Post-college tennis players give up too soon. Let me be more specific. Many post-college players don’t have a clue what to do once they’re free from exams and fierce duel matches. So many of them claim they’ll continue to play tennis. But the reality...they hack around. They play a few pro events, a couple money tournaments and coach on the side...but they don’t truly commit to any one of those things. Perhaps not all post-college players are like this but I was, and many of my former competitors and training partners were too.
This article isn’t for those of you who aren’t sure what to do post college. It’s for those of you that have an itch, like I did. A desire to continue training, competing and making a valid effort to play pro tennis. Almost 10 years ago I finished university and I had that itch. I wasn’t the best junior player, I didn’t play for a top Division 1 school (I played Division 2 for a year and then did what many Canadian tennis players do, head back north to study and play in Canada). Irregardless, I had made huge strides in my game over those 4-5 years and I felt like I had more improvements in me yet. Over the next 2-3 years, instead of succeeding on the tour, I floated around. I had no direction, no plan. College tennis offers a structure - scheduled practices, matches, gym sessions, top-notch coaching etc. When you get out on your own, everything changes. So, for those of you that still have that itch, read on.
This is probably the most important step of the process. You can’t achieve success in a few months. You may not even see any significant progress in that time span. And without any victories - whether real or moral - frustration will inevitably set in and you’ll start to wonder what you’re doing. That’s why you must commit to at least 1 FULL YEAR! And 2 or 3 years is probably better. Why? Because you need time to learn about the tour. You need time for your game to grow. You need time to learn how to manage your training schedule versus your competition schedule. You need time to find out if you really have what it takes. You can’t be serious for 2 months, then take 2 months off to work and save up for the next tour. That’s a vicious circle that leads to burnout. A few years back I learned a valuable lesson. I was traveling with a WTA player. She won her first Challenger of the season and was asked after the event if she was playing well and on track to reach the top 100. Her answer stuck with me - “It’s the first month of the season and the first event, I can’t judge my play and abilities after 1 event. It’s a long season and I’ll reevaluate my game once it finishes”. If you commit for 1 full year, you can decide thereafter if you’ve made some progress and if it’s worth continuing for another year...or longer.
Hire a Coach
This is probably your biggest (and smartest) investment. I was a kinesiology grad and thought I could do it all on my own. I mean, I spent the better part of my childhood playing tennis, I played in university, I had a few years of solid off-court training under my belt through the varsity program and I studied anatomy, physiology etc...how hard could it be? I couldn't have been more wrong. A good coach provides direction, experience and a set of eyes. Even if you can’t afford a full-time coach, find someone you can rely on to watch your game, someone who’ll give you precise feedback. They’ll help you organize your season. Help you figure out when it’s time to work on technique versus when it’s time to play practice matches. It doesn’t have to be a top touring coach with years of experience, but it does have to be someone you can trust and someone who’ll help your game evolve. And you don’t need someone to travel with you full-time. Many players even in the top 300 travel without a coach but when they’re training, their coach is there.
Treat It Like a Day Job
You have to be serious and you have to get organized. When I was training, a typical day would find me running from one club to another, fitting in some conditioning and giving a couple private lessons, not the most ideal set up. I’ve been lucky to travel and work with some players who were legitimate pros - in every sense of the word. Every minute of every day was planned. Whether they felt tired or not, they came to the practice courts or the gym and put in their time. And the days were long - 2 practice sessions, a gym session, meal prep, massage, planning the next tour etc. Even in the top 100, you’re gonna do a lot of the work yourself, it’s like running a small business and that business is you.
Play in Europe
You hear it all the time in the tennis circles, “if you travel to Africa or the Middle East, for sure you’ll get some points!” - perhaps these regions of the world have weaker draws, less players and so on but does it really matter? Don’t you want to know if you’re cut out for the big leagues? Don’t you want to train with the top players on arguably the toughest surface in the world? The european clay? It won’t be easy. You’ll have first round matches that’ll wear you out but you’ll learn a lot about the game, and yourself. I have many friends who were former players and they played in Europe because of another reason. You can earn some dough. Countries like Germany, France and Italy have clubs that’ll offer good players cash for club matches. In Germany for example, there are 8 leagues. The top 2-3 will have very solid players and the clubs will pay them to play. Germany’s top league - Bundesliga - will even have some players in the top 200-300 in the world, and they could pay as much as 1000 euros per match (and in some cases more). Another benefit of living and training in Europe is playing the odd open tournament. Some events will have a purse of 5000-10000 euros. The cost of living in Europe might be high (I’m currently living in Germany where rent can be steep) but the benefit of having many tournaments every week of the year (and close-by) outweighs this drawback.
Live and Travel with Like Minded Players
My biggest improvements came when I traveled and practiced with players that were serious about their tennis, they had the same goals and ambitions as I did, which helped push my game to a new level. That said, you’ll find a lot of players who just want to have a good time. At times the tour can be fun. You’re traveling, meeting new people and often times playing in countries where the sun is always shining. But know the difference between letting off some steam, and being reckless. Your priority is tennis, you’re not on vacation. While reflecting, Pete Sampras wrote in his book, A Champion's Mind, that one thing he’ll get to do now that he’s retired, is actually visit all the countries he played in over the years. His focus was clearly on tennis - apart from the tennis facilities, he rarely left his hotel.
If you can find a good group to travel with, it can also help with your budget. When I was a touring coach, we rarely went out for food and we never stayed at expensive hotels. We’d rent a small apartment for the week and I’d do all cooking and meal prepping. Not only is it more economical, it’s often times much healthier.
Stay Away from Coaching Tennis
This is extremely important. Like I said, I was running around the city trying to train and work. The main issue with coaching is that it can be draining. I’ve noticed now that if you’re really serious, and you have the belief, you can’t just do it half way - playing tennis at a high level is a full-time job, not a hobby. In another post I’ll outline what a typical day for a pro looks like and you’ll see for yourself how difficult it is. You may be wondering how you’ll fund yourself, I mean, you’re fresh out of college. Here are a few ideas:
Depending on your college ranking, you may be able to look for sponsors. This is rare however, unless you were one of the top NCAA players.
Set up exhibition matches at your local club or ask if any clubs would be interested in organizing a pro-am, this can be very effective.
Play Money Events
When you first start out, you won’t be able to play only pro events, you’ll have to mix in some opens to help pay the bills.
Find a Club in Germany or France
Depending on your UTR (Universal Tennis Ranking), clubs may pay up to 1000 euros per match - there are 10 matches or so during a season (and the matches are competitive which makes for good practice).
Many coaches may help you out at a reduced rate and take a percentage of your earnings instead. I like this as it also puts pressure on the coach to perform and do his/her job.
If you must, get a part-time job that isn’t physically demanding. Remember, the last thing you want to do is be too tired from work that it affects your training. Be creative but limit the amount of time you have to stand on your feet, those resources need to be allocated to training.
Don’t Listen to the Naysayers
Looking back at my 20s, I did as much as I could with the knowledge I had. Of course I wish someone would have given me some better advice. Although I did get advice, it wasn’t the advice I was looking for. People were telling me that it’s too tough, that I should get a real job, or continue with education. That if you haven’t made it by this time then you never will. The chances of becoming the next Fed or Rafa are slim, that’s for sure but as discussed in this post, there are creative ways you can make a living playing tennis in your twenties. And many pros these days don't peak until their late 20s (some even in their 30s). As the old adage goes, do as I say, not as I did...stop listening to others and commit. When the years go by, you won’t have to wonder if you had what it took.