Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest winner of the Miami Open last week at 18 years of age. Iga Swiatek won the same title and captured the World no.1 spot at 20 years. Two teenage sensations Emma Raducanu and Leylah Frenandez battled their way for the women’s title on Arthur Ashe stadium court at US Open last year.
These young guns including latest sensation Linda Fruhvirtova at 16 years and Coco Gauff,now 18, are showing extraordinary athleticism and fire and have made tennis so exciting to watch. BUT, as commendable as their recent performances are, the biggest debate will be if they can sustain this momentum and add some Majors or Slams to their credit.
These prodigies are no reason to think that every player should be peaking and winning pro titles as a junior. While the destination of pro tennis is the same, there are different routes to get there. Some take slightly longer, but it’s what works for each player based on their physical, mental attributes and so many other factors.
The most common route takes you through the ITF junior tour and feeds into the ITF women’s or Men’s tour and then onto higher levels of challengers Tour events and Majors. The best juniors in the world get to compete at the junior Grand Slams.
But then there have been some who have skipped junior ITF tour altogether and have jumped on the pro circuits directly.. The last, but not the least, there have been few players who have used college tennis as a platform to springboard their pro career.
This article should explain the basic pros and cons of each of these routes and maybe it will help some parents decide what’s best for their child. I am focusing mainly on the Women’s and girls’ circuits as I have more experience in it.
There are 3 major routes to be the best in the world and make a living through pro tennis. The most common course taken is the ITF junior route. ITF Junior circuit are tournaments that are held throughout the year in various parts of the world.
You get ranking points depending on the Level of tournament you play and rankings go up to about 2800. There are 5 levels of these tournaments with the Junior Slams being Level 1 or top level events where only the top 64 in the world get to play in them.
The ITF junior circuit resembles the pro tour circuits in their procedures that it is meant to make the transition in to the pro circuits easier. I have the best memories of ITF junior tournaments in countries like Thailand, Brunei, Sri Lanka and Indonesia where I made some great friendships and had a successful enough run to play the French Open and Wimbledon juniors.
Watching your heroes up close during the Majors and the high accolades of playing a Junior Slam is a huge motivation to pursue the professional tour. The Junior Exempt rule allows the top juniors a slot into pro circuits and provides a pathway for juniors to start competing in the pro tour.
Now the cons-ITF junior circuits don’t have any prize money. Only the higher-level tournaments offer accommodation for main draw players. So, this could be an expensive proposition with no return at least until the player starts performing well on the pro circuits or is able to generate enough excitement for a sponsorship deal.
In 2018, Iga Swiatek won her first slam in junior Wimbledon. Two years later, she transitioned beautifully to win the French Open title on the Women’s tour. Barbara Krejikova was ranked no 3 in juniors and had numerous titles in singles and doubles.
She won the French Open in 2021. Paula Badosa was ranked no.8 in the world in the junior ITF rankings and Ons Jabeur won the French Open juniors and was ranked no.4 in the ITF junior circuit. They are all top 10 players now in the WTA.
If junior rankings and titles are any indication of what is to come, then it was only a matter of time for these girls to consolidate their position into top in Women’s rankings. That is one way to get there. Serena and Venus Williams skipped the ITF junior circuit altogether.
So did Muguruza, World no.3 Maria Sakkari, Aryna Sabalenka and many more. So what makes one choose pro circuits and skip juniors altogether, you may ask. If the player is physically capable on competing with adults, then that’s a good reason to skip juniors altogether.
All the girls I mentioned above were powerful and above average in their physical attributes. Richard Williams had his thoughts set only on the pro tour and believed in their developmental game until Venus and serena were ready to compete on the pro circuits.
The Women’s pro circuits begin with entry level tournaments in $15k tournaments and go on to $25K, $50K, $60K, $80K and $100K tournaments. Then comes the tour events and then the Majors. Venus and serena got wild cards into the tour events and created enough upsets, that they have never seen what its like to play a lower event.
Please note that, to get a wild card into one of these huge events isn’t a piece of cake. Most players have to grind it out on the lower circuits before they can get enough ranking points to be able to play higher events.
The pros of this system is that you get to the real deal very fast. You can start making money as well if you are good enough. The cons are that, firstly there is an age restriction. Juniors below 13 are not permitted to play and when you are 14 and 15, you are only allowed to play a few events.
After the burnout of certain former players, the ITF brought in the age rule to allow developmental process to take place rather than rushing the growth of the junior player mentally and physically. Also, if the player is not physically or mentally ready to play the Women’s circuit, you run the risk of burnout or worse quitting the sport altogether.
The last of these pathways is the college route. Colleges in USA offer scholarships through tennis and you may be required to take the SAT exams to be eligible. Colleges are divided into NCAA Div 1, Div 2, Div 3, NAIA and NJCAA divisions with each offering different number and kinds of scholarships.
The key thing in this route, is picking the right college which will allow you to progress as a player. There are some colleges that offer world class facilities, great coaching and superb competing possibilities. Overall, this would be a perfect environment for improvement and progress for the next step which is pro tennis.
And you get a Degree also with it! Seems like an awesome deal, right?? Well, not exactly. The downsides are also plenty. Many times, a player ends up choosing the wrong college. Some colleges don’t have the right environment for training or competitions, players compete too much, get burnt out, injured, struggle to cope with studies and many such scenarios.
Men have been able to use the college system to their advantage better than women. John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Steve Johnson are just some who have done well after college. There are but very few women like Danielle Collins who have been able to transition into pros from the college circuit.
This could be mainly because women have seen more success at a younger age on tour. By then time they finish college at 21 or 22, to start out on tour is a long shot. So, there you have it! There is no right or wrong way, just what works for your player.
Many things come in the way of making a decision as to which route to take, like having the right coach, playing the right tournaments, having a good support team, money , current rankings, performances in higher events, and so much more .
A quick recap of the three ways-The first way of playing ITF junior tournaments is probably the best transition from juniors to Pro circuits as it sets the pathway of what is to come. Skipping the junior circuits altogether is ideal for an elite athlete who is already on the cusp of competing with the pros.
The college route is, in my view, one of the toughest as age is not on your side. It’s not to say it can’t be done, it’s just harder.