We keep reading how the tennis industry is 'aging out' and for the most part is dominated by a bunch of older male professionals.
So we set out to find young female tennis professionals who are really flourishing in our male-dominated industry. And we found them on the U.S. East Coast, West Coast, in England, and in Australia. We asked them a bunch of questions in order to learn how they got into teaching tennis, why they did it, and if they would do it again. We wanted to know their story.
"BE THE SMARTEST PRO ON THE COURT"
Tennis Director, USPTA
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
QUESTIONS FOR JENNIFER GELHAUS
TCB: Jennifer, where were you born (city, country)?
JG: I was born and raised in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
TCB: How old were you when you started to play tennis and who introduced you?
JG: I was 11 years old when I first played tennis. My mom thought it would be a sport that I would enjoy and could play my whole life. She was not a tennis player at the time but it caught her eye after seeing her friend playing with her teenage daughter and 8-year-old daughter. She realized it was a great family sport that you could play at any age.
TCB: Did you play tennis in high school, college?
JG: I ended up coming to the US at age 16 to play college tennis. I had a very short junior playing career because I started playing tennis later than most players (11yo) and graduated from high school earlier than most (16yo). Also, there is no high school tennis in Venezuela. I received a full scholarship to play D2 tennis at Lincoln Memorial University where I played for 4 years.
TCB: Was tennis your first choice of work after school? If not, please explain.
JG: No, it was not. I graduated with a degree in Biology and it never occurred to me that teaching tennis could be a career for me. I studied Biology and Chemistry in College and my plan was to get a PhD in molecular biology and have a career in science.
TCB: When did you start teaching, tennis and why?
JG: I started teaching tennis 2 years after graduating from College. I was working in a Lab for Indiana University School of Medicine and starting a PhD when I realized how much I missed being in tennis. I looked for coaching opportunities and ended up being the assistant coach for the IUPUI women’s tennis team. I realized that coaching tennis was something that I really enjoyed and was excited about. So much that I decided to pursue it full time 2 years later. I went on to teach at different clubs, get certified, and now I have been doing this for over 10 years. I simply could not stay away from tennis and I am very happy with my decision to pursue something I enjoy so much.
TCB: Did you get certified as a tennis professional?
JG: Absolutely. Once a nerd always a nerd! Just a different subject. I think everyone that is getting started in coaching should get certified.
TCB: Where and in what position did you work as a tennis professional?
JG: I have worked as a tennis professional for several clubs. I started at the Camargo Racquet Club and the Western Tennis and Fitness Club in Cincinnati. I then moved to Tampa and worked for 4 years at the Harbour Island Athletic Club and Tampa Tennis at HCC. I was recently the Assistant Director/ Director of Junior Tennis at the Boulevard Tennis Club in Vero Beach.
I have worked at seasonal clubs for many years. I was the Director of Junior Tennis at the Maidstone Club in the Hamptons for 6 years and I just took a Tennis Director position for the East Chop Tennis Club in Martha’s Vineyard this year.
I have also worked with college players when I served as the Head Tennis Coach for Hillsborough Community College for 2 and half years and the assistant coach for IUPUI for two years.
I have experienced different clubs and the different cultures that go with them. Each opportunity has provided me with great lessons on what works well and what are things that I would change if I were in a leadership role.
TCB: Where do you work now, and what is your position?
JG: I am now the Tennis Director for a seasonal club in Martha’s Vineyard called East Chop Tennis Club.
TCB: Do you like your current position, and why?
JG: Yes, I really like it because I have more off-court responsibilities than ever before. I enjoy teaching on court but I like the admin side of tennis even more. I’ve always envisioned myself in a leadership role at a club.
TCB: What are the challenges you are facing today?
JG: I think we are all facing new interesting challenges with COVID-19. We are all looking for innovative ways of growing the sport and trying our best to get back to normal while being careful and mindful of the pandemic. This year our industry is taking a huge hit as many clubs had to shut down for weeks and now even summer activities are questionable. This is a very tough situation for pros whether they are independent contractors or staff that was let go.
Personally, my biggest challenge with tennis (even more so after COVID-19) is having that financial stability (and benefits) that you could get from another job. It can be very up and down because there are too many variables out of your control that can affect your income. At times I have questioned my own commitment to this industry because of it. I don’t think that us coaches choose this career because it is lucrative but we choose it for other reasons. Because we love the sport, because we simply cannot stay away, because we want other people to experience having tennis in their life.
TCB: How difficult was it for you as a woman to have a career in male-dominated tennis? (Please elaborate, if you like)
JG: I believe that to succeed in any career, whether you are a man or a woman, you must be willing to outwork your competition. You must be committed to your personal and professional development and a little luck goes a long way. Yet I would be lying if I said that I have never experienced discrimination as a tennis professional. I do think that it is more difficult for women as we tend to be underestimated, get looked over for leadership positions, and are more harshly criticized by others. I have personally experienced all of these. However, I have never let it deter me from reaching for success. It actually has the opposite effect. It drives me to push forward a little harder and it makes the victories a little sweeter.
Even though it has been difficult, I like to focus more on the positive and look ahead to new opportunities. I am grateful for the support of mentors and colleagues that have trained and helped me become a better professional. I am also grateful for the opportunities that I have been given and the players I have gotten to teach.
TCB: How did your past income, and how does your current income compare to similarly experienced male tennis professionals?
JG: I think that as a teaching pro I can make the same as any male teaching pro with my level of experience. I do however think that male pros tend to advance to higher positions much quicker than female pros. In general, a male professional will have a larger income and experience higher positions sooner than a female professional. In my opinion it is not necessarily about pay it is about opportunities in career advancement.
TCB: What would you say to young women interested in tennis and undecided whether they want to make a career out of it?
JG: I would tell her to get out there and give it a try. You never know if you will like a job until you actually do it. I thought I wanted to be a scientist my whole life until I got to spend countless hours in a lab and realized I didn’t really like it as much as I thought I would. I would tell her to start teaching and to get certified and make connections with as many people as possible. If she is in college, I would advise her to take business classes. I wish I had done more of that! I would tell her about PTM and sports management programs. I also wish I had known about those back then!
I would encourage her to be the smartest pro out on the court!
TCB: If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you choose the same career again?
JG: Absolutely! Teaching tennis has taken me to places I never even dreamed of visiting, introduced me to the most incredible people, and taught me invaluable life lessons.
TCB: Do you play or teach Pickleball? How do you like the sport?
JG: I have played Pickleball a few times and I think that it is incredibly fun. It’s a much easier sport than tennis (not as technical) and much more social and beginner-friendly. It’s also a great way to have tennis players that have lost mobility due to age or injury playing and staying active. I do not teach it because none of the clubs I worked at offered Pickleball. However, I would like to get certified at some point because I think most clubs now offer both and I see the value in being able to teach both. Not to mention, it is so fun to play it so why not teach it?!
TCB: What is your tennis racquet of choice?
JG: I like the Babolat Pure Drive because I changed to it when I started teaching and now I’ve gotten so used to it. I also like the Strike for when I am playing.
TCB: Thank you, Jennifer.