Here it is—your shot at glory. It's your serve, and all you have to do is win this point to clinch the match. There goes your serve…a return…a smash over the net…and you've done it! You've finally beaten your older brother at Ping Pong!
All right, so bragging rights over your siblings may not be the type of glory you're interested in here. And granted, table tennis and actual tennis are two entirely different animals. For one thing, you never have to take your paddle into the shop to get it restrung.
The first thing you should understand is that tennis players are versatile athletes. You're not going to see any 300-pound, middle linebacker types waddling across the backcourt. Nor are you going to see any untoned, tall, and lanky types winding up for a forehand winner. Tennis players have to be strong, quick, and agile. And they have the reaction time of a Thomson’s gazelle. So, you might absolutely adore the sport, but if you’re not willing to put in hours of gym time a day, not to mention hours more practicing on the court, you'll never make it to the pro level.
So, is that it? Unfortunately not. As with all sports, it takes a ridiculous amount of natural talent to go far. Ever watch Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, play baseball? It was like watching an old lady swat at (and miss) a fly. All the practice in the world isn't going to make a pro out of you if you aren't starting with a seed of innate ability. Which means you're going to need to listen to parents, mentors, and teachers when they tell you that you should probably pack it in and focus on your math homework. Don't get stubborn and hang onto a dream until it becomes a nightmare.
But if you do have the rare talent and the drive, then just maybe you're cut out to be a pro tennis player.
Of course, unless you're reading this at a very young age or are already a ranked player on the junior circuit, we hate to break it to you, but your window has closed. If you're 17 and have yet to step on a court, don’t bother (other than for recreational purposes). Most successful pros picked up the game when their racket was longer than they were. But if you are getting a jump on the competition, the first thing you'll need to do is, well, play tennis. A lot of it. You’ll have to eat, sleep, and breathe it, because there are a thousand other kids out there eating, sleeping, and breathing it, and they're your competition. Sign up for lessons. Get involved in a league. Enter tournaments.
You'll start out competing in USTA leagues and tournaments. The USTA is the non-professional organization that concerns itself with promoting a love (or "luv") of tennis among youth and adult players alike. Hone your skills, get some victories under your belt, and then you can set your sights on the big time.
The "big time" is the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Tour if you’re a guy, and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Tour if you’re a gal. Yeah, it's sexist like that. But, to be fair, men's and women's bodies are built differently, and most female players would have trouble competing at the men's level. Although Billie Jean King might have something to say about that. But women have come a long way in this sport. In the early '70s, there were nine—count them, nine—female tennis pros, and they were all on the Virginia Slims Circuit. Yep, an entire league named after a cigarette. How times have changed. Back then, the players barely got any prize money, especially relative to what the men were hauling in, and have had to scratch and claw their way to equality.
If you're good enough to make one of the professional tours, then you're on your way. You'll compete in weekly tournaments, and every so often you'll play in one of the Majors, or Grand Slams (if you qualify). That's where the serious money—and the serious glory—lies. There aren't usually a ton of surprises in tennis; upsets do happen, but most of the time it's the same top pros taking down all the titles. So if you can break through with even a single Slam win in the course of your career, you can probably retire happy, satisfied, and at least moderately famous.
And, as with most sports, the top tier players will make a bundle, while everyone else will make nothing more than a decently comfortable living, or close to it. There’s no "tennis boss" paying your salary; you earn your money based on the tournaments you win. If you ain't winnin', you ain't gettin' paid. Not the lifestyle for the type of person who likes to rely on a regular paycheck.
Oh, and have some idea of what you want to do in your later years. You won't be around forever in this or almost any other sport—a few pros make it past 35 but they’re the exception rather than the rule, and many turn it in before they hit 30. One twisted ankle at the early stages of your career and you'd better start forming a solid Plan B, stat. Even if you're one of the best, all that money and fame won't be able to buy you a new spine in your retirement years.
One last thing, here's what the USTA site (sarcastically) has to say about the path to success in this field:
Q. How do you become a professional tennis player? Do you have to take like three or more private lessons a week?
A. Yes. If you take three or more private lessons each week then you are bound for glory.