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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.

Instead of 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.

Fortunately, Doug 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 turning pro.

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, too.

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. If you wish to provide a comment to the author of this Wild Cards column, please use this form. Tennis Server will forward the comment to the author.

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