Transition from Juniors to Pros

Ted Murray – Article for Tennis India Magazine, April 1012

Most junior players have a goal to become a professional tennis player.  They see that the top players make a great living and have a fantastic lifestyle in addition to receiving the adulation of the fans in their country. They may love Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, or perhaps be inspired by Maria Sharapova. Of course, these players at the top of the game have reached the pinnacle of success and are reaping incredible rewards, financially and in other areas.

As valuable as this goal is to fuel a child’s drive to work hard and make the sacrifices that are required to move towards this goal, it is also important for parents, coaches, and players to understand the challenges that will be faced when attempting to move from the junior to the professional ranks. Having a clear picture of what it takes to get to the point of even facing that decision is can be very helpful for parents. It doesn’t matter whether your child is five years old and just starting in the game or has a world ranking in the ITF juniors, it is important that you grasp deeply the reality of the goal to become a professional tennis player.

The first step in this realization is to recognize that even though the dream of being a professional is essential to fuel a child’s desire it should not necessarily be the ultimate goal of every child who picks up a tennis racket. A much more realistic long-term goal for the truly gifted and motivated athlete is to earn a scholarship to attend a well-regarded university in the US or elsewhere. This is not an easy process, but it is certainly achievable, and it can make the investment in time and money developing a top junior player a worthwhile one, especially with the cost of an education escalating every year. Both Mahesh Bhupati and Somdev Devvarman graduated from universities in the US on full scholarships and have still had excellent professional careers. It is possible to do both, and we will discuss more on this decision later.

An even more important goal for every parent whose child starts tennis is to encourage learning of life and leadership skills that tennis is uniquely able to develop. I have written other articles about this topic so will simply summarize a few of these skills here. Every parent feels that they must help their child make the decision between education and sports. I feel the best path is to incorporate both elements. Dedication to a sport can actually enhance academic performance while creating a well-rounded individual who is much more equipped for success in a leadership role than one who focuses only on the book-learning that schools emphasize. Tennis helps develop the following leadership characteristics:

  • Effective use of time
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-reliance
  • Taking responsibility for results
  • Perseverance
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Willingness to take calculated risks
  • Emotional self-control
  • Goal-setting and achievement
  • Social skills of meeting new people
  • Healthy attitude toward competition
  • Teamwork
  • Respect for coaches and opponents
  • Travel and respect for other cultures
  • Good health habits for life
  • Recognition of the importance of good nutrition
  • Seeing challenges as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Ability to perform in front of crowds and deal with pressure
  • Developing a healthy body image and self-esteem
  • Self-confidence
  • Joy from self-expression

There may be many more than this partial list, but if approached in the right manner a sport like tennis can have a wonderful impact on a child’s life whether or not they even come closing to becoming a professional player. It is important that parents and coaches keep this in perspective and put the emphasis on these skills instead of making the only goal for playing be the dream of someday being a playing professional.

The road to being a professional player is never an easy one, nor is it a guaranteed path even for the most talented athlete. There are a number of factors that must be present for any child to make it as a professional. Some of these are:

  • Natural athletic talent
  • Passion and love for the sport
  • Parental support (emotional and financial)
  • Access to tennis facilities and equipment
  • Motivating, quality coaching at all stages of development
  • Other players who will provide regular competition
  • Schooling that allows freedom to travel to tournaments

A good example of all of these coming together is the story of Leander Paes. He was born with good genes and supportive parents who had both been world-class athletes. He had a natural passion for sports along with his great genes. He was very fortunate that the Amritraj family had created the BAT program, and he was invited to join it at age 12 as it started its second year of operation. This opportunity provided him with a number of key elements. It took the financial burden off his parents, as it was completely corporate sponsored. It gave him access to the most advanced coaching available in India at the time. He had access to courts, equipment, and travel to tournaments and a school that supported the program. Perhaps most important, it gave him the opportunity to practice and compete daily with the best players in the country, most of them two or three years older than he was.

Leander was special in that his passion for excellence enabled him to work harder and be more open to coaching than any of the others. He took maximum advantage on a daily basis of the opportunity he was given. However, if the BAT program had not been available it is very likely that we would never have heard the name of Leander Paes. It was truly a special program, the only one of its kind in the world that was completely corporate sponsored. Another program that is similar in nature that provides consistent competition with the top players living and playing against each other regularly is what is needed to consistently produce world-class players in India. Hopefully with increasing interest in sports in the Indian corporate world a program will be developed to provide this kind of opportunity to athletes from all parts of the country.

Even with the advantages of all of the areas described above, the path to becoming a professional is never an easy one. At age 13 a player is eligible to play ITF junior tournaments. This is an essential part of gaining a world junior ranking and becoming exposed to the high level of competition that exists outside of India. Although there are a number of ITF tournaments in India, it is important to travel outside of India and even outside of Asia to gain a perspective of where you rank in the world. It is usually easier to gain ranking points in Asia than it is in the super-competitive tournaments of Europe and the US. The experience of playing older, more experienced players (there is just one age group – 18 and under) is an important testing ground for an aspiring professional.

There are a few exceptions to the path of gaining a national and then world junior ranking, but very few. The most famous example is the Williams sisters who purposefully did not play any junior tournaments and groomed their game strictly for the professional circuit. Although it worked for them, it is a very risky strategy, and most people are better served honing their competitive instincts on the world junior stage.

When a player has achieved a top 10 or 20 world junior ranking at age 17 or 18 then they begin to face the question of whether they should turn professional or whether they should seek a college scholarship. Personally, I feel that only a very exceptional individual who has been ranked in the top 5 internationally should consider going directly to the professional circuit. Even Leander, who was ranked number one in the world and won Junior Wimbledon and the US Open had a very challenging transition to the professional circuit. There are number of elements that make this transition difficult for all but the Nadal’s of the world.

The first is financial. A player with a good ITF junior ranking should begin to play adult ITF tournaments (Satellites and Challengers) at age 16 or 17 in order to gain some ranking points. Entry into all professional events is based upon the ranking, and without a good ranking it is impossible to enter events that offer significant prize money. Satellite tournaments typically offer US$10,000 in total prize money. If you win the event you are likely to earn about $1500. When you figure in airfares, hotel, meals, and transportation it is likely you will only break even…. if you win the event! If you fail to win, you still have the same expenses but no income to cover them. Fortunately, the number of tournaments in India is growing, so playing within the country keeps the expenses down, but the financial reality is still there. Unless a player is ranked in the top 200 in the world it is likely that the prize money they earn is not covering their expenses of being on the tour.

Most players therefore have to rely on sponsors to cover these costs until they are able to consistently earn enough prize money. This is another area where the assistance of corporations and tennis associations can be very helpful to assist aspiring professionals make this transition without finances becoming a major stumbling block.

The second challenge is that of confidence. It is often a big shock for a player used to winning a majority of matches at the junior level to suddenly lose first round in six straight tournaments to older, stronger, more experienced competitors at the adult level. Many highly-ranked juniors never overcome this hurdle and lose confidence in their ability to win.

Another challenge is that of support. It is very lonely on the professional circuit, as friendships among fellow players are superficial at best, and often confrontational as everyone is seen as a competitor whose success will potentially take money away from them. At the transition stage it is often not feasible to have a coach to support and train you, nor is it financially feasible for friends or family to be there. Playing a match on an obscure court in a far-away country with only 5 spectators and no friends or family there can be a very discouraging experience. The sheer loneliness of the circuit is what leads many players to give up their dream.

Travel itself is another huge challenge for many. The planning and flexibility needed to create a schedule, decide what tournaments to play, adjust according to your results, all while staying in unfamiliar locations and adapting to constantly changing tournament conditions takes a special set of skills. This constant requirement of travel is too much for many players whose tennis skills may be adequate but whose temperament isn’t suited to the life of a professional.

The type of game played by the pros today also makes the transition to the pros difficult. Many juniors win with a solid game based upon making few errors. However, the pro game is all about weapons and having the power to put pressure on opponents. Without a big serve and a forehand that is weapon it is difficult to compete. Players desiring to become a professional should be developing power and major weapons while in the formative stages of their career to have the explosiveness needed to compete at the highest levels.

Physical health is another major hurdle. A promising career can be cut short by injury at any time. The need to constantly focus on physical fitness as well as proper nutrition is a fact of life on the pro circuit. Today’s game is very physically demanding, and players are constantly getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Anything that impacts physical health will have a direct bearing on the results achieved. Just staying healthy while traveling to a variety of countries and eating unfamiliar food and is a tremendous challenge for many.

When you compare all of these challenges of making the transition to the professional circuit it becomes clear why I recommend that most players choose to pursue a college scholarship. The most important reason is the support that this experience provides. All travel, coaching, and equipment expenses are provided by the university. Having the support of a coach and teammates can be a wonderful experience. At the college level players like Somdev learned to win matches, and that confidence carried over when he became a professional. Most college players also enter professional tournaments during the summer to gain experience and ranking points even though they cannot accept any prize money earned. The entire experience of being supported financially and emotionally generally helps a player become a more balanced and mature individual. Plus, getting an education takes some of the pressure off when trying out the circuit, as you have skills you can utilize if your tennis career doesn’t prove to be lucrative.

This decision to become a professional is one that I hope many more talented junior players in India are faced with in the coming years. It is important to foster the dream of becoming a Grand Slam champion. At the same time, it is important for everyone interested in the wonderful sport of tennis to realize how much knowledge and support is needed to help make this a reality. I hope that coaches, parents, tennis associations and corporate houses can combine their efforts to give every tennis playing child in India the best chance to realize their dreams while becoming the leaders of the future in whatever careers they eventually pursue.