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Some tips for young players who want to play professional tennis

If you are a young player with aspirations towards professional tennis (or a parent of such a player), there are going to be a lot of obstacles. Let me give you a few tips about how to get your career started.

The first question is always this one: Am I good enough to play professionally? The answer to this one is not easy. Of course, you will look at your results and your ranking as a junior first. Of course you need to have talent. But one of the most decisive factors is: Are you willing to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal of being a tennis pro, and are you willing to do that over the next 4-5 years?

Get out of your comfort zone!

Your current abilities and standing as a tennis player are not the most important thing. Why? Because as you start out playing more tournaments, at higher levels, you will improve your game. It is important to accept the fact that you will suffer defeats, sometimes humiliating ones, at the hands of other players. At some point, you have to leave your comfort zone and that won't be easy. Let's say you are 16 or 17 years old, and you have had some success on the juniors level, either in national tournaments of at ITF level. I would still recommend for you to play some entry level ITF tournaments for adults as well. Don't worry if it feels a little bit like your are in over your head. This is perfectly normal, as the other players will most likely have more experience than you. Do not expect to win much - expect to learn!

To my experience, here's the thing with younger players, both male and female: At the age of 17, they all believe that hitting the ball hard, fast and consistent enough into the opponent's court is what makes them win. Every coach who is worth his money wil talk to their players about strategy, about where to place the ball in which situation, about finding weaknesses in the opponents game and adapting to the other guy's game. But 95% of the 17 year old players do not listen. Try to be one of the 5% who do. You will learn all that eventually just by playing long enough - but what good will that knowledge do you at the age of 32, when your best years are already behind you? That should be the reason why you work with a coach, so that he can pass on his experience of many years as a player to you. By the way, it does not matter that much whether your coach has once had a high world ranking. The basics of tennis strategy work on all levels (ok, on club level they may be a little different than on top 10 level ATP or WTA, but still...)

What tournaments should you be playing?

Obviously, you should play as many tournaments as you can in your area. Try to mix tournaments where you are sure you can survive at least one or two rounds with those where you would encounter stronger players. There is nothing wrong with aiming high and losing. You will learn more from defeat than you will from victory. Matches against much stronger players are a great opportunity to try and play in a way that you may not feel too comfortable with right now. Let's say you are, by nature, a counterpuncher. But now you are up against a guy who plays the same way you do, but he is better at counterpunching than you are. Try a more aggressive approach then - you might be surprised how your game improves.

Playing on ITF level internationally

If you have never done that, get started anyway. Start out with M15 (or W15 if you are a girl) tournaments. M15 stands for ITF tournaments with $15,000 in prize money. Many players think that they should have a good national ranking before they can think about playing international tournaments. The truth is that it does not matter whether there are 10, 20 or even 50 players in your country that you cannot beat. Go out there and make good use of the opportunities of playing against players from other countries. You will improve when you do, and then maybe you will find that your national competitors are not that hard to beat after all.

So let's say you have started playing M15 of W15 ITF tournaments. What are the results? First, look at your wins vs. defeats ratio. If you have won as many matches as you lost, then you are already doing ok. Winning more often than you lost means that you will have made it through the qualifying stage to the main event more often than not. At this point, you will have a ranking in ATP or WTA. Try to mix in a M/W25 tournament if your ranking allows it to be admitted to the qualifiers. As a rule of thumbs, whenever you win more matches than you lose at one level, start aiming one level higher.

One important factor is your tournament schedule: Try playing 4,5 6 consecutive tournaments. This is how you improve. Playing one tournament and then having a 3 week break is not a good idea. Ideally you should spend at least 6 weeks playing tournaments. Then, make a list of things you learned and a list of things you think you need to work on. Next, take a few weeks working on those shots you think that need improving. Then, start another series of tournaments.

Financial aspects of becoming a pro player

The financial side of things is a major issue for any player when they get started. The prize money you can make by playing M15 or W15 tournaments will most likely not be enough to cover your expenses. That is why you need to take advantage of any opportunity to participate in ITF tournaments that are close to home. It will help to save on travelling expenses at the beginning.

Later then, restricting yourself to local tournaments will not be an option any longer. You will have to live on a budget for a while (unless you have a source of money, like a sponsor). As you improve, incoming prize money will help a little, but do not expect that to be enough to cover everything.

Some options to lower and/or cover your expenses:

  • You do not need to be traveling with a coach, nor do you need the kind of infrastructure that the top players have. Some of them have an entire team working for them. But cannot afford that, of course, and neither do you need them. For your training needs, try to network with other players (including older, more experienced players) and organize your own training schedule during tournaments. The tournament directors will often be happy to help you with that.
  • Get help from your national federation if you can. Obviously, your national federation may have limited funds, or they only support a specific number of players, depending on their ranking. Some national federations have traveling teams and those teams get their travel expenses paid for, coaches assigned to them etc. Try to get into one of those teams if possible.
  • Find private sponsors. That may seem difficult at first, but as you play more and  improve, opportunities will show up.
  • Use hospitality. For many tournaments, there are hospitality options, meaning they try and find a family you can stay with during the tournament, help with transportation to the tournament venue etc.
  • Sign up with a club team and play league matches. Maybe in your own country this is not an option, but there are a number of countries where playing for a team in the first or second league actually pays. Those teams are mostly backed by a sponsor, and in countries like Germany, Spain or the UK they often have decent budgets. If you are good enough to help the team, they will help you with accommodation and travel expenses and pay you for being on the team. Most of the time, you will get a fixed per-match payment and an extra for won matches. Those league matches are mostly scheduled so that they would take place within a limited time period of 6-8 weeks. Once the league season is over, you can go back to focussing on tournaments.
  • Consider moving to a different country. Depending on your country of birth, there may be only very few tournament activity that does not involve high travel expenses. In other parts of the World, like Europe, you can play 6 ITF tournaments within 2 months within a 300 km radius. If you can find a club to play for (see above), your options are so much better in that country.
  • In order to establish yourself as a pro player, your goal should be to reach the top 100, or better even a position of 80 or higher. That is the point where you will be granted entry to the main draws of the Grand Slam tournaments. That means you have secured a 6-digit income per year, and you can use that money to finance your travelling expenses.

Final remarks

The most important thing is believing in yourself, and not giving up too easily. Not every player develops in a linear fashion. Many players have been average at age 18 and made it to the top when they were age 23. And vice versa, many players considered the next World #1 when they were 16 never made it to the top 100. And do not forget that your own attitude and mental toughness is just as important as talent!