Here is an article I recently wrote that was first published on the Cracked Racquets website. It discusses the major differences between college tennis and professional tennis from both an athletic and personal standpoint.
In my four years as a collegiate tennis player, there were days that I hated it. Coming from online school, I suddenly had to balance tennis, real school (we have actual due dates?!) and my social life (yes, I do things other than watch Netflix). We had weights before the sun came up, and there were SO many rules to follow. Being a sometimes difficult person to deal with, I was thrown into an environment where I had to blindly trust coaches who I barely knew, and get along with girls who I was also competing against for spots in the lineup. Needless to say, I didn't always appreciate the opportunity that is college tennis - nor did I always make the right decisions. Looking back now, however, I can't imagine an easier set-up for success.
I'm not saying that every college program has all of the aspects necessary for success; there are definitely programs that lack proper coaching, funds, like-minded players, etc. However, college is easy. While it is, admittedly, a massive grind to balance tennis, school, and your social life, colleges provide almost everything you need to be successful. This has been one of the major differences that I've found since graduating and playing professionally on tour, and it was something that took a lot of getting used to. Everything that was given to you in college is now your responsibility as soon as you decide to sign up for that first professional event.
I was lucky enough to get a full ride for all of my four years at school. While this isn't the case for every college player, many of us get some sort of scholarship. For me, everything was paid for. I didn't have to worry about how I was going to pay rent for the month, or if I'd have enough money to play the next tournament. College athletics was responsible for all of that. I didn't worry about paying for my coaching or fitness, either. Everything was available to us. This was - unbeknownst to me at the time - a huge weight off of my shoulders. Every month, we would get our scholarship money deposited into our accounts, and then we could use that money for rent, food, living expenses, etc. Of course, this money was earned through the hours spent on court and in the weight room, where we worked hard to better represent our school; however, even if we had a bad day or a horrible loss, it didn't matter. That money was coming at the beginning of every month regardless of our results.
After four years of having a set “paycheck”, professional tennis was a rude awakening. If I had a few extra brain cells, I might have tried to save a portion of my scholarship check each month; however, “saving” was a foreign word throughout my college life, and I started my professional career relying on my parents, family, (they haven't disowned me yet!) and eventually various others to fund my trips. Very few professional athletes are lucky enough to not have to worry about money; I wasn't one of those few athletes, and I knew that each trip was taking a big chunk out of my parents limited funds. Suddenly, losing a match meant less money to pay for the next night’s hotel room or meal. In college, not only did I not worry about money, but I never thought about the nice hotels we stayed at or the restaurant meals we had every single day while on the road. Not only did I have to make all of the reservations and schedules on my own, but I now had to think about costs (and not just for trips, but for training as well). For most of my tournaments - even still - I end up trying to find a nice family willing to put up with me for the week, or a cheap Airbnb - all in the effort of saving a few bucks. When you start playing professionally, every dollar matters.
In addition to getting financial help, college provides coaching, hitting partners, fitness coaches, and trainers - all at your disposal, whenever you need, for free. I had eight great players to train with every single day; there was never a time where I had to worry about having someone to hit with or to play practice sets against. Additionally, college took away any worries about finding doubles partners, warm ups, or roommates. It was a given that I'd have a doubles partner for each tournament or dual match; similarly, my teammates doubled as built-in warm up partners and roommates (thanks for putting up with my ice cold hotel rooms for four years, guys!) Professional tennis, however, proved less helpful in these aspects.
With professional tennis, you're very alone. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to afford traveling with your team (coach, hitting partner, trainer, etc), you're probably going all over the world entirely by yourself. While this alone is new for post-college players - suddenly you are traveling to foreign countries with no working cell phone by yourself - it also adds another element of planning to your trips. There are no built-in partners, practice players, or roommates. This means that you have to figure out all of these things on your own. Especially when you're starting out, the chances of you knowing next to no one when you go to a tournament are pretty high.
Luckily, my well-developed Facebook stalking skills have finally paid off. When I started playing professionally, I would look at the acceptance lists and find people on Facebook. I'd message them and ask if they wanted to play doubles and/or room together, and then fly to the tournament and try to be social enough (very tough) to meet girls who wanted to train together for the duration of the trip. Never have I missed college tennis and my teammates more than in the many moments when I have felt completely alone during a professional trip.
A third - and oftentimes overlooked - benefit of college is that it is so easy to have a social life. Of course, the schedule is tough, so you still have to limit how social you can be compared to a non-athlete; however, when you do want to hang out with a friend or catch up with someone, they're all probably going to be within a few miles of where you live. Even if it's just inviting someone over for dinner or a movie - you can literally call a friend up and they can be at your house in ten minutes. In this sense, it really is very easy to maintain personal relationships with people. I never thought about having to work to keep my friendships/relationships; everyone was always close enough where it was all able to be maintained naturally.
When I started playing professionally, I learned that your social life takes work. Suddenly, my friends weren't a block away; rather, they were thousands of miles and hours of time difference. I've learned through professional tennis that you have to be really proactive in order to maintain relationships (whether it's a friendship or a personal one). It's really important to have things in your life other than tennis, as well. Professional tennis is a grind, and you have to be able to step back and have other things in your life to keep you sane. Sometimes, I have to make time in my day to call a friend or remind myself to just check in on someone and see how they're doing. In college, all of my friends were right there - I never had to think. Even though it's more work, having a good group of people there to help take your mind off of things and remind you that it's just a game - there are other things in life - is well worth the extra effort it takes in keeping the relationships.
At the end of the day, even though there were plenty times that I hated college or wanted to sleep in or disagreed with a coach/teammate, I wouldn't change my decision to go. It provided me with financial stability while I played against top college girls around the country, and I learned an unbelievable amount about myself. Looking back, I wish that I had been more appreciative of the opportunities that college tennis offered me. Playing professionally has been an amazing experience so far, but it’s definitely much more of a “fend for yourself/survival” kind of lifestyle. Life on tour has heightened my respect for everything that college offers athletes, and hopefully high school or college players reading this can learn to cherish every single moment that they're out there playing for their team - because, as any post-college, professional player will tell you, it's a real gift.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.