9. Tennis Career Path

One of the earliest difficulty I had when I started with my son was that I did not know how the whole world of Tennis is organised and how does it all work. Despite my passion for Tennis, I had never made an effort to understand the path to become a Tennis professional. I think it was very important for both me and my son to understand not just the end goal but also a generic path to Tennis career. That understanding not just helped us to know and plan what to do next well in advance but also we appreciated what it takes to become a professional. I shall try to explain here my current understanding of how a young kid would start and eventually end up as a Tennis professional player.

Let’s start with top.

Three acronyms, we routinely come across: ITF, ATP and WTA. These are the top level Tennis organisations and may be grouped into two ITF and [ATP + WTA].
ATP and WTA are two organisations, which cater for Tennis professional players only. ATP is for Men while WTA is for Women professional players. I shall use ATP in rest of my article here as I am not fully across WTA, however that (WTA) should be similar to ATP.
ITF on the other hand, generally caters for non-professional players including juniors. Non-professional is a tricky term here. While ITF organises non-professional tournaments, players playing these tournaments are not necessarily non-professionals.

For our purpose, we define a professional player as someone, who has some ATP ranking (based on his ATP points in last 12 months). We also define a professional tournament as a tournament, which awards ATP points to players [they also award money to players, however ATP points award is the main distinction here] [Here we will keep our discussion to professional tournaments only while big non-professional tournaments, like Davis cup or Hopman Cup, etc are also played by top players].

All professional tournaments for Men are organised by ATP. The main exceptions to that are Grand Slams, which are organised by ITF. Without going into history and whys; it is important to note that Grand Slams are also professional tournaments, as they award ATP points [even though they are organised by ITF]. Infact Grand Slams award the highest number of points for any professional tournaments.

Now we have established, that to become a Tennis professional player, end goal is to accrue as many ATP points as possible. When we say Roger Federer (or Andy Murray or any one) is number 1 ranked player in world, it means that he is highest “ATP” ranked player and that in turn means is, he has highest number of “ATP” points than anyone else. ATP ranking system in general looks at the players points in the last 12 months only [ranking is calculated weekly and there are other rules for calculations as well]; which ensures a professional player is the one who is currently playing [again some exceptions exist] and not retired or otherwise.

Professional tournaments are hierarchical as far as ATP points are awarded [irrespective of organisers – ITF or ATP].

The top points are awarded by 4 Grand Slams [ITF], which is 2000 [to winner- points generally half to next and so on. So final loser will have 1000; Semi-final will have 500 and so on];

This is followed by ATP world tours [ATP] [9 Masters-1000 (1000 points), 13 Series-500 (500 points) and 39 Series-250 (250 points)] [There is also a Tour Finals (for end of year top 8 players), which awards maximum 1500 points].

ATP also organises ATP Challenger tournaments, which is kind of staging step for juniors to phase into professionals. These tournaments award from 80 to 125 points. Currently there are currently 178 such tournaments organised every year across the world.

Next and the lowest ATP points are offered on Futures [from 18-35 points], which are organised by ITF. These are also kind of setting stone for juniors to move into ATP world.

Futures and Challengers are generally termed as Semi-Professional tournaments as they provide transitional stage for juniors into professional stage.

Below these Futures and Challengers, everything falls into “juniors” or “boys” [or “girls”], i.e. not yet professionals. And no ATP points are available for juniors.
A separate ranking system is available for juniors governed by ITF. These ITF junior rankings also kind of follow ATP pattern, i.e. hierarchical awarding of ITF points. Just like ATP, ITF junior circuit (as it is called) is also divided into different level of tournaments based on ITF points; Grade-A (250 ITF points tournaments, which includes Junior Grand Slams and Orange Bowl), Grade 1-5 (G5 being the lowest points {30 points} and G1 awards 150 points ) and Grade B (regional tournaments – max 180 points).

While ATP does not have age restrictions, ITF junior circuit is only available to 13-18 years old kids. There is however no reasons why these kids can’t keep trying at Futures and Challengers as well while competing at ITF junior circuit.

Below ITF junior circuit, i.e. before 13 years of age, its all individual countries national Tennis bodies, who organise competitive tournaments at different levels. These levels again follow the ATP and ITF pattern and have their own ranking (and points) systems.

In Australia, Tennis Australia (TA) is the national body responsible for Tennis in Australia. TA has a single system of ranking, which does not distinguish between juniors and adults [however works similarly as ATP or ITF, i.e. based on hierarchical point system].

While TA organizes competitive tournaments for all ages, we will focus on juniors under 12 (its actually 13), under 14 and under 16 years of age [Ideally any serious contender for ATP should be playing ITF junior circuit after 13 years of age IMHO 🙂 but in reality there are not many ITF junior circuit tournaments available in Australia; there are only 8 tournaments planned for Australia as compared to 196 planned for Europe for the 2017 calendar year. The only practical option for serious Australian 13 year old kids is to play higher age group tournaments like under14 or under 16 years group, until they are ready for Futures or Challengers].

TA only awards points up to “under 12 (u12)” tournaments. There is no lower age restrictions for u12 (or u14 or u16). These u12 are further divided into several levels based on the number of points awarded. Lowest number of points are awarded for u12-Bronze, followed by u12-Silver and u12-Gold series tournaments [Similar levels for u14 and u16 age groups]. There is a u12 Platinum which awards the highest number of points, however that’s similar to ATP finals i.e. by invitation to top ranking players towards the end of year.

Below u12, there are u10, u9 and u7 age groups tournaments. There are no Australian ranking points awarded below u12s.
Under10s (u10) are organised by “state” (as opposed to national) Tennis bodies. For big states like NSW, these are further divided by state regions (like South West NSW). These state bodies follow their own ATP style ranking points system and end of year tournaments for top 8, etc. These are however green-dot balls tournaments [Green-dot balls have 75% compression level of normal Tennis balls].
Under 9 (u9) tournaments are Orange-dot (50% compression level) balls competitions. Under 7 (u7) are Red-balls competitions aimed at very young kids who are just starting out. Both u9 and u7 are  organised by individual Tennis clubs and there is generally no ranking systems.

So for a kid, aspiring to become a professional, will typically have a journey like this (ignoring u7 and u9):

A: Young Junior Years (7-10 years)
A1. Consistently winning his u10 tournaments
A2. Playing Nationals for u10s

B: Junior Years (8-12 years)
B1: Winning u12 Bronze
B2: Winning u12 Silver
B3: Winning u12 Gold
B4: Playing Nationals for u12s

C: Junior Circuit (10-16 years)
C1: Winning u14s
C2: Winning u16s
C3: Winning ITF JC G5-G1 (13-16 years)
C4: Winning ITF JC GA (13-16 years)

D: Semi-Professional (15-18 years)
D1: Winning Futures
D2: Winning Challengers

E: ATP (17 +)
E1:  Winning ATP250
E2: Winning ATP500
E3: Winning ATP1000
E4: Winning Grand Slams

F: Becoming a legend 🙂

All above stages will offcourse overlap each other. There is no reason for a kid playing u10 not to try u12 at the same time.

It looks plain and simple, when we look at that path as above. But after having spent two years in just u10 category for my son, I have acquired a great respect for all Tennis professionals  irrespective of their ranking who had the courage and determination since their childhood to work very hard day and night and get there.

Now I have greater appreciation for those tears in the players eyes when they win the grand slam or they lose the final.

All in the pursuit of greatness 🙂




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