Gabler, Hjarrand to take swing at the pro circuit

Aaron Kirscht

On the outskirts of professional tennis — far away from the glitz and glamour and Grand Slams — lie the satellite circuits. And while it’s not pretty out there, it’s where a career in the pros begins.
Success in the satellites is not about signing big endorsement contracts or taking time for commercial breaks or marrying former supermodels. It’s about pinching pennies and crossing your fingers and wearing the same shoes every day.
So it’s hard to figure why a pair of Gophers men’s tennis players, Ben Gabler and Lars Hjarrand, would express an interest in playing these tournaments after they wrap up their degrees in the coming months.
“I’d like to (keep playing) as long as I feel I’m doing better and accomplishing something,” Gabler said. “I feel like I’m playing well, but you just have to see what happens.
“It’s sort of a one-chance thing.”
Minnesota coach David Geatz, who heard and followed the same siren song after finishing his collegiate career, said he’d encourage his former players to “give it a whirl.”
“I think they should,” Geatz said. “They’re playing at a very high level of tennis, they’re both going to graduate and get their degree.
“They can work for 50 more years, but they probably only have five or six more years where they can realistically try and play professionally.”
Both Gabler and Hjarrand are closing in on degrees in economics. Hjarrand put off his last class until this quarter so he could join the team, which wrapped up the season on May 11, for the stretch run of the season. Gabler plans to graduate next fall.
There are more than 20 satellite circuits around the world. Unlike golf, all of the tournaments are open, meaning a player doesn’t have to play in a qualifying school to earn the right to enter.
Typically, a circuit consists of three separate tournaments, three weeks in a row, followed by a fourth tournament called the Masters. The top players from each of the first three tournaments make it into the Masters.
Players receive Association of Tennis Professionals points for making it into the main draw, and earn additional points for each match they win in each tournament. Winning the circuit-ending Master’s tournament, and its mother-load of ATP points, can pave the way to a spot on the Grand Slam circuit.
Hjarrand played in four satellite tournaments in the last year. He didn’t do well, he said, but he didn’t play up to his potential either.
“I can do better,” Hjarrand said. “Now that I’ve been out there, I know what it’s like. I think I’ll be better prepared to go out now.”
Former Gophers coach Jerry Noyce, who worked with local pro David Wheaton for 17 years, said Hjarrand and Gabler have the stuff to give the pros a try.”There’s a little luck involved,” he said. “But it’s really a matter of getting the big break at the right time, and that can happen for anyone at any time.”
Along with luck, Noyce said, players who plan on playing professionally need a weapon, a shot they can count on to hurt an opponent. For Hjarrand, Noyce said, it’s his well-rounded, polished game. For Gabler, it’s a powerful left-handed serve.
Noyce recalled Wheaton’s early struggles as a pro, almost to the point where he had to quit playing the satellites. But in his last circuit, he won the final tournament. That win, Noyce said, launched Wheaton’s career and sent him to the Grand Slam circuit and an eventual spot in the ATP’s top 10.
“Things really have to happen right for you,” Noyce said, “because there are an awful lot of good players out there trying for the same thing.”
Geatz spent three years playing satellite tournaments, which he said may have been one year too long.
“I was a little stupid,” he said. “I was good enough to make expenses and travel around the world and have a good time. But I knew I wasn’t going to get up there with the big boys.”
Hjarrand and Gabler will be joined in their pursuit of the pros by former Gophers Erik Donley, who’s eligibility ended after the 1996 season, and Ross Loel, who graduated after the 1995 season.
Geatz said Hjarrand, Gabler and the rest probably won’t go out and win tournaments at first, and that an extended career in tennis is unlikely. But even with the long odds, it’s an experience that’s tough to pass up.
“You play all over the place in lousy conditions in not great clubs for not much money,” Geatz said. “But you fight and scratch like a dog to make it out of there.
“That’s where everyone in tennis gets their start.”