Tennis Spotlight: Sander Gille and College Tennis As A Stepping Stone To The ATP Tour

Sander Gille has had an interesting path to getting where he is today. He only played a couple of junior tournaments and went into college tennis not knowing what level of tennis to expect. He ended up having an amazing time in college and went pro full time at age 21. He is now ranked 39 in the world on the ATP Doubles Tour and is at the top of his game. During this interview we talked about injuries, reminisced over his college experience, beginning challenges on tour, ways for lower ranked players on tour to survive financially, the memorable first ATP point, his special partnership, what the sport has taught him, and a piece of advice for a junior tennis player. If you are interested in checking out his activity on the ATP Tour click here. If you want to check out what he is doing on social media click here.

photo credit: Xinhua Lu Hanxin
  1. At what age did you start playing tennis and when did you fall in love with the sport?

I started playing when I was 6. I have always played multiple sports when I was younger like soccer, gymnastics, and swimming. At age 14, I decided to stick to just tennis. I still enjoy playing other sports but I am happy that I stuck with tennis. I would say swimming and gymnastics helped me the most with athleticism. Swimming helped strengthen and loosen my shoulders and gymnastics helped with my flexibility. Those sports have helped my body keep up on tour.

  1. What was your recruiting process like?

I played a few junior tournaments and no international tournaments before the age of 19. I might have played one 14u tournament in my hometown. I did not have any experience, so I had no ranking. I chose to go to college in the U.S when I was 17 because there are no college athletics in Belgium. I visited 3 schools: Mississippi State, ETSU, and the University of New Mexico. I ended up picking ETSU. They were all ranked between 30 and 50 at the time. I made a recruiting video with an agency called Overboarder and they set me up to visit those schools which I all liked. At New Mexico, the whole team was British and I felt a little left out. At ETSU we had a big freshman class coming in and I felt like I was going to be comfortable.

  1. What are the benefits of taking a recruiting visit?

It was logical for me to do it. When I was told the schools would pay for the visit I thought I should go. You get to see the team environment and make sure it will be something you like. You get to meet the people you are about to become a family with. The trip made it a lot easier to make a decision. I wrote down the positives of negatives for each school and the trip made it more clear. 

  1. Can you talk about your first college tennis match?

My very first college tournament was at UVA and I believe they were ranked top 3 at the time. I was 17 and never played internationally before. I had no clue what to expect about the level. I was put into Flight C and did not even know what that meant. I just went out to the court and I was told to go and win the tournament. So I was super happy and after a few weeks, I understood it was just a C flight draw. It gave me confidence by starting with a tournament win.

  1. What was something that was difficult for you during your freshman year of college and how did you overcome it?

I am a shy guy on and off the court so it was tough for me to get to know some people and have confidence on the court; however, we had a huge incoming class so I was able to make friendships right away. The team was very welcoming too. The more I played the more confidence I got also. So I guess it was not too much of a challenge my freshman year. But generally it is has been a challenge.

  1. Were there any challenges for you during your college career?

I was out for the entire summer due to mononucleosis going into my junior year. I had just had my best year during my sophomore year and could not play any futures over the summer. When I got back to school my junior year I did not play any fall tournaments and only practiced a little bit because my energy was still low. It was tough because I had my best year and then had a setback that messed up most of my junior year.  

  1. What has been your most memorable college tennis moment?

At the end of Sophomore year, we won the first round of the Team NCAAS which was only the second time the team made the tournament. We beat Alabama and I clinched the match. The emotions were so high and our coach was so happy. It was fantastic. Off the court, we had a lot of fun. We were close with a lot of the other sports teams and hung out with them also. After the conference tournament we celebrated.

  1. Can you talk about the transition from college to the pro tour? What struggles did you face making that transition?

College and the pro tour are very different. College is a team atmosphere and is always fun whereas once you start playing on the pro tour it is your life and it is work. I went full time on tour at 21 and spent so much on traveling whereas in college everything is paid for. I was practicing 6 hours a day instead of 3 hours in college and I was getting burnt out. I was also spending my savings from birthday gifts and holidays to live on tour. You would make $100 and spend $2000 a week at a tournament. It took me a long time to get my first ATP point too. There was a lot of pressure going into that whereas in college I was successful at the start. It is tough to win matches in qualifying every week and then lose the first round of the main draw. The money you are spending is the biggest issue. Unless you come from a rich family it is going to be tough, you have to perform to get something back. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images
  1. Did you have any help from sponsors or anyone else when you started on tour?

I never had support from my federation because I was not the best in the country. You have to be top 2 to get support from the federation. I was always 3-5. I could not get any sponsors. In 2014, I started getting crowdfunding through the end of 2016. I was fortunate enough to have some people around me at the local tennis club who wanted to support me. I am so thankful and happy that they did. I asked each person for 35 euros a year for 3 years. They helped me make my dream come true and helped give me breathing space to perform. We never reached the goal we had set for but we managed to receive quite some money. My parents and I’s money made up the rest of the money I needed. Once I hit the challenger tour I started breaking even. The crowdfunding project got me through the futures tour. It is tough getting sponsors on the doubles tour, regardless of level. I get my materials for free and that is it. 

  1. Can you describe that feeling when you won your first ATP point?

It was against another Belgian guy. He was 2 years younger than me but got support from the Federation. I remember seeing the draw come out and I thought I was not going to get it this time. The fact that it was against him made it a lot more special. It was pure happiness and a major relief that I finally got my point. 

  1. What is the longest amount of time you’ve been out due to injury?

3 years ago I tore a ligament in my elbow while serving during a match. That took me out for 5 months, I just rested and hoped it would go away quickly. I was playing singles and doubles at that time and my body was worn down. When I came back I was trying to combine singles and doubles again. I felt my elbow could not handle it anymore so that is when I decided to go full for doubles. Serving every 4 games instead of 2 games makes a difference on the body.

  1. What is your opinion on the shortened doubles format in college and ATP tour?

The margins get a lot smaller and there is a lot of luck in these third set tiebreakers on tour. As far as college goes, I do not understand why they cannot do 2 out of 3 full sets in college doubles, everyone is fit enough for it. You have to be focused right away especially in college when you are playing one set to 6.

  1. When did you switch to playing just doubles and why?

The elbow injury started to get me to think about it. I also knew that I was not going to make the top 100. At the time, I was ranked around 570 in the world in singles. I think the decision had to come at some point anyway, but the injury made it easier to decide. 

  1. Can you think of a moment of your career where you thought you made the breakthrough?

It was very recent. Honestly, it was the summer of 2019. Joran and I won 2 ATP 250’s and a final during the summer. We went on an 11 match win streak and got our ranking up high. Not many players have done well 3 weeks in a row. We had won 9 challengers the year before and still struggled to get into the ATP 250s. We did not feel like we made it after winning 9 challengers in 2018 because we knew there was another level. We would get into ATP 250s and lose in the third set tiebreaker in the first round so when we broke through last year it was exciting.

  1. Can you talk about your relationship with Joran?

It is a mix of being good friends and business professionals. You have to find a balance. Joran is 2 years younger than me. We knew each other before we went off to college. 2 years is a big gap depending on the age so we were not friends then but got along well. We do not tend to hang out off the court especially when we are home. We are together all of the time and get along well. I think what we are doing is very special but when we get home it is nice to have a little break. Seeing each other reminds us of tennis so when we go home we reset. We will be in contact when we are home though. We are together 45 weeks a year so it makes sense. We played together for the first time in 2013 and have started playing together in almost every tournament since 2015.

Photo Credit: Sander Gille
  1. What do you do to take tennis off of your mind?

Honestly, right now there is not much I am doing off of the court. I am currently traveling all of the time. This will be the first year my girlfriend will be traveling the whole year with me, we have been dating for 7 and a half years long distance due to my travels. Whenever I am home I enjoy the rest and the family time. I play golf and padel once a year. There is always a risk of injury when playing other sports. An injury due to another sport could jeopardize my career. I have a responsibility toward Joran, I cannot get hurt.

  1. How has tennis shaped you as a person?

It has taught me a lot about coping with anything that has come at you in life. You deal with loss and victory so young and are battling other people who at the same time are your friends. It reflects life very well. I think I have a very positive and clear view about what makes me happy and what I want to do in life. Whenever I have to deal with loss within my personal life I will see the positive side of it, I think tennis has taught me that. It teaches you to learn through losses as well as responsibility. I have also learned how to build relationships with others through the sport.

  1. What is one doubles tip you would give a junior or college player?

Focus on getting better and not the result. I had several losses in a row at the challenger level but I focused on improving instead of results. Do not overtrain, tennis should be fun. If you are overtraining and are being too specific it might hurt you. 

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