High risk, high reward. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when considering a young tennis player’s decision to turn professional instead of choosing to play collegiately and receive an education through an athletic scholarship.
However, the reality is that very few of these athletes “make it” on Tour, leaving them without enough money to make a living and an education to fall back on. This reasoning is precisely why Debbie Shaffer (formerly Debbie Graham) opted to accept a full tennis scholarship to Stanford University over turning professional out of high school, despite her No. 2 world ranking as a junior.
From a young age, Stanford was always in the back of Shaffer’s mind, due in large part to a campus visit she took with her dad when her junior career was just beginning. “My dad said, ‘We can’t afford to send you here, but you could get a tennis scholarship.’ I wasn’t very good at the time, but I said, ‘Well, I’m going to get that tennis scholarship.’ He smirked and said, ‘If you get a tennis scholarship to Stanford, I’ll buy you any car you want.’ I kept that in my head forever,” she recalled.
Despite beginning her tennis career at an older age than most, she quickly rose into one of the top players in the country. In fact, she finished her junior career with the No. 1 ranking nationally, allowing her to receive a scholarship offer from Stanford.
“Of course, I went back to my dad and said, ‘You owe me a car.’ He said, ‘I never said that.’ Luckily, my mom heard him say it. It went from any car to a Volkswagen Jetta, which wasn’t so bad,” she reminisced with laughter.
As the daughter of a chemical engineer and a teacher, the importance of obtaining an education was impressed on Shaffer from an early age. Nevertheless, in the back of her mind, she was mildly conflicted with the thought of turning professional before stepping foot on the Stanford campus.
In fact, Shaffer recalls feeling pressure from the USTA to turn professional immediately, due to her top-ranking in the country. However, Shaffer’s thoughts of forgoing her college eligibility evaporated following a tough loss at the Orange Bowl.
Shaffer breezed through the early rounds of the tournament into the semifinals, where she met Natasha Zvereva, who at the time was ranked somewhere around No. 300 in the world. Of course, Zvereva would go on to earn the No. 1 ranking in doubles and No. 5 ranking in singles at the peak of her career. Yet, the No. 300 ranking did not stop her from defeating Shaffer 6-0, 6-0 in about 35 minutes.
“I flew home from Florida and my parents said, ‘You just lost 0 and 0 to someone ranked 300 in world. If there’s any thought of you wanting to turn professional, let’s do some math. If you lost 0 and 0 to someone ranked in the 300s, it may be a sign you’re not ready to play at that level,’” said Shaffer. “That was the defining moment for me. When the USTA was asking why I wasn’t turning pro, I said, ‘I just got murdered by someone ranked 300 in the world.’ I realized I probably wasn’t ready yet.”
So, onto Stanford Shaffer went. But despite being the No. 1 ranked junior player in the country, she found herself playing at No. 5 in Stanford’s singles lineup. Even though Shaffer continued to outplay her teammates, her coach refused to move her up within the order.
Even as a sophomore, she moved up just one spot to No. 4. However, the motivation of playing in the back-end of the lineup proved to be advantageous for Shaffer as she went on to win the NCAA Singles title that year.
Winning the championship placed even more pressure on Shaffer to turn professional, but she stood firm in her belief that education was the top priority. “I had gone to a lot of the schools in the area and talked about how important it is to stay in school and get your education before you turn pro because you never know what can happen. So, I didn’t turn pro. A lot of people thought it was a really big mistake,” she explained.
Shaffer finished her junior year at Stanford and began playing in tournaments over the summer before her senior year. During that time, her world ranking skyrocketed from the 400s to top-50, leaving her almost no option but to become a professional with the amount of money she was turning down.
She opted to officially turn professional that summer, but not before devising a plan to finish her education at Stanford in an impressive three years and one quarter. The rest is history as Shaffer rose to the No. 9 ranking in doubles and the No. 28 ranking in singles.
Shaffer’s spent 11 years on the WTA Tour and was a member of the US Fed Cup Team, but was ultimately forced into retirement due to two blood clots she experienced throughout the course of her career.
Without an idea of what she wanted to do next, Shaffer began working in internet marketing sales, but quickly realized the path was not for her. Soon enough, she found herself back on the court after a friend and USTA member asked her to be a sparring partner for some up-and-coming juniors.
At the time, there were very few female tennis coaches, which convinced Shaffer she would not find a career in coaching any time soon. But before she knew it, parents were approaching her to coach their children.
Shaffer had no formal coaching training, but that did not stop her from making the conscious decision to a pursue a career in the sport she loved. “One of the reasons I went to Stanford was because I always said I didn’t want to be a tennis coach back then. Even today, I’ll go give speeches to groups and they’ll say, ‘You have these degrees from Stanford, how come you don’t use them? Why are you a tennis coach?’ I always say to them, I made the conscious decision to be a tennis coach,” she said.
Shaffer went on to work for the USTA for eight years, coaching juniors, college players and professionals. With the birth of her two girls, she stepped away, but continues to coach privately and participate in speaking events.
She truly believes that she would not be the person she is today without the experience she gained while at Stanford. “At Stanford, there was a plethora of people doing amazing things. It was a great release. When I was at Stanford, everything wasn’t about tennis. When I got on Tour, everything was,” Shaffer explained.
“Playing in college taught me that playing on the Tour is a job. You need to have something outside of your job that you have a passion for so you don’t burn out. I was really thankful that I had gotten my education and knew that when I was done, I could find another job,” she said.
To junior players weighing the decision to turn professional or go to college, Shaffer offers this advice – “It is a case-by-case scenario, but it’s risky financially. It’s tough. You need to have the confidence to go out on the Tour, and if you’re 800 in the world, I don’t know what kind of confidence you have. Even if you have all the confidence in the world, it’s pretty hard to start from there.”
“When I worked at the USTA, I was a firm believer that only one percent of the players that came through our doors should even contemplate turning pro. I don’t think it’s for everyone,” said Shaffer. “College is a really great tool. Someone is paying for you to be there, you can get your game polished and improve it there.”
For Shaffer, education is the most important reward she gained from playing college tennis. “Get your education and have something to fall back on if you get injured or sick. A lot of kids think, ‘I don’t have to worry about school because I’m going to get a scholarship. They don’t care about my grades.’ Maybe some schools don’t, but you want to go into college with a good base and come out of it with a good degree. Make the scholarship pay for itself,” she urged.