Past and present: The challenges of becoming a tennis professional

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The recently released film “King Richard” displays the hardships of making it in tennis, but how relevant are those issues in today’s game?

Starring Will Smith, the 2021 film “King Richard” shows the struggles of becoming a professional tennis player in a dangerous neighbourhood where crime rates are high and opportunity for global success is scarce. The film shows how Venus and Serena Williams together with their father Richard and extended family overcame the hardships of living in Compton, California in a low socio-economic community to become the legendary tennis players we know today.

Serena and Venus Williams
Serena and Venus Williams

Parental involvement: Then & now

There’s no doubt, the Williams sisters would not have accomplished what they have without the support of their parents and family, particularly with tennis being a sport that requires early success in one’s adolescent years to make it big. Richard Williams formulated a 78-page plan to write his daughters into history, transmuting their pure love and determination for tennis into a strategy that could take on the world.

From driving Venus and Serena to the local tennis courts every day and acting as their coach to enrolling them in junior competitions and funding their tennis equipment, education, and tournament fees, Richard and his wife demonstrated unyielding support for their daughters right from the start. Sticking to his vision, Richard also turned down many opportunities and contracts in the hopes that something greater will come by, so long as he continues to harness Venus’ and Serena’s love for the game without interfering with important aspects of childhood such as school, extra-curricular, and playful times.

Nowadays, parental involvement still plays a huge part in a professional tennis player’s development, though not to the same extent. For example, Ons Jabeur has mentioned on several occasions her gratefulness to her parents for driving her around Tunisia for tennis training and tournaments. However, the advancement of technology has also made it possible for players to take charge of their own careers now and be less reliant on their parents, especially with the emergence of smartphone devices.

As shown in the film, Richard was a man who had an almost overbearing protectiveness over his daughters, and he truly stuck to his plan from start to finish. Whether he was interrupting Venus’ press interviews and cutting them short or disallowing her to participate in the Junior Tournament Circuit so she can “be a kid,” Richard had immense involvement in his children’s road to professionalism. Of course, not all parents were as vigorous or protective over their offspring as Richard was, as this is what he was notorious for.

However, it can be assumed there was still a greater degree of involvement from parents before the youth had got their hands on smartphones and internet access, where they can now manage things like emails, phone calls, and social media followings from an earlier age.

Social challenges: Then & now

A big issue for modern tennis players today is the pressure of social media and widespread news on various platforms. The real-time notifications and overload of information through our smartphones have resulted in a feeling of “constant surveillance” for professional athletes. Every tweet, every post, every photo, and even every “like” must be thought over numerous times to ensure no backlash or misinterpretations occur by the public.

Before this era of online connectedness, the only information people could get from players was through the press, resulting in a narrower spread of communication and news. Nowadays, players not only need to be careful what goes out online but also need to deal with the consequences of not posting regular updates of themselves. The public is quick to create rumors about a player’s social media inactivity just as much as when they are active, so it comes down to coping with the situation no matter what route they choose in how they use social technologies.

Another common issue with the emergence of smart devices and the Internet is the distractions it can cause for one’s career. We are all familiar with how much of a distraction it can be to endlessly scroll through Facebook or Instagram feeds, but people forget that this is just as much of an issue for professional tennis players. World No.19 Coco Gauff has implied the negative effects of social media on various occasions, mentioning how “a lot of people have opinions about you and how you should play.” Indeed, dealing with the pressure of your parents or immediate surroundings cannot come close to dealing with the pressure of the world at large, and Coco Gauff has fortunately had this realization early in her career.

Final thoughts…

To sum up, becoming a professional tennis player will ultimately come with challenges at a high degree of difficulty no matter what era you find yourself competing in. The film “King Richard” did an amazing job of portraying how hardships were different back in the 80s and 90s, but that isn’t to say that today’s era is not without its own unique challenges. Adapting to the situation and taking strategic, well-thought-out action with strong perseverance and a solid support network is a reliable recipe to see tennis success no matter what the times look like.

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