The Lonely Road to Near Greatness

When people think of professional tennis, they think of prestigious tournaments like the U.S Open and Wimbledon, and players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. But what most people don’t know or care is that there are thousands of tennis players playing professionally and trying to make the top of the tennis world. And most of them usually get stuck at the bottom tier. Those types of tournaments are called Futures and Challengers, mostly known as the minor league of professional tennis.

It is known to be a huge grind because there are so many talented tennis players all over the globe, trying to make their dreams into reality. The sad truth is that majority of professional tennis players are losing more money than they are earning. To make a comfortable living in tennis, you have to be top 100 best in the world and stay there consistently. Everyone else is pretty much losing a lot of money. There are some players who made the top 100, but fell off the radar because they got injured or they are not playing as well. There are other talented players who have the money because they come from rich families or they found a sponsor. Tennis is a very expensive sport, even to sign up for tennis tournaments costs approximately 50–100 dollars. You also have to pay for coaches, trainers, facilities, hotels, flights, balls, equipment, etc. Most of these Futures and Challengers are not located in the best places compared to the bigger tournaments that are viewed by millions of people and have many sponsors. Even a player close to the top 100 in his sport does not make millions of dollars through prize money, exhibitions, and/or sponsorships. He or she makes a comfortable living, but not the private jet setting life of Roger Federer or Serena Williams. In any other sport like basketball, baseball, or football, a top 100 player in the world makes millions of dollars a year.

Now I talk about the money situation in the minor league tournaments. If you lose in the early rounds of a Challenger tournament, you only receive about 500 to 1000 dollars. To break even, you have to make the semifinals or better. You also have to consider, Challengers don’t provide hospitality, pay for travel, or any other service. A tennis player must earn around a couple thousand dollars each week if he or she wants to keep playing and traveling. The types of players that are playing Challenger events are usually ranked between 100–500 in the world. The top players and everyone else is only broadening. The total prize money for the U.S Open is ridiculously high. It is one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world, where only the top 125 players are allowed direct entry has increased the prize money every year. First round losers make 43,000 dollars while the winner makes 3.5 million. But for the Challenger and Futures events, the prize money hardly increases every year. If you win a Futures tournament, you make approximately 1000–2000 dollars. To be honest, that is nothing for winning a professional tournament. You spend more money getting to the tournament than winning it. As you can see, you have to make important and smart financial choices on tour because of high prices and competition. An example will be locating a home in an economically friendly city or town. You are pretty much your own accountant. You are independent and paying for taxes everywhere you travel to. In addition, you have a lot of these advance payments that you have to pay no matter how well you do in tournaments.

There are also some young and old professional athletes that are very successful on tour and make great money, but they have their bad money habits. Money does change a person, usually for the worse. Trust me, I know. Most of these pro athletes come from low class or medium class families, and once they start making millions, their decisions and characters change negatively. They lack experience when it comes to a lot of money and they tend to make bad decisions. This usually changes the personal and professional lives of athletes. There are tennis players today that are known to be the bad boy of tennis. Two of the current bay boys of tennis are Nick Krygios and Bernard Tomic. Both are in their early twenties and the media portrays them more in a negative way because of the tantrums they throw on court and what they do off the court. Since they are making millions a year from prize money, sponsorships and Tennis Australia (the country supports them), they made some mistakes like partying, drinking, and having many girls around them. Another reason people don’t like Nick is because he said “ I play tennis for the money and lifestyle.”He actually wants to play basketball professionally. One of the most talented players on tour is not playing because he is passionate about tennis, only because he makes millions of dollars yearly.

The audience understands that being a pro athlete has a lot of responsibilities and he or she has to make a good impression of themselves or the media makes they look bad. It is very hard to be them because of what they go through, like traveling, competing, their schedule, and being with their loved ones. They have to find the time for all of them. The media is following them everywhere they go and it is very hard for them to be private. When you play in your sports biggest tournaments where millions of people are watching you, you are under the microscope on and off the court. There are a few pro athletes that are on the lookout and those names are among them. These two were nominated for the Olympics in Rio last year and the ATP (The Association of Tennis Professionals) had to decide whether or not these two could compete because of their behavior. They are representing their country in the biggest stage and the ATP have to make sure they don’t embarrass themselves. I understand that the media is doing their jobs and these are good stories to write about. But you have to understand that they are both very young adults and have a lot of pressure on them. Everyone is human and we humans tend to make mistakes because no one is perfect. The good news is that they have plenty of time to grow and mature mentally. Nick Krygios is now seeing a therapist because he wants to change his attitude. Tennis is 90 percent mental and this will only help him be a bigger and better person/player.

I know so much about this life because I played Futures and Challengers for a year and know many players who played or continue to play in the minor leagues. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided to take a gap year to give professional tennis a chance. Every tennis players dream is playing at the highest level possible, and my parents, sponsor, and coach thought it would be a great experience and where I get to travel all over the world.

A Challenger Tournament in Quito,Ecuador

When I was a little kid, I dreamed of being a professional tennis player. I started playing tennis when I was 8 years old at the San Francisco Tennis Club. Looking back now, I am happy I chose this sport. Once I hit my first tennis ball over the net, I fell in love with tennis. But the life many tennis players always dreamed and wanted was not as easy as we thought. I started taking tennis more seriously when I was 16 years old and started playing tennis tournaments all over the country, especially in California. You have to practice almost everyday and play a couple of tournaments a month if you want to be good and have match experience. Once you start getting better and better, colleges will start to recruit you. I was top 30 in California and top 200 nationally in the juniors. The best thing happened to me at the age of 17 because that is when I had my first tennis sponsorship by the Jon Block Group Sports Company. I met Dr. Block at my tennis club. He was always watching me play tennis at the front courts and all of a sudden he wanted to have a chat with me after practice. He talked about giving me a full sponsorship because he thought had the game to play at a professional level because of my height, weight, and tennis IQ. Most people were shocked about what he thought of me. But I very excited about this incredible opportunity to get my game to the next level.

This was once in a lifetime experience and one hell of a next chapter for me. Dr. Block got me a trainer and professional tennis coach to work with me 5–6 times a week. Being one of the few former Division 3 tennis players playing on tour in 2014–2015, I wanted to prove people it did not matter what division you played at. It was all about believing and trusting yourself. With a story like mine, you get a lot of haters. But who could say no to this opportunity, especially when everything is being paid for. “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do”-Walter Bagehot. I chose D3 because I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. In 2 years at Whittier College, I became an All-American in both singles and doubles, played in the NCAA tournament, and was ranked top 10 nationally while beating the number 1 player and doubles team in 2014. After those 2 years, my sponsor thought it was time to move on from college tennis. My mindset right before college was winning NCAA’s and finishing my bachelor’s degree ASAP. But good news you can always go back to school. Also, most people knew I would never ever get a sponsorship like this again. I was playing in the minor leagues for about year, but I was living like Roger Federer. Can you picture me staying in 5 star hotels, eating at the best restaurants in Beverly Hills, meeting celebrities, flying on private planes/1st class, working with Hall of Famers, and getting coached by the best tennis pros and trainers in California. But life as a player was not as great as I thought. My coach gave me too much too soon, and I turned into a spoiled brat with an attitude. How can a 20-year-old boy say no to this celebrity lifestyle? Damn you money and fame!!! But that is why I decided to go back to school after my gap year. There was too much drama, arguments, lying, and ridiculously high expectations I could not handle. There was way too much pressure on me and got really nervous in my matches. When a sponsor spends a quarter of a million dollars on you, you should get nervous, haha.

On a private plane heading to Palm Springs, California. Life was good

Tennis Legend, Hall of Famer, and 17-time Major Champion Mark Woodforde, and then there is me

But no matter what, it was a great learning experience where I got my game to the next level and made many talented friends along the way. I beat players who are ranked in the world and have ATP points. A former player who only played D3 tennis for 2 years lost to a former top 50 player, (6–3,6–4), in South America 2.5 years ago. His name is Victor Estrella Burgos and he currently played the Australian Open and won his first round match. This loss showed me that I could compete against one of the best players in the world on clay and on high elevation in a different continent. I did not embarrass myself and it was one of the best feelings I ever had, even though I lost. Just being on center court with a lot people watching your every move, and then people coming up to my tall white butt after the match to shake my hand, give me a high five, or take a picture with me. Even a mother gave me her baby to take a picture with. It was just incredible for me. I loved every second and miss it every single day.

after I lost (6–3,6–4) to Victor Estrella Burgos on center court in Cali, Colombia. I got 7 games!!!!

Now I want to talk more about how the ranking system works. Fans know the Emirates ATP Ranking as “the world ranking.” An example, Andy Murray is currently the number 1 in the Emirates ATP Ranking, but people usually say that he is the number 1 player in the world. Another example, a player who is ranked 7 or 8 in the world, the fans tend to say he or she is a “top 10 player.” A players ATP ranking is based on the total number of points he made in the following 19 tournaments. There are over 60 ATP level tournaments in 31 countries all over the globe and most of them are located in great settings. Everyone in the world is trying to play on the ATP level, so they can get away from the Futures and Challenger events because there is hardly no money in the minor leagues and they want to play on the big screen instead. 98 percent of players cannot afford to have a team of professionals traveling with them. But there are players who can afford to travel with a coach. But again there are those who cannot afford either and have to be alone fighting and grinding week to week. This is one of the toughest groups of players to be apart of because you are in a battle with little help and/or have no one in your corner supporting you. You only have your body, mind, and dream. Some of the players I know who play mostly Futures are their own managers. They decide what tournaments to play, where and when, and who you want to travel with. They told me they spend a lot of time being alone in this sport and that this is their greatest challenge they faced when they turned pro.

I had the opportunity to interview some ATP players I used to train in the L.A area. One of my friends is Alexios Halebian. He is Armenian who was born in L.A and has been playing tennis since he was 6 years old.

Alexios Halebian

Current Singles Ranking: 664 and Career High Singles Ranking: 537

Interview:

why did you decide to be a pro tennis player?

“I was good at it and I loved it since I was young.”

What are your goals?

“Win the U.S Open”

Are you happy with what you decided?

“Very happy with my decision and I don’t regret it.”

What can Futures and Challengers do to make their events better for players?

“Make the transportation and accommodation free and make the venue completely established for the players so it’s easier for them to arrive and afford everything.”

What would you tell up and coming players about the life of a pro tennis player?

“Take your time to try other things before you commit to tennis because its one of the toughest sports out there. Most importantly play as a passion, not because you are good at it. I love tennis more now as of very late like I did when I was younger. I would say for about a couple years I was doing it because I wanted to try just to get good and make more money, and that is why I was struggling more.”

How many countries have you been to and how were their facilities? “I have been to maybe 25–30 countries and most of the facilities were very nice.

How many years do you see yourself doing this?

“It just depends how the next year and a half goes.”

Kevin Kim Interview

Another friend I got to interview is Kevin Kim who reached a career high singles ranking of #63 in the world. He played against players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and made the third round of the Australian Open.

1. How many years did it take you to reach top 100 in the world?

“It took me 6 years”

2. How was the feeling playing the best players in the world?

“Having the chance to play against my idols who I admired while growing up was surreal. It was worth all the hard work and dedication for the hour I got to share with them on the tennis court. Just goes to show hard work can pay dividends.

3. Your best win? “Juan Carlos Ferrero,” Former World Number 1

4. Since you had most of your success in the Challenger events, what could they do to make it better for players? “Increase prize money”

5. Was the grind worth it? “Totally worth it. Learned what the world has to offer to some extent. I visited over 50 countries, interacted and learned about different cultures. Also made great friends and went to some wild parties. Most importantly fulfilled a couple of dreams.”

6.How was the prize money on the future and challengers circuit?

“Money was average. A lot better now. Just my luck.”

Nicholas Reyes Interview

Current Singles Ranking:2090 Career High Singles Ranking:1374

What have you learned the most after being on tour for a couple of years?

I think what I have learned the most about being tour for a few years is about myself as a person and my characteristics on how to deal with things as well as how hard it is to make it in this sport. When I began playing a couple of years ago, I didn’t have the same mindset as I do now. I have experienced a lot of ups and downs and truly see what it takes to make it to the top of the game. It’s a lot of comprise to do the things right all the time in this sport but needed in order to make it to the top of tennis. Sometimes I am away from home for weeks, give or take 2–4 weeks normally (sometimes more). It can be difficult being away from home for such a long time, which takes a toll mentally after a while. If your playing well then time goes quicker at the tournaments but if your playing poorly, it can be a drag for those weeks. Normally, we don’t perform great all the time, so I think the mental aspect of being on tour I have understood more. Also, sometimes you don’t have time to do a lot of “fun” activities, taking time away to practice, eating properly, fitness, recovery, and so forth all make a huge difference in the long run on being tour, but have to sacrifice the time.Can you afford to travel with a coach?

Personally, no I can’t afford to travel with a coach full-time/year-round. Unless, you have a sponsor or the coach helps you out and cuts you a break financially it is very expensive to travel with you. Having a coach travel with you full time with all expenses included, at a normal rate as well, is costing you about 50k-75k a year, depending on where you travel as well. You’re paying for another person basically, in terms of airfare, hotel, food, etc. I think at some points its necessary to spend the money to have the coach with you at tournaments because that helps you progress as a player faster, however that being said it is very financially difficult to have them with you all the time, which makes it more difficult for the player.

What is the most expensive part of being a pro tennis player?

I think the most expensive part of being a pro tennis player is the traveling and coaching. Every trip you take to play a tournament is costing you a couple of thousands of dollars, (more or less dependent on where you play). Between airfares, hotels, and transportation it can get pretty costly. If your playing in the states you can make it easier by getting housing and being closer to home, or wherever you live. A lot of players try to cut costs by housing with families, or sharing rooms, whatever can help. Also, having any decent coach is costing you about a thousand a week for training, for all the hours needed during the week and throughout the year.

What can the ATP do differently to make it easier for players?

I think the ATP can raise the prize money in the lower tiers of the professional tournaments. At the futures level, money is still pretty low, in which many players do not make enough to cover their expenses. That being said, the ATP has raised the amount this year of prize money in tournaments, however it still isn’t enough to compensate for all the expenses every week. Therefore, I think by continuing to raise the prize money in the lower levels of the professional sport will help players, along with providing more hospitality at tournaments to cut down some of the costs for players.

I just want to say, Good Luck to all boys on that tennis grind.