From College Tennis to Pro Player
Sander Gillé is a professional Belgian tennis player, with a career high ATP doubles ranking of 83. Before travelling around the world to compete in the most prestigious tennis tournaments, he played college tennis at East Tennessee State University for 4 years. He kindly agreed to talk to UniAthletes about his American experience.
UniAthletes: Hey Sander! How and why did you decide to go to the US?
Sander Gillé: I decided to go to college in the US because their system allows athletes to combine sport with studies. Americans are very sports-minded and encourage athletes to compete at a very high level while completing their university degree. In Belgium such system does not exist. Sports here are seen more as a hobby, not linked to the school system, and time and money have to be spent by the student-athletes themselves to progress.
UniAthletes: What are the differences in playing tennis in the US vs Europe (or Belgium?)
Sander Gillé: The best thing about college sports is that there is such a big group of great athletes gathered in the same place. In the US every tennis team has around ten players. That’s ten players you can practice with on a daily basis. That’s ten players with a different game style and strategy. And then there are all the matches and competitions that you play during the year against players from other teams, again with different approaches. The size and variety of players is enormous, which can benefit your own development. To compare it with Belgium: every player practices in his or her own club. There are about two, maybe three, players per club with the same level. Practices can get boring from always playing the same athlete. You don’t really get pushed anymore over time because you know each other so well. You lose focus of your own development. Also, in Belgium there are only competitions during the summer months while in the States you are competing the entire year around. Obviously practice is important but you learn most from competing and playing matches.
UA: When did you start the process and how long in advance did you prepare your departure to the US?
Sander Gillé: It’s been a while so I am not totally sure, but I think I started the process about a year or so before actually going. It takes a while to get all the paperwork and procedures done. At the same time, it is better to start early because there will be more schools to choose from. Later on in the process, most teams are full and set for the upcoming year, so very few options are left.
UniAthletes: How did you eventually pick your school (East Tennessee State University)?
Sander Gillé: It was extremely tough for me to make the final decision. I visited the three schools that seemed most interesting for me. After my visit I could eliminate one of them, but the remaining two were very equal. Education programs were good, the teams were great, I liked the people… Somehow I had to choose and picked ETSU. I have never regretted my decision and spent the best four years of my life there.
UA: What do you wish you had known before starting the process, and is there any advice you would give high school student athletes looking to study and play in the US?
Sander Gillé: Given that I am now a professional tennis player, I would have done a few things differently. When I initially went to the USA, as a 17-year old, I had no clue what I wanted to do after I graduated. I did not have a particular job in mind, but I was not good enough to play professional tennis at that time either. So I picked a school that was good for both my education and my development as a tennis player. I did not pick one of the better tennis schools, where I maybe would not have gotten a chance to play in the beginning. Considering I am on the tour now, I think that that would have been the best option for my tennis career. So I would have had four years of tennis at an extremely high level where my teammates all had the same intention of becoming a professional player afterwards. I chose a program where people didn’t necessarily aim to go pro after, so I am still learning a lot as I am developing now, which obviously takes a bit more time.
I would suggest high school student athletes to try and define their ultimate athletic goal as early as possible. If you do not want to become a professional athlete, you should choose a school that focuses on both sports and studies. That way you keep all options open. If you are certain already that you want to turn pro after your studies, I think you should try to get into one of the best programs possible in your field. You keep that mindset every single day when you go out on the practice court. That way you won’t have any regrets afterwards.
On the other hand, it is extremely important to have fun and enjoy your time. You can strive to be a professional athlete, but don’t forget you are still a student and there is so much joy in the student life. The life of a professional athlete is mainly hard and lonely. Those four years in college, surrounded by fellow students and teammates, will be some of the best of your life. So don’t get hung up with only goals and ambition. Enjoy the journey and keep your goal(s) in mind along the way!
You can follow Sander’s journey on his Facebook page: Sander Gillé – Athlete
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