What does it take to become a professional tennis player?
Anyone who picks up a tennis racket will at some stage dream about what it’s like to be a professional tennis player. You see all the fans they have, the huge amounts of money they win, the worldwide fame and celebrity status along with adoring fans.
But what you don’t see is what they had to do to get there: the sacrifices they (and their family) made, the endless hours of hard work on and off the court, the battle to get through the rankings, the money they spent, the discipline involved, etc.
Generally, most of the players you see on the professional tour have all been playing from an early age. For example, Rafael Nadal started around the age of 3, Novak Djokovic started at the age of 4, and Roger Federer started at the age of 8.
Most top players would have started playing junior tournaments since before they were 10 years old. I myself started playing local junior tournaments when I was 9 years old and started winning most of the tournaments I played in my age group when I was 10. This continued throughout my junior career, where I was almost always ranked number 1 nationally in Australia for my age (or the next age group up).
But success as a junior doesn’t mean you will be successful on the professional tour, even if you have great results on the junior ITF (International Tennis Federation) circuit, which is where all the top 18 and under players play before going full time on the professional tour.
I have seen many players who were almost unbeatable as junior players, then go and try playing on the ATP tour, only to realize that it was a whole different ball game out there and no one cares who you are or how good you were as a junior. You have to start from the start like everyone else.
If you don’t get the results, you quickly get left behind by those players that do get results fast, with many players staying and playing the lower level professional events (Futures and Challengers) for quite a few years, hoping for a lucky draw that will give them a breakthrough. Mainly, these players continue playing out of comfort and also due to their fear of not knowing what else they would do after playing tennis all their life.
So, why did the majority of players fail to make it to the big time while only a few were successful? Any one or all of a number of factors could mess up a players chances to make it. I have outlined these factors below:
How much money do you need to become a tennis player?
It costs a lot of money to become a tennis player. You need to pay for a coach from an early age, you need to have access to tennis courts, good equipment like shoes, rackets and strings (eventually if you are a good enough junior player, you can get a racket/clothing sponsor), pay for tournament entry fees, travel to and from tournaments (by car and then by plane), accomodation, restringing rackets (I was breaking at least 1 string a day when playing on the tour… this can get expensive very fast), and a multitude of other things.
You can take shortcuts here and there, like buying a portable stringing machine to string your own rackets while at a tournament (there are usually other players around who will do it for cheap too, but they are not always reliable and not always there for the duration of a tournament, moving on once they are out), sharing hotel rooms with other players, renting a car with 2 or 3 other players, etc.
The things you don’t want to be cutting costs on are food and racket strings, both very important for your chances of success. Many players also come from poorer families, so they have a limited opportunity to succeed compared to the ones that have some money to fall back on for travel expenses.
How does health impact your chance of being a tennis player?
Injuries and general poor health can destroy a career. All players have minor injuries that they will manage throughout their career, but if you are prone to getting serious injuries, then your career will be difficult to get off the ground.
Players who get injured but can recover fast have an advantage over those who have longer recovery times, but players who have careers with minimal injuries while pushing their bodies to extremes, will excel. Exceptional players like Juan Martin Del Potro can still have amazing results even though most of his career has been off the court and recovering from serious injuries. But he is an exception, and if he didn’t get so many injuries, he could have been as dominant as Federer or Nadal.
Sometimes, if players feel they are at risk of turning something minor into a major injury, they will skip one or more tournaments and use this time to rest or strengthen any weak points. Obviously this is not the best option (due to missing out on ranking points and prizemoney), and this is why many players choose to play even while injured.
Many of the top players travel with their own physio and have a nutritionist who sets up a meal plan for them. Unfortunately, not many players can afford to do this and just try to stay healthy by eating generally good food and seeing a physio/doctor only when they have had a pain for a while or are too sick to play.
Staying healthy on the tour means you can train more, work harder, get fitter, get better, and therefore have a much better chance at gaining ranking points (and money) than those guys who get sick or injured more often.
Do genetics matter in tennis?
Having good genetics for tennis can make a big difference. In general, tall guys can serve faster and win more points from their serves and have better reach, while shorter guys have better success at returning and also move better.
Some of the best players ever had a height of 6’1″ (Sampras, Federer, Nadal), but no number 1 has ever been taller than 6’4″ (Marat Safin was the tallest at 6’4″). Shorter guys, in general, have a tougher time of reaching the top rankings.
Almost all of the multiple Grand Slam champions of the open era have been at least 5’11” tall (Agassi, McEnroe and Borg are 5’11”, Wilander and Newcombe are 6’0″, Federer, Nadal and Sampras are 6’1″, Djokovic, Lendl and Edberg are 6’2″, Murray and Becker are 6’3″) . The two exceptions being Rod Laver (5’8″) and Jimmy Connors (5’10”), who both played during the eras where players used less topspin and generally did not hit as hard as they do today.
Height isn’t everything though, even though it is a big factor.
Other genetic factors involve things like strength, fitness and speed levels.
Not every player could handle the effort that Nadal puts into every shot, allowing him to hit the ball with so much power and spin. Most players would either burn out over time or get injured trying to play the same way.
Likewise, I believe that the top players are able to perceive the ball and the way it moves that fraction of a second better than everyone else. Just like not everyone has the same intelligence, with a few being on the lower end, many being in the middle and a few again being at the high end, the same goes for things like reaction time. It can be trained, but not everyone can train up to the same level as those who are at the high end and training to be as best as they can.
Do your chances of becoming a good tennis player change depending on where you live?
This one is important due to the fact that if you are in an area that has a lot of good players, then you will have many people to train with and play against to build up your skills. If you are in an isolated area, or a poorer country where it is a great luxury to play tennis, then your chances of making it as a professional player are a lot lower.
Players in Europe have an advantage, as long a they have money to travel and play, because there are so many different countries all with great players within a few hours drive or train ride. Regularly playing against players from different countries allows players to test their skills with players who play different styles, sometimes a lot different, sometimes a little, from what they grew up with in their home country.
Different countries also may have access to different court surfaces, which can also be challenging when changing from one surface to another. Not only that, but clay courts can play differently, depending on what the clay is made of and how the lines are set in the court.
How can psychology affect your tennis?
No matter how healthy, fast or wealthy you are, if you don’t have what it takes mentally then you will not do well on the professional tour. I’ve been around many players who could play impressive tennis during practice but then would fall apart in a match just because it was a more “official” situation.
The best players are the ones who can handle their thoughts and emotions well enough to play good tennis in stressful situations. Being able to concentrate for 3+ hours at a time while also being in a physically demanding match, is not something that just anyone can do. This can take years to develop or it’s simply a skill that some players do better than others and separates the best players from everyone else.
It’s also a lot different playing a match in a small town with 12 people watching compared to playing a match on center court at one of the Grand Slams, with thousands of people there watching and analysing every single shot you hit, every mistake you make, every emotion you show, while also having everything broadcast out live to millions across the world. Being able to handle that is also something that can weigh heavily on many inexperienced players.
In the end, those players that can focus well on the right things and block out any unneccessary surroundings or distractions, while also being in control of their emotions, are the ones that will excel.