It all starts at your local courts right down the street !
The governing body of USA tennis is the United States Tennis Association - the USTA. IF you’re up in Canada, it’s TennisCanada or in England - The Lawn Tennis Association - LTA, or if you play in France - the French Federation de Tennis - FFT. Every country that has competitive tennis has a tennis association. I started in Canada as a kid but since I live here in the US now and am working toward the pro circuit from here, it’s the USTA that rules :)
So I go online to the USTA website and find the listing of USTA tournaments which are held throughout the whole country. These tournaments are listed by age group starting with the 10 year olds and go all the way up to the 90 year old division. There is also an Open division where players of any age face off. I’m playing the Men’s Open division because I need a National ranking in this division which will be used to enter the qualifying tournaments for the first level of pros.
I pick a city nearby and find an Open tournament and put in my entry online. Because it’s Open level - age doesn’t matter and anyone can play. A current pro, a current or former college player, a high school player, a retired school teacher - a fireman ….a beginner - anyone ! You never know who you’ll find at these tournaments.
There are many local level Open tournaments and then higher up, less National level Open tournaments. A player wanting to be a pro needs to jump from local to the bigger tougher National tournaments so as to accumulate National open points to earn that National ranking. When you win enough matches and earn National points, you keep them for 1 year. Four times a year the USTA compiles a list of the top 500 National Open point getters in the country and it’s sent on to the ITF.
Ok so now with your National rank in hand you go back online to the INTERNATIONAL TENNIS FEDERATION - ITF - website. The ITF is the International governing body of competitive tennis and they run International tournaments from the junior level through the seniors. They also run a pro circuit for men and women called the ITF WORLD TENNS TOUR -WTT. There are usually 6-8 or so WTT tournaments run each week around the world. At each tournament there is a qualifying draw and a main draw. The qualifying draw is anywhere from 32 players usually, to in some places 48 or 64 players.
So you find a WTT or as we players say - an ITF - Pro tournament and go online and find a tournament that looks inviting a month or so away and sign in with a password and a small annual membership and click the sign up button. The ITF will then post your country, name and place you according to your ranking on a long list extending down from the top player who is the one with the most pro ATP points ( I’ll explain these next ) next to players with the most ITF pro points then to players with National rankings and finally to players who have no rankings at all yet.
That’s what’s so special about pro tennis - these tournaments are open to anyone from anywhere of any age !!! …..like me….and you ! :)
Although…. Entering these tournaments has become quite competitive, it’s almost impossible ( but not unheard of ) to get in the qualifying tournament without some pro ranking or a high national ranking.
ITF prize money and points So if your place on the ITF list isn’t high enough to get into the 32 man main draw, you have to play the qualifying tournament where the final 8 players go onto the main draw which begins play the day after the qualifying draw finishes. The qualifying and main draw together last a week. The prize money for the main draw is $15,000 or $25,000 split among all main draw matches during the whole tournament. There is no prize money for the qualifying draw at this level. The goal of any player here is to first make it through the qualifying and win a match in the main draw thus earning a small amount of prize money but more importantly earning your first ATP Pro point. These ATP points are then used to qualify for the next level pro circuit, the Challenger Tour. If you win any matches at this ITF level in the qualifying tournament or Main draw, you’re awarded ITF pro points which help you get placed higher in your next ITF tournaments. These ITF and ATP Challenger tournaments are sort of the tennis equivalent to the minor leagues like that of baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball, golf. Almost every pro sport has its minor leagues.
Each level up offers more weekly points and more prize money but with less tournaments. So up the ladder we now go to the ATP Challenger Tour which offers 2-3 tournaments each week around the world and prize money from $50-150,000. Like the ITFs, each Challenger tournament is a week long with a qualifier held the first 2 days.
ATP WORLD TOUR
Get enough ATP points at this Challenger level and you get to play qualifying or main draw at the next level up - the major league of Tennis - THE ATP WORLD TOUR ….. This is the BIG SHOW of Pro Tennis that includes the big 4 : Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open and all the tournaments in between. At this top level the most points and prize money are available.
As mentioned above, when you earn any points at any level of competitive tennis they stay with you for 12 months from the date of the tournament you earned them in. After 12 months those points drop off and you have to earn them again and more… in order to climb this ever present incline !
Some phenomenal and rare players sprint up to the top level of the pro Ladder even to the top 100 players in a few short years - others get there within 5-7 years and others - even talented Division 1 college grads never make it. Even the master Roger Federer who made it up there super quick didn’t win a pro tournament for his first 3 seasons ! Nadal struggled at the ITF level during his first year on tour as a teenager but then started to win matches and then back to back ITF tournaments ! In his second and third year he flew through the Challenger level and up among the Top 100. Most players get stuck at the top of the ITFs for quite a while or stuck for season after season at the Challenger level.
It’s rarified air up at the top :)
If you choose to join me out here … get plenty of climbing gear organized …. but what you’ll need most in your huge tennis gear bag is a heavy layer of ‘thick skin’ to be applied as soon as you start playing back to back tournaments AND a spare sole of ‘relentless’ to be added periodically to your soon to be worn out tennis shoes.
….or…. you can sit back, relax and let someone else claw, scrape & crawl their way up the pro tennis mountain.