Inside the heart of everyone who has ever fallen in love with the game is the dream of being on the pro tour. What air guitar is to the aspiring musician, what American Idol is to all of us who sound great singing in the shower or Thursday Karaoke night at the local watering hole, the allure of the tour, the glamour of the tournaments, the crowd recognition … wow, wouldn’t it be great?
Let’s get real. Sure, it would be great to be on a private jet with Andy Roddick, perhaps an elegant dinner with Maria Sharapova, or doing an advertisement with Roger Federer, Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods (okay, maybe we can leave Tiger at home!), but for the majority of professional players, it’s the red eye, not the Lear Jet, a bag of peanuts that have been “aged” in the belly of the plane to the point where no self-respecting elephant would even eat them, and a reception committee that consists of a rented car, and if you are lucky, your rackets and luggage.
This article should not be seen as an attack on either the sport or its players. Let us consider just how talented and dedicated these men and women truly are. There are roughly six billion people in the world. If one out of 100 picked up a racket, it would mean that 60 million people have attempted playing the game. If one out of 100 showed enough skill to be noticed as a “good” club player, it would still leave six million. Now, let us add to this the physical gifts to change the direction of a ball hit at 100 miles per hour, the willingness to train for hours a day, give up that juicy cheeseburger for a diet-specific meal, not to mention a frosty cold one for a mix of electrolytes that tastes a little like wallpaper paste, and we start to get into the 600,000 range. Now let us subtract the teaching professionals at our clubs, hotels and tennis camps. They all play better than we do, feed us “room service” balls so that we can try to improve our game, and probably have the tact of a United Nations diplomat, which keeps them from telling us just how amateur we really are.
Finally, we are getting down to the nitty gritty. It used to floor me when some guy in the bleachers of a Major League Baseball stadium would holler at a centerfielder, “You’re a bum.” That “bum” is the best player your high school has ever produced, perhaps the best player your state has ever produced; he is asked to perform with a team of eight other players, and if he gets a hit three times out of every 10 at bats, he will most likely enter the Hall of Fame. Oh yes, and if you can wait and watch long enough, you may get on first base on a walk.
When you step out onto a tennis court on the professional level, you are either all alone, or at best, paired up with one other person. You must be able to return a bullet coming at you at over 100 miles per hour, deal with topspin, underspin, lobs, drop shots and, no three out of 10, in tennis, its one out of one or you lose the point. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in the motion picture “A League of Their Own, “There is no crying in tennis!”
Now that we have set the parameters, let me say that, unlike the opening to Law and Order, the following events are real. I have either witnessed them with my own eyes or they have been told to me by professional tennis players presently on the ATP tour. The illustrations come from the guys in the trenches, those who have worked their way up from the Futures to the Challengers to the ATP circuit. I live in a community that has a grill room that seats about 100. Remember paragraph two? If I took the best doubles players in the world and invited them to sit in that room, the illustrations provided are based on players who would be in the middle, not even in the back rows. Fasten your seatbelts and put your trays in the upright position, here we go …
Delray Beach, Fla. hosts an ATP tournament in February. Since I was fortunate enough to have a player/guest pass, I had access to almost any area in the tournament. In an early round, Benjamin Becker was playing a singles match. The weather was uncooperative. Perhaps there were 100 people watching. One of the “fans” who had obviously been sampling one too many “adult beverages” was shouting out “Go Boris.” Wrong Becker. It was very annoying, but something that is part of the life of a pro.
When the weather is fickle and rain is intermittent, it is difficult to gauge when you will play. This, in turn, makes it difficult to decide when to eat. If you are Roger or Andy or Novak, you have options. If you are number 60 in the world (remember, we started out with six billion), you have to hope that the mystery meat contained in the heated aluminum pan will carry you through.
Since the “doubles revolution” initiated by the tour about a decade ago in order to encourage the big name players to join, no add scoring and the super tie-break have conspired to make a professional’s chances of winning hinge on a net ball that drops in, a gust of wind that takes a ball out and about a dozen variables in between … you have better control of your future in a casino. There is neither the safety of reaching deuce nor the prospect of a third set. Choosing your partner is roughly like attending a singles bar. Everyone goes into an event looking for Mr. or Ms. Right, and, as the tournament gets closer, settles for Mr. or Mrs. Right Now. For every team like the Bryans, there are dozens of participants playing “mix and match” based on availability, as well as compatibility. The process sounds eerily similar to one of those computer dating services.
Then there are the accommodations. If you are on the ATP tour, you can count on a reasonable hotel. That being said, when you are trying to make it on the tour, they all blend together in a blur. Unless you have an unusual desire to collect small bars of soap and shampoo, this is not the highpoint of your career. If you are playing in some of the Challenger or Futures Tournaments in order to make a name for yourself or build up your ranking to get back to the ATP level tourneys, life can become a real adventure. Some travel guides use stars, some use check marks. May I suggest the following criteria—legs. Two legs indicates fit for humans, four legs fit for domestic pets, six legs equals insects, eight for spiders, and 10 or more centipedes, millipedes and things that go squish in the night. My sources tell me that there are places they would not return to even if it were to win a tournament consisting of one person.
Roger, Maria and Andy show up at the majors, play at center court, and get Hawkeye. You play in the trenches, and often as not, you get the local car dealer calling the lines, because he put up some of the prize money. Of course this is an exaggeration for comedic effect, but I have watched players call their own lines far more accurately than some of the “newbie” officials. Everyone has to learn their trade, and I trust everyone is doing as best they can, but a bad call can cost a player a lot of points and a lot of money. They get to model the latest styles that their endorsers provide (in the case of Raphael Nadal, I think his latest fashion designer must have had a crush on G.I. Joe … there is no advantage to wearing shorts that look like they were made of surplus army/navy camouflage). You get to hope that you had enough time to do your laundry, or otherwise, it is skunk city. Finally, everyone fights for practice time in order to get used to the weather and court conditions. Who do you think gets first choice?
Eventually, when the match has ended and if you were victorious, you get to sign autographs. There is no denying that is a great thrill, but if you are in the trenches, and finish a doubles match at 9:00 p.m., you sign your name on a few caps and tennis balls and leave the stadium. Fifty feet away from the spotlight, and no one knows who you are, you are just another young person carrying a bunch of rackets.
All this being said, when I went to watch my friend practice, fooling around with other athletes of his ability, with a small but appreciative number of spectators, looking for all the world like someone who never worries about the nine to five drudgery of most of our jobs, I realized that 85 percent of us would have likely sold our souls (or at least rented them out) for the opportunity to stand at the service line of an ATP tournament and try to return a 100 mile per hour serve. It is the stuff that dreams are made of.
<p>Alan Fleishman has been a devoted fan of tennis since 1969. He won the Town of Hempstead tennis tournament at Newbridge Road Park in 1972 and was runner-up in 1974. He worked as an assistant to the tennis professional in the summer program at Lutheran High School in the early 1970s. While teaching social studies at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., he was fortunate to have coached some talented players, but more importantly, some wonderful young men and women during his last seven years at the school. He may be reached by e-mail at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>.</p>