It's a long, lonely and costly road on the Pro Circuit
By Adi Joseph | Of The Morning Call July 11, 2008
Stacey Tan, 16, is reaching a tennis crossroads. Being a part of the summer's USTA Pro Circuit is helping her decide whether to pursue a full-time professional career or take a break for college. (MONICA CABRERA, Allentown Morning Call / July 8, 2008)
Varvara Lepchenko has seen the effects of outside stress on her tennis game.
The 22-year-old Allentown resident is in her seventh year as a professional tennis player. With each year, each tournament she plays in, the pressure only intensifies.
Airfare. Food. Hotel. Equipment.
Even as one of the top earners on the United States Tennis Association Pro Circuit tour, a tournament featuring lower-paying events than those of the Sony Ericsson
WTA Tour, Lepchenko knows she must perform, if only to pay the bills that come with being a professional athlete and all the traveling that comes with that tag.
''It's very hard to do when you're struggling and you're not making enough money and you're thinking about how you're getting to the next tournament and you're thinking about food,'' the Uzbekistan native said. ''The press shows a lot about how everything is so beautiful and great. But they don't show how hard it is to sponsor yourself and get from one tournament to another.''
Lepchenko was upset in the second round of the Mecco Cup, the tournament this weekend at Westend Racquet Club in South Whitehall Township. While the $7,700 top prize -- far short of the $1.38 million Venus Williams
won at Wimbledon last Saturday -- isn't enough to keep a player going for long, she admitted that each time she loses, it only increases the pressure. On the Pro Circuit, winning is the only way to earn a paycheck.
But Lepchenko remembers when, briefly, finances weren't such an issue. Two years ago, a family from Philadelphia sponsored Lepchenko, helping her concentrate on tennis and take her game to another level. She recalls playing some of her best tennis during that time.
''In two or three months, I was playing unbelievably,'' said Lepchenko, ranked No. 137 in the world. ''It was like I couldn't stop winning.''
Lepchenko is back to sponsoring herself, as most Pro Circuit players do. It's a long, lonely and costly road, in which the end doesn't always seem within reach.
More than 1,100 players are ranked by the WTA. Only about 100 can be guaranteed spots in major tournaments.
The rest, like Lepchenko, live as tennis gypsies, traveling the world without much more than their rackets, sneakers and the iPods they use to clear their minds.
Some begin leading this life when they're as young as 14-year-old Libby Muma, who played in the Mecco Cup as a wild card. Some continue it as long as 38-year-old Barbara Schultz-McCarthy, also in town for the week. But it doesn't seem to get any easier.
''You're away from your family,'' said 21-year-old Carly Gullickson, ranked No. 315. ''You're doing this for a living, so you want to make money. But it's just lonely. You've got to have your head on straight and you've got to know what you want to do out here.''
Players are often forced to abandon the conventional teenage life. Instead of prom, there is tennis. Rather than beaches, there is tennis. No time for boys, just tennis.
''It's not easy. Traveling that much is a lot,'' said 23-year-old Ahsha Rolle, ranked No. 148. Rolle was in town to watch her younger sister, Tiya Rolle, compete in qualifying. ''I just keep it fun for myself. Try to do things each week, normal stuff like going out on the town, to the movies.''
On Pro Circuit events, some of that financial and personal hardship evens out. Players can stay in homes of local tennis boosters, organized through each club that hosts a tournament.
Chip Morrow of Coopersburg and his family have opened their doors to a player each year since the Mecco Cup began in Allentown eight years ago. Morrow, who is housing Gullickson this week, said that as a former tennis player, he really enjoys helping them.
His son, Doug Morrow, now 20, has grown up with the once-a-summer visit from a new tennis player. Doug has spent part of his week showing Gullickson around the area.
Through the experience, the Morrows have picked up on some of the ins-and-outs of other cultures, and the players have a little less to worry about and a little more to do during the week.
''These girls travel a lot, and I think it really helps them,'' Chip Morrow said
Not having to worry about hotel costs is a luxury for the players on the Pro Circuit. Very few players have full sponsorships, and some still rely on their parents for assistance.
Nineteen-year-old Kimberly Couts, ranked No. 287, has received some help from her New Jersey tennis club, where sponsors have allowed her to continue her 25-tournament annual schedule as she climbs the ranks.
But Couts, like most players, admits that even with the help, the main thing keeping her going is the drive to succeed and become a top professional.
"Obviously, we're doing this to move up to the next level and start playing in all the [WTA] tour events and grand slams and all that. It's not easy, but I think everybody out here, probably somewhere in there, loves it. You have to, I think, to do this.?"
Stacey Tan is just 16 years old and ranked No. 780 in the world.
She competed in the Mecco Cup qualifiers and was one of four players to make it through to the main draw. Her tournament ended Wednesday, when she was eliminated by Milagros Sequera in the first round of the main draw.
Tan is reaching nearing an age where she has a choice that most players on the Pro Circuit had to deal with at some pointhave had to make. She is still in high school, but she knows soon she will have to decide between pursuing a full-timetennis career full time and going to college, playing tennis at school, and holding off on her professional dreams for a few years.
Gullickson and Rolle both chose the professional route, while USC player Amanda Fink, an unranked wild card in the tournament, decided she was best served byon college.
It just seemed like, at my age, at 17, I didn't think I was ready," Fink said. "I just really needed to mature, and I thought that college was the best environment for me."
Tan said her parents want her to go to school. But the choice is still up in the air for now. And playing in these summer tournaments is helping her decide.
She's learning the life she could have. It's one neither Rolle nor Gullickson would trade.
"Sometimes I felt like I missed out on the high school experience or the college experience," Rolle said. "But in return, I got to travel around the world and see things people my age just dream of. You weigh your pros and cons."
"Tennis has made me grow up really fast compared to other kids," Gullickson said. "But, I mean, I've had fun with what I've been doing. I've enjoyed it."