How I Became a D1 Tennis Player in Less than a Year

Sorry, I don’t have a magic potion, lotion, or pill to sell that will turn you into a high-level tennis player overnight. I wish I did. Limitless style (also wish I was Bradley Cooper – so does my wife). I’m actually not selling anything at all here. Although, if you need help picking out a great tennis bag or tennis racket, then check out those posts. Read our Short Takes series too where we’ve interviewed top pros and have linked to where you can buy their gear.  Let’s get into it.

Yes, I became a D1 tennis player (Belmont University) after playing the sport for roughly eleven months. And while I’m nowhere near my Tennis Takes partners, Brian Baker (former ATP top 50) and Maxx Lipman (former NCAA top 20), I’m incredibly proud of this accomplishment. I recognize I’m a (modestly) above-average athlete, but I think there are six key principles I can share through my experience that could help anyone in their pursuits of athletic development (tennis or otherwise) and other life pursuits.

Quick Backstory

I grew up playing competitive soccer. My travel team was a top-40 team in the country, and I was a consistent member of Tennessee’s Olympic Development Program. Many of my soccer teammates went on to play collegiately (University of South Carolina, University of Louisville, University of Chicago, etc.), and I have no doubt I could have played collegiately as well. However, I burnt out the summer between my junior and senior year of high school and decided to hang up the cleats.

My brothers – Maxx and Ryan – were baller tennis players. I played once every couple years growing up, but these guys were fully committed to it. Their coach, Bill Tym, was a dear friend of our dad’s and groomed Ryan and Maxx as tennis players from the moment they stepped on the court as 4 year olds.

I didn’t want to stop being an athlete when I quit soccer, and elite tennis was ubiquitous in my household. So I said eff it. Let’s try this tennis thing.

Principle 1: Become Obsessive

Dig in and become a dog on a bone with whatever you’re trying to learn. My personality naturally leans this way. I’m the guy that listens to a new song 100 times in a 48 hour period and tells everyone he knows about a new product, show, whatever that I like. I’m also the guy that watches 100s of hours of YouTube videos trying to learn music production with no music background or cooks the same menu of meals every week for the past 10 years to stay in shape. I think they call it Type-A. My wife swears the A stands for Annoying.

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It should come to no surprise then that I had an unhealthy amount of obsession with tennis. It CONSUMED me. It’s all I thought about, it’s all I talked about, it’s all I dreamed about, and it’s all I did.  Guaranteed this didn’t help my social life my senior year either. Wearing tennis shirts to public school is not a great way to pick up girls. I’m sure my high school classmates would concur. In hindsight, I’d probably take that decision back.

I did it though. Learning about tennis tactics, shots, strategies, etc. became my passion. Getting on the court and getting reps became my life. I was practicing 6-8 hours per day, everyday. I’d find a way.

But I had to do this. My peers were 13 years ahead of me. I couldn’t half-ass my way into becoming a legit tennis player.

Principle 2: Find Your Motivation

This will feed your obsession, but it’s important to find what will propel the level of energy you’ll need to become successful in your new endeavor. For me, it was multi-fold. I had two younger brothers who were some of the best tennis players in the country in their respective age groups. Meanwhile, I was the worst tennis player in the country in my age group. That pissed me off.

Soccer was supposed to be my path to college athletics, but at my own doing, that was no longer an option. I WANTED to be a college athlete. The paradox I created infuriated me.

My ego fed some of this too. At 17, I had grandeur visions of becoming a professional tennis player and the stories that would be written about me and my brothers. How cool! The Lipman brothers are all pro tennis players! And the oldest one didn’t start until he was 17! Right or wrong, the idea of fame drove me to a degree.

As dumb as these might seem to you, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, I found my “why” and rode it for an endless amount of energy and enthusiasm for what I was doing.

Principle 3: Swallow Your Pride

Look, this isn’t easy to do, but any endeavor with a steep learning curve requires humility. You’re not going to master the practice overnight. Crawl, walk, run is a real thing. For me, this took effect in many instances, but the most dramatic manifestation was when I began participating in clinics.

Coach Tym and I would have private lessons a couple times a week, and these sessions were paramount to me learning nuances, fine-tuning mechanics, and honing in on strategy. To complement these lessons, I’d join clinics a couple times a week…with 10 year olds. I was a senior in high school hitting with freaking 10 year olds.

And honestly, I didn’t think a thing about it. I totally bought into the reasoning: 10 year olds can’t hit the ball hard, so I could get live reps at a pace that was conducive to my development. These were high-level young kids too (e.g. my brother Maxx), so it wasn’t like we were all starting from scratch together. In reality, I was an 8 year old in a 17-year-old body as far as tennis goes. It made total sense to practice with these kids (I’d also invite them to play practice matches against me on the weekends), and I wasn’t going to let my pride/ego divert me from a productive path of development.

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Eventually, I became good enough to join the kids my age, but there were countless times that required I swallow my pride, the 10-year-old clinics just being an example.

Principle 4: Find an Expert and LISTEN

Chances are you know nothing, or very little, about this new endeavor. You certainly aren’t an expert, and everywhere you turn there’s something new to learn. Find someone you trust, who is an expert, and soak up as much knowledge as you can from that person without getting a restraining order.

For me, I was lucky enough to have Coach Tym in my backyard and within my circle of influence already. The guy is a living legend and tennis savant and developed a philosophy around tennis that logically made a lot of sense. I really gravitated towards his philosophy.

I’d say a couple things here about experts though. First, be careful about seeking advice from too many experts early on. Yes, this places greater importance on the one or two you look to initially and whose wisdom you entrust, but I think there’s danger of overload from conflicting information early on if you spread your advisor base too thin. In those first several months, I went to Bollettieri’s for a week, Rick Macci’s for a week, took lessons from other coaches and was learning a different style and philosophy every time. It was confusing and caused a ton of internal second guessing while I was still so impressionable. Later on, I had a deep enough understanding of the game and what I liked/didn’t like to discern information from new sources and digest it in a productive way. Initially, however, it caused a lot of self-consternation.

Secondly, challenge the experts with new thought processes and questions. Believe it or not, you bring value to the conversation even as a beginner. Why? Because you come at the situation with a fresh perspective. One without decades of bias baked into it. For example, Coach Tym is a believer in the one-handed backhand, so that’s what I learned. Unfortunately, I didn’t know enough then (or have enough self-confidence) to second guess it. In hindsight, I should have asked whether a two-handed backhand made more sense because it’s easier to learn and improve upon. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion and ask questions.

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Principle 5: Be Realistic and Listen to Your Body/Mind

I put a ton of pressure on myself with lofty goals and expedient timelines with tennis. In hindsight, I should have been more realistic. I do maintain the need to set goals that push yourself otherwise you’ll stay stuck in neutral, however.

Mentally, I was a lunatic at times and couldn’t balance my lack of development with my obsession of the sport and motivation to be great. It infuriated me, and I was less than ideal to be around. Especially after a bad practice or match. Ask anybody in my family…

Physically, my body couldn’t take what I was putting it through. Believe it or not, your skeletal structure actually adapts to the rigor of your regular activities when you’re a child. Tennis players’ dominant-side shoulder actually sits behind their non-dominant shoulder to absorb the wear-and-tear of the sport. My body was built for soccer. Coming in like a bat out of hell and practicing 6-8 hours a day crushed me, but I never listened to my body telling me to slow down. Eventually, it caught up with me by my sophomore year in college by way of two shoulder surgeries which permanently sidelined me.

Principle 6: Be Opportunistic

Fortunately for me, the head coach at Belmont University, Jim Madrigal (current coach of Madison Keys), was willing to take a flier on me as a walk-on after seeing me play and hearing about my development. Belmont is in Nashville, which is where I’m from, and he was impressed with what I’d done in a short amount of time. Jim knew I was coming to the school anyway with the intention of continuing to work with Coach Tym while in college and thought he could help my evolution as a tennis player too.

I owe a ton to Jim. I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to be a collegiate athlete. Did I earn any school records or have my racket (?) retired? No. But, I brought a great attitude (mostly) and energy to practice and played a very small role in us winning the Atlantic Sun Conference my freshman year where we earned a bid to play Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. VERY SMALL ROLE.

Unfortunately, injuries forced me to cut my tennis journey short, but I made lifelong friends out of my tennis career. I’ll forever be thankful to the sport.

The message here is pretty simple. It doesn’t matter if you’re 17, 30, 55, male, female, whatever. It doesn’t matter if you want to start playing tennis, get better at it, or take on something entirely unrelated. If you have enough passion, either naturally or manufactured, and a knack for resourcefulness, there’s nothing standing in your way. Put your mind to it, put your head down, and get to work.