I always feel uneasy when I hear statements from parents or coaches about planning for their child or player to become a professional tennis player.
Unlike other professions where you can plan to become a doctor, lawyer, architect, etc., you cannot really decide to become a tennis professional. The only thing you can decide is to embark in the process. Only a few players have the privilege of earning a living competing, and the results throughout the developmental process will dictate who can join the club. You do not choose the career, it chooses you – and contrary to popular believe the path to the pro tour is very clear, straightforward and brutally honest!
Let’s take a look at the process:
The first step of course is committing to the task. That is, making sure you are practicing and playing enough to give yourself a chance. The amount of practice and tournament play will vary with age, but it becomes a full time commitment fairly early on.
As you start competing between the ages of 8 to 10, you will begin with club tournaments, and if you are doing well you will enter local tournaments, then regional tournaments, sectional tournaments and if you keep succeeding you will have a chance to play national tournaments.
If you end up ranked in the top 10 or 20 in your country by the time you are 14 or 15, you will start playing international ITF junior tournaments, first level 5 and 4 events, and if the tennis gods continue to smile upon you, you will continue with level 3’s, then level 2’s and finally level 1’s and Grand Slams.
Between the ages of 15 and 17 you will also start playing some entry level pro tournaments and during the next few years if you prosper, you will progressively play more pro tournaments and less junior tournament.
Ideally in your last year in juniors the scale will tip towards pro events, especially for girls. If you finish top 20 in the world in juniors you have a decent chance of making a living in the pro tour, probably less than 50/50 but still worth a try. You will spend the next 3 or 4 years on the tour and if everything goes well you will cut your ranking in half every year and eventually arrive at the top 100.
If you do not reach a top 20 world junior ranking at the end your junior career and are not ranked in the top 500 in the pros, you should probably consider college in the US to keep working on your game. If you dominate the college scene, let’s say top 5 or 10 in the NCAA, you might still have a chance for some success on the pro tour.
The road is slightly different for boy and girls. Girls will usually start playing ITF junior and pro events earlier and will reach the top 100 a bit sooner as well, but other than that the path is the same.
The great advantage of tennis is that you are getting constant feedback along the way. Your results at every step will dictate your next step during the whole process. There are no short cuts and very rarely alternative pathways. Either you are winning and reaching the next level or you are loosing and finding yourself stuck. At any level, not moving forward in ranking for a couple years means you are probably not going to be one of the “chosen ones,” plain and simple! Trying to fight the signs and hope for sudden leaps in performance will usually lead to expensive and frustrating times on the court. Having said that, if you are playing because you really enjoy the game- great! Keep going after it!
You do not choose to be a professional tennis player – it chooses you.