Tennis players aspire to pro tours

Adam Nekola Daily Illini File Photo

By Eric Chima

From the first time he swung a racquet, Jeff Laski was successful at every level of tennis. Blessed with a cannon serve and a knack for the doubles game, he won a state title in his sophomore year of high school, was ranked as one of the 10 best doubles players in the United States, and dreamed of winning the U.S. Open. So after four stellar years at the University of Illinios, Laski dove into the professional game and started piling up wins in the tour’s minor leagues. In the process, he scored victories over a number of rising stars, including James Blake, now one of the top 10 players in the world.

And then his career stalled.

“Now Blake’s making the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open,” Laski said. “And I’m selling office stuff.”

Laski was not quite good enough to escape the muck of the Challenger and Futures series that make up the pro tour’s lower levels. He never even made the qualifying draw for the Open, retiring after two years under the steady grind of life on the road. But despite leaving college without a career in mind or any work experience, he quickly made the transition to the business world, first with a wine seller and then with Humanscale, an ergonomic furniture company. Suddenly, the tennis star was a businessman – and like many former Illini, he found that life in the real world was easier than the life of a professional athlete.

For college players like Laski, the pro circuit is notoriously unkind. Unlike most professional sports, which treat the college game as a de facto minor league, upper-echelon tennis players rarely give college a thought. Many even spend their early years exclusively at private tennis camps before turning pro – so while collegians are taking classes, their peers are constantly out on the court. As a result, Blake, who left Harvard after his sophomore year, is the only man ranked in the top 30 in singles who attended a university before joining the tour.

Despite the odds, though, every recruit that comes into an elite college program like Illinois believes he is destined for the pro game, Illini freshman Billy Heiser said. Unlike a college football team, from which only a select few players can expect to reach the NFL, any of the eight Illini tennis players are capable of joining the tour after graduation.

“We’re all trying to create the best environment in college that we can to become professional players in the future,” Heiser said. “I can tell you that, for all the guys on this team, that’s their goal.”

While the elite players stayed in ritzy New York hotels at this year’s U.S. Open, former Illini No. 1 Ryler DeHeart slept on a pullout couch in a room rented by a college friend and three other men. The beneficiary of a wild card bid into the tournament’s qualifying draw, DeHeart had the dubious distinction of being the lowest-ranked men’s player in the event. It was his first Grand Slam tournament, and after a quick loss in his opening match, it was over.

It was a quite a change for DeHeart, who for a time last year was ranked as the top college player in the nation. Since last May, when he finished a college career that included both a team national championship and a singles win at the ITA National Indoor Championships, he has been touring on the lower rungs of the professional tour. After several low-level tournament titles, his ranking has climbed to about 700, and it will continue to rise until he has to start defending points next year. But despite his success, he said, he has been fortunate to make even a little money.

“For most guys starting out, just to break even is a good thing,” DeHeart said. “You have to be top 100 or top 150 to make a decent living.”

To support their touring, many former Illini sell shares in themselves, doling out chunks of their prize money in exchange for the investment necessary just to make it to each tournament. DeHeart has resisted such a deal thus far, reluctant to put himself in a situation where his winnings do not belong to him.

But even when money is taken out of the equation, the touring life can be a hard, lonely experience. Former pros tell stories of days spent alone before late-night matches, broken-down cars and Mexican hotel rooms with no air conditioning. Even when they find success, as Laski did in the tour’s minor leagues, the dream life can be less than ideal.

“At that level you make all your own travel plans, staying in one of the least expensive hotels you can,” Laski said. “You find a roommate who’s in the same situation you are, and you have no real coach or great friends traveling with you – just people who are in the same boat.”

For the best of the Illini graduates, the professional game has been a ticket to a decent living, not millions of dollars. Former national champion Amer Delic leads the way in the singles ranks at 132, and Graydon Oliver reached a career-high doubles ranking of 29 last year, winning several tournaments at the tour’s top level. The difference between a successful career and an unsuccessful one, Oliver said, can be as simple as plenty of discipline, one solid run and a good doubles partner.

“In my case I came out of college after four and a half years and won four out of my first five tournaments right away, which set me up to get out of the Futures really quickly,” Oliver said. “And then when I asked people to play that were ranked higher, they knew that I was legit.”

But when Oliver got a call from a former playing partner who was starting an oil business, he succumbed to the lure of a consistent salary and a definite future. After making the third round of four Grand Slam events, fresh off the best season of his career, Oliver gave up his racquet for a desk.

“I could go 3 or 4 months on the tour and not make a lot of money, and then all of a sudden make $30,000,” Oliver said. “That’s a totally different feeling from having a consistent amount of money coming in. So at 28 I thought to myself, ‘What are you going to do at 32?’ I wanted to be able to settle down.”

Eventually, Laski, too, decided he had seen enough of the tennis player’s life. By the time he left the pro game, it was not a crushing decision or the death of a dream. The real world just seemed preferable.

“I just sat down and decided that traveling 10 months a year, living that kind of lifestyle, it wasn’t what I wanted,” Laski said. “Not when I had a college degree and could get a pretty high-paying job, a nice car, a place to live and a girlfriend I saw more than every month and a half.”

For some, the post-tennis life comes a little quicker. The pro tour was never a viable option for Chris Martin, a member of the 2003 national champion Illinois team. Beset by injuries as his career winded down, Martin decided he had to be realistic about his professional chances.

So, r‚sum‚ in hand, he walked into a college career fair having never held a real job. Shortly thereafter, Martin was hired as a financial analyst at Ayco, a Chicago subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, where he has worked ever since.

Compared with their peers in the pro game, Martin and other Illini have found real-world success rather easily. It helped that Martin, an Academic All-American, graduated with a 3.8 GPA in finance. It also helped, though, that for many potential employers, a spot on the men’s tennis team is as significant as any internship.

“It was a big part of me getting the job,” Martin said. “Any time you see a national championship on the r‚sum‚, it stands out.”

Unlike Martin, many graduates leave tennis without a real backup plan. When asked to give his name and major at the team’s Alumni Day in September, junior Ryan Rowe, an undecided major, joked that he was studying “not much of anything.” And although he and fellow junior Kevin Anderson, the defending national doubles champions, should both graduate on time, neither said they were sure what they would do if tennis did not work out.

But in a sense, Laski said, merely having gone to college is more of a fallback option than most tennis players ever have. Nearly every player has a story of things just turning out right, whether working for an oil company, in the financial sector, as a coach or as a stand-up comic. And in the professional game, DeHeart said, just having a degree removes a lot of the pressure to succeed.

“My backup plan was my education,” Laski said. “I figured . there would be a lot of doors open to me. If tennis didn’t work out, then having my college degree would.”

Every year, more Illini join the professional tour. The current team’s lone senior, G.D. Jones, recently returned from a host of injuries that have plagued him since last year. But despite his troubles, Jones will move straight onto the tour when he graduates in May. If tennis does not work out, he plans to go to law school, but has not decided where or in what specialty.

“It’s very much a backup plan,” he said.

Behind Jones is another crop of likely professionals. The junior class includes Anderson, Rowe and Ruben Gonzales, who is spending the semester playing as an amateur on the tour.

For Laski, the pro tour is permanently in the past. He is ensconced in the “real world” but still plays regularly and coaches outside of work. A few years ago, one of his pupils was the Illinois state singles champion.

Laski works a standard shift now, a far cry from the relaxed schedule he put in as a professional tennis player. But compared with the pressure and travel of the pro tour, his transition into an everyday job was relatively easy.

“The hardest part is just waking up before nine,” he said.