In this and the next edition of Long Island Tennis Magazine, I will be interviewing two former players who graduated from Stanford with me in 1996 and were my roommates/teammates. Both Jim Thomas and Jeff Salzenstein played professional tennis for 10-plus years after their four years of college and have some good insight and advice for today’s juniors about tennis life as a pro, college and junior player.
This month’s interviewee, Jim Thomas, had quite a professional doubles record. After a surprising doubles loss to your humble interviewer, Thomas had quite a bounce-back. He notched professional doubles victories over Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Bob and Mike Bryan, Lleyton Hewitt, Max Mirnyi, Marat Safin, Pat Rafter, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and other top-10 world-ranked players.
What were the biggest differences between professional and college tennis on-and-off the court?
Thomas: Off-the-court as a pro, I had to decide on a coach, how much did I want the coach to travel, how much could I afford the coach to travel, a place to live and train, my schedule of tournaments/training/and off weeks. As a student-athlete, these decisions were made for me.
As a pro, I had to become accustomed to being away from “home” for greater extended periods. I became accustomed to playing an average of 30-35 tournaments in a year which was more than college. I also had a lot more time to train. I had to figure out how best to use this time.
As a pro, one needs to be able to dictate points and have a weapon(s). As a college player, you have the support of your college team. It is important to have a support group on the tour. If you can have a coach or friend travel with you, then I recommend reaching out.
What advice would you give to someone about whether he/she should go professional before attending college or while in college?
Thomas: I would suggest that they play professional tournaments prior to making this decision. Either play the events prior to enrolling in college, or defer college for one year (or a certain amount of time), but do not accept prize money. If you are being offered money to turn pro, this is also another variable. It is really an individual, case-by-case decision. It is expensive to play professional tennis with all of the expenses (travel, coach, accommodation, etc.). Can I afford it or would I be better off in college where my expenses are covered and I can develop my game? If you know you want to play professional tennis, then actually playing tournaments is probably the best preparation. However, you must keep in mind that only a small percentage of players make a living at this.
Did you have a preference between professional tennis, college tennis and junior tennis?
Thomas: College tennis had been my goal and pro tennis was a bonus. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop my tennis talent over so many years, to compete against so many top level players, to meet so many wonderful people from various countries and to travel to and compete in 50 countries. My best college memories are of working towards a common goal and being fortunate enough to be on a team that won two NCAA Team titles. I feel that we developed a bond which will last a lifetime, and this is very special. I enjoyed junior tennis because I had the pleasure to travel with my mom, grandma and coach. These are fond memories, but this is also when I learned to compete, so this was an extremely important lesson.
I do not think that I have a preference for one over the other. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to the extent I did at each level.
What advice do you give to a junior player who is going through the recruiting process?
Thomas: Enjoy it! For me, it has never happened again where I have been treated so well. Research the programs. Speak with as many current and former players as possible. Ask a lot of questions about the coaches because you will be spending a lot of time with them. How long are the practices? What is expected of me during the summer? How do you decide the lineup?
What advice do you give to a current college tennis player who may or may not try playing the circuit afterwards?
Thomas: Go play! It may be expensive, but go and try. You have nothing to lose. Grab some of your teammates and make it an extension of your college days. But if you do go play, give it your full commitment. Otherwise, this may not be the best use of your time.
Ricky Becker is the Director of Tennis at Pine Hollow Country Club. He independently coaches high-performance juniors and adults of all-levels year-round at Bethpage Park Tennis Center. He has coached hundreds of ranked junior players. As a player, Becker was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis Team and 1989-1992 Roslyn High School Tennis Teams, and was ranked number four in the United States in the 18 & Under Division.