After my last post, I received many inquires from young players. The questions ranged from "do you think I should give the tour a try" to "what does it take". I believe every young player should ask themselves these important questions. But perhaps beforehand, they should know what it means to be a pro tennis player.
Have you ever looked at a tennis player’s profile page? Notice the image below and pay close attention to where it says “Turned Pro”. There are over 2000 men on the ATP circuit that have ‘Turned Pro’ but in my opinion, there’s a difference between being a true professional and still being an amateur.
Not long ago I read Steven Pressfield’s book, Turning Pro. He does a superb job outlining the difference between a professional and an amateur. His points are particularly aimed at artists and writers but it can apply to any field/profession. Although I can't say that I'm a true pro in my field just yet, I'm certainly trying. And Pressfield's book has had a big influence - if you want to be pro in your field, I recommend you take a look at his work.
Nevertheless, the point of this article is to link Pressfield's ideas of what being a pro means with that of the life of a pro tennis player - or any pro athlete for that matter. Below are his points - along with my interpretations.
The professional shows up everyday
A pro is up early, ready to do whatever it takes to become better. It doesn’t matter that they're sore from the previous day’s session, or are experiencing jet lag from a recent flight. There’s work to be done and they get down to it.
The professional stays on the job all day
A few years back I traveled with a top 100 WTA player. She was a pro. I’ll briefly recall what a typical match day would look like. Up at 6:30am for breakfast and prepping her tennis bag, lunch and anything else that we'd need for the day ahead of us. Get to the courts for a physical warm-up and on-court practice. Snack, hydrate, wait for her upcoming match. Match starts at 12pm. Wins tough 3 set match which ends just before 3pm. Stretch, recover, rehydrate, eat, wait for her doubles match. Lose doubles match in 3rd set tiebreaker. It’s now 6pm. Find a bunch of balls, book a court and work on some things that didn’t feel right. Get back to the apartment at 8pm. Cook dinner, surf the web, bed by 10:30pm. Repeat.
The professional is committed over the long haul
There are players that hack around for a couple years on tour and call it quits (like I did). You didn’t play pro, you were an amateur having fun. A pro commits for at least a year, if not more. Because that’s how long it takes to know if you’ve got what it takes to make it.
For the professional, the stakes are high and real
The pro plays for keeps. There is money on the line and for many on the Futures circuit, their meal ticket is at stake.
The professional is patient
Andy Murray played 4 grand slam finals, 6 grand slam semi-finals and 3 grand slam quarter-finals before finally winning the 2012 US Open. Want an example of someone a bit more human (Andy's a freak of nature)? How about Italian player Paolo Lorenzi. His first full year on tour was in 2000. He finished that year just inside the top 1000. Three years later he finally cracked the top 300, not a bad progression for young player. But it took Lorenzi another 7 years to crack the top 100 (10 years in total at this point) and this past year, 16 years after turning pro, he finally cracked the top 50. Now that's patience. Getting so close so many times before finally breaking through can be heartbreaking, but the pro moves on and awaits his turn.
The professional seeks order
Is your tennis bag filled with garbage & sweaty clothes? Are you constantly asking someone to borrow an overgrip? You’re not a pro. A pro needs to focus on his craft so all the little things around him - from a clean bag, to a day’s worth of nutritious food - are in order.
The professional demystifies
The pro doesn’t overthink. They don’t look 3-4 matches ahead in the draw. They leave luck and chance to the tennis gods and keep their focus on 1 match at a time.
The professional acts in the face of fear
Legend has it that Sampras threw up before every Grand Slam final out of nerves and fear. That didn’t stop him from winning 14 out of 18 Grand Slam finals. Whether you're a tennis legend or an amateur trying to make the transition to pro, we all experience fear, it's a natural human emotion. But it shouldn't stop us from taking actions in our lives.
The professional accepts no excuses
The amateur takes the day off when he’s not feeling well or it’s raining. The pro doesn’t make excuses and finds a way to train. I'm not sure of the source, but I remember hearing that we should all be working 6 days a week, and taking 1 day off for family, friends and rejuvenation. It's the same thing when you're training, you have to put in the days - small daily habits practiced consistently add up to big wins.
The professional plays it as it lays
The pro doesn’t dwell on getting a tough first round match. Whether they have to play a seed or a darkhorse, they go out and give it their all, no matter the opponent.
The professional is prepared
The pro has prepared everything and anything in their control. Tennis bag fully equipped. Well nourished and properly hydrated. Mentally focused. Physically warmed up. Let's go!
The professional does not show off
Do you know how predictable tennis is? In 2001, Lleyton Hewitt played over 90% of his groundstrokes cross-court. He also won the US Open that year. For the most part, tennis is a grind. You play the same patterns over and over. There’s nothing fancy about it. You don’t have to hit winner after winner. The best players in the world actually hit less winners than their higher ranked counterparts...but with sound play, they force their opponents to make more errors.
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique
Even the top players continue to work on their technique. Always trying to make minor improvements. It’s a lifelong process.
The professional does not hesitate to ask for help
You really can’t do it alone. Many pros have a team around them. A coach, trainer, therapist, manager etc. Even the entry level players will have someone by their side on the road. It could even be a friend, training partner or parent, but they have support.
The professional does not take failure or success personally
You can’t judge your performance on tour by 1 win or 1 loss. You don’t suck if you have 1 bad loss. And winning a big match, although may give you confidence, can disappear quickly. A pro plays about 20-25 events during the course of the year, this is their job, they don't get too up or too down.
The professional does not identify with his or her instrument
The pro knows that this is their job. They may love their job but it’s not who they are, it doesn’t define them. Life exists beyond the tennis court.
The professional endures adversity
In 1997, Andre Agassi’s ranking dropped to 141 in the World. This was a player who had won 3 grand slams up to this point in his career but began battling his demons. Everyone had written him off. Agassi was a fighter though. He battled back and played better in his 30s then at any other time in his career. He went on to win 5 more grand slams.
The professional self-validates
A pro doesn’t need accolades to know he’s good at what he does. His confidence, motivation and resolve are created within himself. This is what separates the pro from the amateur.
The professional re-invents himself
Early on in his career, Djokovic was known for having stamina problems. He would feel weak and often times retire. He did it against Roddick at the Australian Open. His reputation seemed tainted. Something happened. Whether it was his new diet or a wholistic change to his game, when 2011 hit he was a new player. He was fitter, mentally stronger and ready to stand up to both Federer and Nadal like never before.
The professional is recognized by other professionals
Even if you’re not the best in the world, it doesn’t mean you’re not a pro. Both the men’s and women’s tours are more competitive now than ever. There are no easy matches. Federer won’t take a player ranked outside the top 50 or even top 100 lightly. He knows they can all play and respects their game & abilities.
All sports have a common theme when it comes to players moving up the ranks. In baseball, you go from college to playing semi-pro (AAA ball) and if you're good enough, you move on to the big leagues. In tennis, you can't just jump from college to the top 100. You have to start with the Futures tour. If you produce results, your ranking will improve and you'll get into Challenger events until one day, the main tour awaits. But it's all based on the habits that you practice on a consistent basis, that ultimately lead to peak performance, and a shot at the 'big leagues'.