By McCarton Ackerman, Special for Tennis Grandstand
For American player Jill Craybas, most of her contemporaries have retired from the tour, moved into coaching and then retired from that. But at age 38, she still feels like there’s plenty for her to accomplish in pro tennis.
Craybas turned pro in 1996 after winning the NCAA women’s singles title and has remained a constant fixture on the WTA Tour for the last 15 years. While she never advanced into the elite echelons of the pro game, being a steady and reliable mid-carder with a career high ranking of No. 39 has still yielded some impressive numbers. She’s won 1 WTA singles title and five WTA doubles title throughout her career (including a doubles title last year in Bad Gastein, Austria), as well as three ITF singles titles and two ITF doubles titles. From 2000-2011, she played in the main draw of 45 consecutive Grand Slam events and finished inside the top 100 every year from 2001-2010.
There have also been numerous high profile wins throughout her career, including defeating Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2005 and Kim Clijsters in Miami in 2006. She’s even represented the US in several Fed Cup ties and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And while the handful of players on tour who are over 35 tend to be doubles specialists, she is still sticking to singles. But despite all that she’s accomplished, Craybas is still as eager to succeed as she was when she first turned pro.
“Even though last year was a struggle for me and I didn’t do very well, I still really enjoy going out there and practicing and learning,” said Craybas. I put a little bit too much pressure on myself last year, so I lost the enjoyment during matches. This year, I’ve made a promise to myself that I was going to try and enjoy things regardless of what happens.
After dropping outside of the top 150 for the first time in 15 years, Craybas returned to the USTA Pro Circuit last spring, the tennis equivalent of the minor leagues in baseball. Last week, she was competing against at the Fresh Start Women’s Open, a $25,000 event in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. In her first round match against fellow American Chieh-Yu Hsu, she played in front of four spectators (which included her coach and two USTA officials) in temperatures so low that both players could see their breath. Fighting for over three hours against a backboard opponent, a lingering calf injury and line calls that repeatedly frustrated the normally mild-mannered Craybas, she still dug deep to prevail in a marathon match.
“I never thought bad line calls could actually make you lose a match, but there was one match in my career at a WTA event in Pattaya (Thailand) where it did and from that point on, I feel like I’ve gotten so aggravated with line calls now,” said Craybas. “I can feel myself welling up and getting so pissed, but it happens all the time. That’s just part of the game and you hope it evens out on both sides.”
After clearing more than $2 million in prize money throughout her career, the $430 check players get for losing in the second round of this tournament would hardly be motivating for Craybas. But while many players would be content with a career that most can only dream of, she is still soldering on for one final push.
“It’s a tough thing to give up because tennis has been such a big part of my life and I still love it,” said Craybas. “Even though I feel like I haven’t been playing my best tennis, it just motivates me even more to go out there and get to the point that I know I’m capable of. I’m just hungry to want to get better.”
However, Craybas also admits that she is starting to want other things in life. She’s started to take photography and cooking classes as a way of testing out her options after tennis and has considered whether she wants to start a family.
“As much as I love traveling and being on tour, I’ve really started to enjoy being at home too,” said Craybas. “I love the photography and cooking as well. It’s a good problem to have because there’s so much that I want to do with my life, but it’s also made my brain a little scattered too.”
For now though, she is content to solder on. She’s currently heading to another $25,000 event in Arizona before heading to the red clay of Mexico for a WTA Tour event. Despite being asked how much longer she intends to play at nearly every tournament she goes to, Craybas believes that she’ll know when it’s truly time to walk away.
“I’ve asked a lot of my friends who are no longer on tour about how you know when it’s time to retire and literally every single one of them said, ‘You’ll know. The fact you’re even asking means you’re not ready.’ I’m still really determined to end things on a good note.”