Tennis received quite a bit of unwanted attention this week. In what tennis reporters Courtney Nguyen and Ben Rothenberg called “the most viral moment in tennis this year,” our sport was thrust into the spotlight when some less than desirable on-court antics began to receive major media exposure.
Due to the fact that there has already been a tremendous amount of reporting about these incidents, and given my personal relationships with some of the individuals involved I am not going to blog specifically about the events that took place. I have full confidence that the governing bodies of tennis will handle the situations appropriately and fairly within the rules set forth by the Association of Tennis Professionals. I hope that the innocent parties drawn in as victims in this messy situation will also be satisfied with the sanctions and penalties imposed.
In light of all this recent drama in the tennis world, my mind has given a great amount of thought this week to the subject of professionalism in sport. The timing seems relevant to chat a little bit about my own experiences with respect to what a career as a professional athlete involves.
Few things make me prouder as a wife than when someone remarks on Kevin’s high level of professionalism. I have learned a lot from my husband about what it takes to be professional in tennis, and hopefully I can impart some of that to the readers of this blog.
My general theory is this: the more an athlete views their career as an actual business the better. In my personal work experience at Ernst & Young and Navigant Consulting, I learned a lot about how businesses operate. It is not at all difficult to apply the same principles used in corporate operations to a career on the ATP Tour.
Cost vs. Benefit Analysis
Any decision you are making with respect to your career should be subject to a cost versus benefit analysis. Players must constantly ask themselves if the outcome of their decisions justifies the cost. This applies to many different aspects of a player’s business.
I spoke a few weeks ago about the cost of air travel; does booking a $10,000 business class ticket make sense when your guaranteed first round prize money might only be $2,000? Probably not.
This is also an important consideration with respect to endorsements: a lucrative contract is definitely not worthwhile if you don’t feel confident with the equipment you must use to compete. As an example, I know a player who passed on a clothing endorsement because the financial benefit did not outweigh the value they placed on the freedom to wear the clothing and shoes of their own choosing.
Cost benefit analysis is also particularly relevant for players in deciding their schedules. Of course one could fly all over the world in an attempt to collect as many prize money checks as possible, but this probably would not reap the same rewards as more focused scheduling and fewer but better results.
On our team, we are constantly assessing which events to play based on factors such as ease of travel, physicality of the schedule, surface consistency, training opportunities, and tournament guarantees. Everything must be considered objectively before a decision can be made. We don’t always get it right, either. You live and you learn, hopefully growing with each experience.
Investing in Your Assets
It may not seem obvious, but investing in yourself as a tennis professional, or any athlete for that matter, is incredibly important. You are your biggest asset. The sooner players recognize the need to invest time, energy, and money into maintaining their health and wellness, the better.
Through Kevin, I have come to learn the importance of conditioning, strength training, “pre-habilitation,” and rehabilitation. Each of these activities plays a crucial role in the athlete’s recovery, injury prevention, and ultimately performance. It is nothing short of vital for a professional athlete to treat their body like the irreplaceable asset that it is.
Investing in your mental fortitude is also valuable. A mental coach who can impart useful tools to improve your competitive mindset is never a bad investment, and the dividends are usually tenfold.
Although human resources and employing the right people are important in any business, as a tennis professional it is downright critical. Obviously the talent and skill of a player’s support staff is essential. Tennis pros need individuals with the talent and experience to add value to their team, but must also seek the right set of skills to complement their weaknesses and help them on their path to improvement.
Players also spend a ton of time with their teams, so an important consideration is how well team members get along. We experience a lot of high stress and emotional experiences together, so I believe very strongly in surrounding oneself with positive people who will bring good energy to the environment.
Although the main role of support staff is to impart their valuable knowledge and skills, they also offer emotional support and companionship which I believe plays a much larger role in a tennis player’s success than most people admit. I have said for years that although hiring a coach way back on the Challenger Tour was a big financial commitment for Kevin, it was one of the best choices he ever made to take his results to the next level.
Marketing & Public Relations
The right marketing and promotion are imperative for any business. In tennis, this is often less of a focus area since, with the exception of the top athletes, most of a player’s money is earned based on quantifiable tournament results. Of course, endorsement income does play a role in helping players cover the high costs associated with competing on tour, and this can alleviate the “pressure to perform” sometimes felt by individuals as they try to fund their careers.
Public relations, on the other hand, simply must be managed in a businesslike fashion. As we saw this week, in the current media climate, it is easy for seemingly insignificant events to escalate. Not only should an athlete be aware of their competitive behavior and sportsmanship, but it is increasingly important to be aware of their social media presence and off-court persona.
My rule of thumb is one that I learned back in my training at EY: If you wouldn’t be comfortable with it showing up on the front page of the New York Times, don’t say it, write it, or do it. We live in an unforgiving age of information, where even the smallest muttering can stick with you for life.
It should go without saying, but remaining composed and respectful of colleagues and fans is expected on tour (as it would be in any “office job”). Of course the competitive nature of sport lends itself to a heightened emotional state and high stress environment. Learning to cope effectively with on-court tension is the mark of a true professional.
I have been around this scene long enough now to see that inappropriate or disrespectful behavior makes succeeding at an already difficult game nearly impossible. Everyone is trying their damnedest to beat you anyway; there is no need to give them any additional ammunition.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that although professional athletes are being paid to “play games”, it is still an actual job for them in every sense of the word.
During my own working years, I felt that it was easy to develop appropriate professionalism in the corporate world. You must dress appropriately according to a corporate dress code, you undergo rigorous training, and you answer directly to managers and superiors who give you worthwhile feedback. For a tennis professional it is not quite this simple. Players have much more freedom and personal liberties with how they conduct themselves. They also have far less objective feedback to help them improve upon their professionalism; as such, a player’s professionalism usually only develops and improves with on-the-job experience and the passing of time.
As players progress along the different levels of the tour, their professionalism often evolves with their career. As such, it is not uncommon to see inappropriate behavior at the lower levels of the game, but, as we all saw this week, it is quite shocking when it happens on one of the biggest stages in tennis.