The Time I Trained to Be a Pro Tennis Player and Quit

A lot of people have their “I wonder what I could have been” stories and fortunately or unfortunately I’m not all that different.  As a kid I was always a good athlete.  I was able to pick up sports at a pretty rapid rate and excelled out of the gates.  For me it was every sport that interested me.  But if there’s one sport that started to kick into high gear, it was most definitely tennis.  I think I picked up a racket at around 5 or 6 and from then on, I just loved hitting the ball.  By the time I was 10 I was usually top of the class at whatever camp I was in and eventually I began to play at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, which is a pretty well known place.  It’s where John McEnroe got his start (the stories of him there are legendary, including burning down a hotel room).  While 10 was still a pretty young age to determine if I could be a pro someday, there were indications.

I was hitting the ball pretty well with my counselors, some of which were nationally ranked players.  At the age of 11, I finally beat my dad (who once considered trying to be a pro at one point as well).  The time that “pro” really hit home was when at summer camp I had beaten one of my counselors, a woman who at the time qualified for the U.S. Open.  And then when topped it is when I came in 2nd place at a tournament that was a pathway to qualifying for the Junior U.S. Open (I never qualified by the way).  That was when I faced international competition and saw just how good other players were.  However, I knew, and my parents knew that to get that good, it would take serious commitment.  So serious that I’d need a private coach and I’d need to be playing every single day.

So at the age of 12 we took the next step.  I had just started middle school and was in the 7th grade.  My parents and I had a meeting with the school principal and explained the situation.  We made an arrangement where I’d be allowed to leave school early each day at around 1pm to go play tennis.  Yes, it was that serious at one point.  My days would be school, training for a few hours, and tournaments on weekends.  And so it began.  And before it even began, it pretty much ended.

Too much pressure and a love for basketball

From day one, when it became “serious” it started to crumble.  Almost immediately, I felt the pressure.  Tennis wasn’t a “want to” anymore.  It was a have to.  And that just didn’t sit well with me.  As a much younger child I just loved smashing the ball and playing.  I also loved winning.  I was super competitive but never really lost site of “letting go” and just hitting the hell out of the ball.  Perhaps it’s because there was nothing on the line.  There were no rankings or future to worry about.  I never “cared.”  But once tournaments entered the picture and once I knew I was on this “path” I started to play very timid tennis.  Not the kind of tennis I had grown up playing and the kind I played in camps.  Instead of trying to win I’d play not to lose.  Unfortunately I never got that far.  After playing in about 20-30 tournaments I had a decent ranking but nothing to write home about.

Also, during that time, another sport I loved, basketball, was peaking my interest.  I was playing in gym everyday and hoops was one sport that I’d say I had as much talent in as tennis.  I just remember having way more fun playing basketball than tennis.  At only the young age of 13, I developed knee problems because I was playing so much of both sports.  Oh and I forgot to mention that at the age of 13, there was a massive personal family fallout situation resulting in my not seeing my Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and Cousins ever again.  So let’s just say my head was not in the right place.

The pressure mounted and one day I simply cracked.  I’ll never forget crying my head off to my mom in the basement of the house I grew up in.  I was furious, yelling and just said I didn’t want to play anymore.  My parents fought me over it and didn’t want me to stop, but eventually I won the battle and they told me I could stop.  Looking back, I’m not sure what the right call would have been.  Bottom line, there are plenty more details than this that I can share, but I think you get the gist.  Too much pressure got to me and I simply burned out.   I didn’t pick up a racket again until I was 16.  I sort of tried a comeback but once I felt the pressure again I just stopped.  It was extremely short lived. I wound up playing basketball all through high school and wanted to play Division 3 at Emory but I didn’t get into the school thus ending my basketball career.  I ended up at Tulane and there was no chance I was making that team.

So why even bother telling you this story?  Well, that’s what we’re going to get into.  It’s just one of those things where if I had to choose one thing I regret in life, it’s not pursuing tennis more.  The truth is, I was a little runt at 13.  Very small for my age.  It wasn’t until I was 15 that I really grew.  Currently I’m 6’1 and 200 lbs.  In my teens and 20s I was around 160-180 lbs with an extremely long wingspan.  Whenever I think of that growth, that’s when the “could have beens” creep in.  Who knows what I would have been capable of having the exact same frame as Roger Federer and Pete Sampras.

The reality of a pro tennis career

When you’re younger you don’t necessarily think of the realities of what you’re pursuing.  It’s one thing to be a pro baseball player.  Another to manage to make it to the pros in Basketball or Football, Soccer in the International Leagues, or even Hockey.  But aside from the sports I just mentioned, most pro sports don’t generate much of a living or even lifestyle unless you’re literally in the top 25-50 in the entire world.  Tennis it’s more like the top 25 if you really want to make dough.  The reality for a tennis player who’s outside the top 100 is that they have an incredibly grueling life.  They have to travel around the world on their own dime (yes, their own money) and eek out prize money in the tournaments they play.  The lifestyle is NOT as glamourous as many would think.  Sure, if you’re Roger Federer of Serena Williams you live like a King or Queen.  But we’re talking 2 best players in the history of the game here.  Most tennis players don’t make a lick, have very small social lives and are grinding it out.

I have no idea what kind of tennis player I could have been.  My best guess?  Maybe top 1000?  Honestly I have no idea.  But even if it were better than that, I’d likely wind up a tennis pro at some club somewhere teaching lessons.  P.S. there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not for me.  My ambitions are quite high not to mention my competitiveness.  I’d probably want to end up owning 20 tennis clubs and run the whole company.  My DNA just isn’t built for the grind that is an average pro tennis player.   By the way, I’m not saying I used this rationale to quit at the age of 13, but I will say that years later I realized that it was probably not the right path for me.

It wasn’t my time

The age of 13 wasn’t exactly my best year.  There was a mound of family problems going on then.  Right around the time of my Bar Mitzvah there was some big time family falling outs on both sides.  Needless to say it lead to a life that I once had with Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, and a huge network of people, to a life with just my immediate family.  I wasn’t quite sure how to process it then but today I realize it has been a huge part of who I am.  I was so stressed out that back then I wouldn’t even let my parents watch me in tournaments.  Every single issue in my life felt magnified.  So when I wanted to play basketball I felt basketball was “the answer.”  When I couldn’t stand playing tennis?  Quitting was “the answer.”  I wasn’t in any frame of mind to be making any big decisions, let alone be playing tennis competitively.  Looking back I think things would have been different had all this shit not been going on.  The true fun I had in tennis was when I could let go and just smack the hell out of the ball.  That fun didn’t exist anymore.  I think my parents knew that otherwise they might not have let me quit.  Too bad I’m 42 now because mentally I’m in the perfect place to pursue being a professional athlete.  Physically?  Eh, not so much.

How I’m raising my own kids

Before I had my first child I was 100% envisioning an athletic family.  It wasn’t even that I’d push my kids towards sports.  It’s that I simply assumed it would be in their genes.  Unfortunately I failed to account for the other 50% of their genes, my wife’s.  Actually both of my sons are athletic but neither is particularly drawn to sports.  It’s been an area of contention with me and my wife.  She seems to think I don’t push them enough towards sports, whereas I’m simply letting the ride steer itself.  My oldest son is way more into climbing and ninja warrior stuff than traditional sports.  And the youngest is 5 so he’s not quite at any type of decision point.  Though I will say it seems he couldn’t care less about sports.  Maybe it’s my tennis experience, but I refuse to push too hard in any direction with my own boys.  Don’t get me wrong.  If I saw certain potential in a particular sport or I thought that one of them truly loved a particular sport, I might be more vocal about it, but that’s probably as far as I’ll go.  For better or for worse. I’ve made my position pretty clear on this one.  I’m going to let them like what they like and keep trying to steer them in areas of interest, whether they are sports or not, period.

No regrets, just lessons

Regret is a tough word to stomach.  In some way it feels like a let down.  I don’t necessarily regret quitting tennis nearly as much as I regret not seeing my potential in tennis reached.  Life happens and at some point you’ve got to accept the circumstances.  Looking back, the circumstances were very much against me at the time, and quitting was likely the right move.  Still though, I’ll always have a case of “what could have been.”  But you know what?  That’s better than having had made a tremendous mistake and going down a potentially very destructive path.

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