It’s the question that most tennis players at some point have asked themselves…
When out there on the court, watching the professionals on TV or sitting in the court watching a live tournament,
‘How do you become a professional tennis player?’
We see the pros in all their glory making the game look so effortless and straightforward, and whilst we may appreciate that being a professional tennis player takes a whole lot of work, dedication and effort, it can be difficult to understand the path that leads to the professional game.
This would allow you to stay relatively focussed under pressure, when competing for prize money, prestige and ranking points.
However, this means hitting an awful lot of tennis balls, consistently, over a very long time frame. Think 10,000 hours…
So, most professional tennis players would have started playing the game around 5 years old, and would have shown aptitude for the sport a few years after this.
By their teenage years they would be competing for prizes such as the Orange Bowl, ITF tournaments and junior grand slams, and as they enter adulthood, they would be expected to be winning on the main ATP Tour.
This is the general path that most top professional tennis players take, although college and university tennis is also an effective method for fast tracking a player’s development into the professional ranks.
It goes without saying that in order to become a professional tennis player, there is a lot of sacrifice, funding and time needed.
To put in the hours necessary to compete on the world stage, most players will leave school early, seek their national governing body’s financial support, look to attain a full college scholarship or need significant financial backing from friends or family.
This immediately makes the pool of people that could even have a chance of becoming a professional tennis player exceptionally small, without even mentioning the amount of raw talent and mental discipline that’s required to really ‘make it’ on the ATP World Tour.
Now, what does it actually mean to be a ‘professional’ sportsperson?
Well, many semi-pros would argue that being professionally ranked is enough to consider yourself a professional tennis player.
And whilst we fully recognise that it is exceptionally difficult to even have a single tennis ranking point, for the purposes of this article we will consider players that rely on playing tennis as their primary source of income.
This does not necessarily mean that they are a superstar of the sport, with endorsement deals and career earnings in the tens of millions.
But it would also not include those who are heavily backed by family finances or other occupational income sources to cover their expenses.
Mostly, this would cover players ranked in the top 50 in the world.
So, let’s break down the path that many professional tennis players take in order to actually make a living from the sport, to give you a better understanding of just what it takes!
The start of all professional tennis players’ journey is being an exceptional junior player.
Now, players tend to develop at different rates, which makes it quite difficult to determine at a young age which will be the stars of the future and which players will not.
Having advanced hand eye coordination skills, natural footwork and athleticism and rising to the top of their peer groups are all common traits of juniors that go on to play professional tennis.
As juniors start to get older, they will generally progress onto playing competitions regularly.
As a player moves up the age groups and starts to compete on a wider geographical level, the competition will become increasingly fierce.
This is the first real test of a junior player’s mentality, to see if they can keep calm under pressure and show maturity from an early age.
If a junior has a burning desire to win, natural talent, and enjoyment for all aspects of tennis including long hours of training and travel, they could be on their way to the big time.
However, results tend to speak for themselves. One of the most famous junior tournaments in the world is the Orange Bowl, held in Florida USA.
It attracts some of the best junior tennis talent from around the world, listed as one of only 5 grade A ITF tournaments on the junior tennis circuit.
The tournament comprises a 16 and under and 18 and under category for both boys and girls.
Previous winner of the Orange Bowl that went on to become notable professional tennis players include;
Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, Chris Evert, Caroline Wozniacki, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu and Coco Gauff.
So as you can see, players that compete and win at the Orange Bowl do tend to go on to do good things in the professional ranks of tennis.
However, there are many past champions that have not managed to make the transition into the pro game successfully.
Another indication of whether a junior player will likely make it on the pro tour is looking at their performance at the junior grand slams.
Each of the four grand slams host junior events that attract the world’s top talent, giving a flavour of the main stage to up and coming players.
Notable Junior Australian Open champions include Andy Roddick, Janko Tipsarevic and Gael Monfils, whilst Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet won the Junior French Open title.
Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Denis Shapavalov won Junior Wimbledon and Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Borna Coric won the Junior US Open.
College tennis has become a very common path for many professional tennis players to get a lot of high level, competitive match experience at a young age.
Many of these players will receive a full scholarship at college, taking some of the financial burden off of their shoulders.
They will regularly compete in inter college matches, ITF and futures level tournaments before then progressing on to the ATP Tour.
This is a popular path to take in the US, as college sport is so well funded and widely undertaken.
Some of the most notable college tennis players that have gone on to become successful professionals include John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla, Cameron Norrie and Tennys Sandgren.
Futures level tournaments are ITF run events that aim to bridge the gap between the junior and senior professional games.
These events are open to players over 14 years old, so you can sometimes see some mismatches in terms of age at futures tournaments!
But they provide a great platform for young professionals to learn their trade, get a lot of match play experience against different playing styles and truly experience what it is like to be on tour as a professional.
The challenger tour hosts both ATP and ITF events, mainly comprising young up and coming players and veterans that may be returning from injury.
If a player can succeed on the challenger tour, it is likely they will be able to make it as a fully fledged professional.
Challenger tournaments are littered with promising young professionals, looking to get match experience and gain valuable ranking points, as well as earn some much needed prize money.
Some players may even drop down from the regular tour to the Challenger tour in order to get some competitive match play and build up a winning streak, as this can boost confidence and help a player’s progress on the ATP Tour.
Finally, in order to become a successful professional tennis player you have to compete regularly on the main ATP World Tour.
This is where the big jumps in prize money, ranking points and notoriety can be made.
Doing this is easier said than done of course, as their competition is extremely strong and many lower ranked players will encounter the elites of the sport, in the early rounds of big tournaments.
This makes it very difficult to actually break through to the ATP tour and secure a regular spot high up in the rankings, as there will always be hundreds of players attempting to do the same thing.
So in order to actually make a significant living on the ATP Tour, a player must consistently compete at the highest levels for years on end, something that very few have been able to do successfully in the grand scheme of things.
In order to become a professional tennis player, you need to be in a very fortunate position.
Having the financial backing to start out as a pro, the talent and work ethic that will keep you disciplined and the drive and determination to succeed does not come easily.
Add to that the chances of not having a career hampering injury and the chances of actually becoming a professional tennis player are very slim.
However, there is a relatively clear path to becoming one these days, despite it being incredibly difficult to tread!