as the average person might
think. "It is a constant struggle for survival. The tour is an expensive and
demanding commitment in which very few financial benefits are reaped. The
cost of traveling, coaching, and maintaining a lifestyle is tremendous and
it is next to impossible to break even until you explode into the tour level
tournaments on a consistent basis," says Root. The pro tour is littered with
players who are sleeping four to a hotel room to make ends meet and doing
whatever it takes to survive to the next tournament with the hope that the
next event will be their breakthrough into the major events. As for the
Hollywood side of tour life, well, it comes and it goes.
was able to play in a few of those tournaments, most notably the U.S. Open,
in which he was able to partake in a little bit of the lights and glitter.
Doug quickly realized tournaments that are major ATP Events are a whole
different ball game. Doug found himself in the midst of tremendous player
parties, incredible tournament hospitality and luxurious hotels, which were
all at the tournament's expense. However, once he got away from this level
and back to reality where the rest of the tour is slugged out, he found
himself staying at third-rate hotels where his nightly activity was focused
on looking for the best value on dinner. "All of the glitzy and glamour go
out the window when you head to a small Midwestern town like St. Joseph,
Missouri, to play a tournament where the one spectator is your traveling
partner. The competition is fierce but the camaraderie amongst the players
is fantastic. Despite some of the rugged playing conditions, you do have a
blast traveling around and learning a lot about life and what it is like to
strive and struggle toward a goal. Playing the pro tour taught me a lot
about life and about myself, but I certainly would not say it is a life of
glamour and fame, until you reach the "big-show." Nevertheless, it was the
best experience of my life," says Root. Although I did not play in Missouri,
I developed a similar feeling as Root at a USTA Pro Future in College
Station, Texas. There the weather was so hot that the spectators, which
were mostly "tumbleweeds," were sweating as much as the players. All I could
think about was air conditioning.
As for the Women's Pro Circuit, it is no different. These ladies are out
there battling it out in small towns and hot temperatures for pay that can
sometimes barely cover an airplane ticket, unless they win the whole event.
To give you a good example of what one might make at a pro circuit event for
men or women, check this out. If one makes it into the main draw at a
Future, which can take up to 4 rounds of qualifying, and then gets to the
round of 32, she might make around $120.00. If she wins the whole event,
which takes up to a week, she will win around $1,300.00. I am not fibbing
when I say, "It is tough!" J.J. Jackson, former pro player and one of the
top junior players in the world at one time had this to say about the tour.
"The tour is like transforming from a boy to a man. You grow and learn more
and more from the tournaments you play and the longer you stay out there.
Sooner or later your game reaches its peak to allow for the breakthrough
that is needed to ultimately become successful. It takes a deep passion and
love for the game and tons of dedication and hard work to make it out there
because all the players that play on that level are hungry and want to do
well for themselves and their countries."
Finally, for the parents urging their child to turn pro before college,
please pay attention. Throughout my junior tennis career, I played with some
of the best players anywhere. I played against some of the top junior
players in the state, country, and the world. Out of this huge group of
players, very few, when you consider how many players there are in our
country, ever really "made it" on the tour. There are not many juniors that
turned pro before entering college that "made it" either. Andy Roddick and
Venus and Serena Williams are not the norm for juniors who turned pro before
college! Please know that! These players have obviously done extremely well
and there are more that have been successful, too. However, there are so
many more juniors who turned pro early that did not "make it," I could write
a book just on them. When I said "made it," I meant a pro tennis player who
was able to make enough money on his or her own to support themselves and
their family without the help of sponsors, family, friends, etc. If your of
idea of your child "making it" is living out of his or her car, making $2000 a
year, being ranked 900 in the world, and eating crackers for dinner, then
that is great. In my opinion though, it is not.
There is no doubt that being
on the pro circuit, playing ATP or WTA events, having a big win, or having a
pro ranking is not incredible and making it to the highest level, because it
is. However, there are many people who do that every year and eventually
quit due to lack of income. I am a firm believer that tennis players do not
get paid enough--to the point of being ridiculous, but that is the way it
is. Imagine the money your child would be making if he was the 300th best
pro basketball or baseball player in the world. I know, it is hard to
believe. Remember that anyone can turn pro. In fact, you can turn pro as a
parent. It is not hard. Just show up at a Satellite or Future and enter your
name in the qualifying. People do it all the time. I heard of a cab driver
signing up, really.
So if you hear that someone is considering turning pro, it really is not
that big a deal, unless he signs for a few million bucks! Just keep in mind
that if you have your child turn pro before school and he or she accepts money,
then his or her amateur career is over. Your child cannot accept money, call
themselves a pro, and then go back to college to play, as those are the rules.
Some people I know of accepted prize money before college, by using it as
"tournament expense" payback, but it is my advice to you to make real sure
that your child has valid expense forms, and to contact the NCAA before he
or she accepts any money. Nevertheless, think of players like Agassi. At 18
years of age he was in the top 10 in the world on the ATP tour. Michael
Chang won the Men's French Open at age 17 and Jennifer Capriati was top 10
in the world on the WTA tour at an age when most kids are getting their
driving permit. So, if you are justifying your child turning pro because he
or she is ranked #110 in the United States at the same age, does it not seem
to be a little absurd? I am a firm believer that if a junior player is not
one of the very top junior players in the world by their senior year in high
school, or at least the top U.S. player, then he or she has no business
Peter Ayers, tennis professional and former All-American at
Duke University believes that instead of juniors turning pro, that they
should play Satellite and Future events before college, but not accept money
to keep their amateur status. Ayers, who played professionally on the
Pro-Circuit, believes that by doing this the concept of competing against
players from around the world is met. Moreover, the junior is still able to
play college tennis. "The advantage that Europe has over the U.S. is that
there are so many different countries there to compete against week in and
week out," says Ayers. However, now that the USTA is offering more and more
Circuit events in our own country, the attraction of players from other
countries is building, bringing more competition to the United States. Now
American junior players are getting some of the same benefits as Europeans.
In some cases I have seen junior tournament directors giving satellite and
future "wild cards" to the 16 and 18-year old division winners of their
tournaments, which is great! I think that the idea of a junior tournament
and a pro tournament forming a relationship to give wildcards to our youth
is excellent. What better way can we expose our youth to professional play
and to foreign competition?! So, here is the way to do it. As the junior
player develops to playing high level tennis, he or she should play USTA Pro
Circuit tournaments before college and during the summer while in college,
preparing him or her for the tour after school is over.
I just do not see why a junior player has to give up a great experience
playing college tennis, and gaining a great education for the right to call
themselves a pro? If your child is so good, then let him or her try college out first.
If he or she wins the NCAA individual title, or starts winning pro challengers in
the summer then turning pro is something to consider. John McEnroe,
John Sadri, Todd Martin, Chris Woodruff, Don Johnson, James Blake, and Lisa
Raymond all are players who played college tennis instead of turning pro
first, and they have all done really well on the pro tour. Think of the
thousands of men and women world ranked players that are out there, but how
many of them you see play on television. I think it will make sense to you,
This is not to discourage your child from trying pro tennis. In fact, I
am a huge advocate of pursuing a pro career. If our own youth in the U.S. do
not try the tour then we will definitely lose the "battle" to Europe and it's players, because they will try until there is no tomorrow. However, take
this as an opportunity to hear from those who have been there and how they
viewed the tour. Thoughts from these former players who tried the pro tour
should not only educate you about pro tennis, but also let you know that it
should not be the main focus for you. Instead, let it be your child's dream.
Using your child's tennis as a future retirement plan is not the best idea.
You will have much better luck with mutual funds. Besides, the chance of
your child's making serious money is rare, even if she has a high ranking.
There are players who have been in the top 200 in the world for ten years
who have barely made $200,000 dollars. The number sounds big, but if you
factor in taxes and travel it decreases fast, not to mention that is only an
average of $20,000 a year. There are even players who have been on the tour
for five years who have barely made $10,000.
In addition, average yearly expenses for full time pro tennis players,
according to Doug Root, may reach $70,000 a year. As you can see your child
will need to make a lot more than that, or have one terrific endorsement
contract, to ever build you your dream home, so ease off on the "turning pro
pressure." Instead of counting on that, make tennis fun for your child. That
is the way it starts, so let it end that way too. If it is meant to be then
it will happen. Bottom line: It is almost impossible to know if your child
will become a famous tennis pro. I will never forget being ten years old and
playing in the Nick Bolleteri Tennis Tournament in Florida. This was quite
possibly the biggest and best junior tournament ever. In this tournament for
boys and girls, Agassi, Courier, Sampras, and Seles were all participants in
the tournament. My friends and I actually played "pick-up" basketball with
Agassi, Courier, and Sampras in between matches. At that time we were just a
bunch of boys playing together who knew nothing about each other. No one had
a clue how good any of us were going to be or if we were going to be famous.
At least three out of the ten on the basketball court that day became
"house-hold" names. Who would have known? My point is that you never really
know. It is hard to believe that three out of the ten each became number one
in the world.
This article is a chapter from David W. Britt's book Before They Play A Grand Slam: Parenting The Junior Tennis Player. David's web site is at www.thewonderingpress.com.
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