Jan. 25, 2017
By Joanne Norell
If there’s one thing that Alex Lawson has learned since his graduation eight months ago, it’s the art of stretching a dollar.
OK — that’s probably not the most important lesson the 2016 Notre Dame alum has learned less than one year into pursuing a career as a professional tennis player, but it’s one that has certainly served him well in that span.
A doubles All-American in 2016, Lawson almost immediately set out on tour following the conclusion of last May’s NCAA Doubles Championship, where he and partner Quentin Monaghan advanced to the final four. First, he spent a week at home in Tempe, Arizona, but he wouldn’t return there until more than six months, countless cities and one international trip later.
“I got started right away playing in a bunch of tournaments and I didn’t go home again until the third week in December,” Lawson said. “It was 27 weeks on the road. I came back to Notre Dame a couple of times to train, but for no more than a week at a time.”
Lawson will tell you that the life of an ATP tour rookie isn’t glamorous. He’s made $6,452 in prize money, but that only goes so far when factoring in travel, food and lodgings for a continuous schedule of tournaments that could bring him from Champaign, Illinois, one week to Dallas the next and to Los Angeles after that.
“The travel gets tough when you’ve been away for so long, you start to get a little mentally fried,” Lawson said. “But you’ve just got to keep yourself in a good state of mind, because you take a few losses in a row and staying positive can be tough.”
Instead of shy away from it, Lawson is embracing the sometimes-grueling schedule. As part of his professional development, Lawson took the leap and left the country for the first time by himself. Nearly 40 hours after leaving Chicago, he landed in Cairo, Egypt, and jumped a connection to Sharm El Sheikh, where he would play in four International Tennis Federation tournaments with former Atlantic Coast Conference foe Benjamin Lock, a 2016 Florida State grad.
Lock, a native of South Africa, was unfazed by his arrival in Egypt, but for Lawson — whose international experience had been limited to a team trip to Ireland in 2012 — the experience was quite different than anything he’d gone through before.
“I went there by myself and I met my partner in Egypt,” Lawson said. “He’s from Africa, and he’s been there before … That whole travel experience was very interesting to do by myself. It was two days of travel and I was almost dead at the end, but learning how to deal with all of that was a very good experience.”
Lawson and Lock reached the semifinals in their first two tournaments in Sharm El Sheikh, and the finals in their third. They earned $432 in prize money over the course of four weeks in August and September.
Lawson has managed to make all the travel work through careful planning, crashing with generous hosts and friends in the cities he visits, and crowd-funding his journey on his GoFundMe page, which he promotes on Twitter and his WordPress blog aptly titled Lawson Tennis.
“It’s something I’m still working on every day,” Lawson said. “I’ve been doing fairly well, but the expenses are what is killing me because it’s expensive to travel all the time, so I’m trying to fundraise constantly. The GoFundMe page is for people to help me out and invest in me chasing my dreams, and that’s been the biggest source (of income) besides the prize money.”
The risk that comes from setting off in search of his goal has certainly been worth the reward for Lawson. He has steadily worked his way up the ATP doubles rankings, currently coming in at 347th in the world after putting together a 32-21 record at 20 ITF and ATP Challenger events. He estimates he’s had the best career start of anyone coming out of the college ranks last season, something he credits to the preparation and experience he earned as a member of the Irish men’s tennis program.
“It’s cool to see that I have the level in me, even right out of school, to be able to make it happen,” Lawson said. “In some of the biggest tournaments I’ve played in, I’ve played really well. I can do this on some level, it’s just a matter of time in getting there.
“I was so well-prepared not just for what the tennis was going to be like, but in managing myself, too. No one really starting out has a manager or agent doing everything for you, so I had to do that on my own. I think Notre Dame did a really good job of getting me ready for that and to be accountable to myself.”
It hasn’t come easy, though. Without a steady playing partner, Lawson has competed with 10 different players. In a story he detailed on his blog, Lawson once spent an entire Sunday morning searching for a partner for an ATP Challenger tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Needing a partner with a high-enough ranking to make the 16-team cut, he finally landed one with just six minutes remaining until the sign-in deadline.
A priority over the next year will be finding a more permanent partner but, he says, it just has to feel right.
“I don’t want to stick with someone just for the sake of having the same partner,” Lawson said. “If it’s not going as well as I hoped, then I’m going to try to find someone else because the chemistry might not be there. But that’s something I want to do in the next couple of months.”
By graduation, Lawson had entrenched himself in the Irish record books as one of the program’s all-time greatest doubles players. He is tied for the program lead with David DiLucia for most wins at No. 1 doubles (45), is second in career doubles wins (94), and is fourth in team single-season doubles wins with 2015 partner Billy Pecor (25). He also ranks eighth in individual single-season doubles wins with 27 in 2016. He is one of eight doubles All-Americans in school history and the 19th overall.
Lawson is the first former Irish men’s tennis student-athlete to pursue a professional tennis career in nearly a decade. The last was Sheeva Parbhu (‘08), who last played in 2009. That fact adds a different level of responsibility for Lawson, who sees it as an opportunity to set an example for any current Irish players — whom he continues to connect and train with — that might want to give the professional ranks a try themselves.
“It’s cool to be paving the way for them and getting Notre Dame back to having a lot of guys that are on tour,” Lawson said. “My advice would be to plan everything out (from money to desired tournaments to accommodations) to really give yourself a boost from the start.”
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Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women's soccer, men's tennis, women's tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mass communication, and earned her master's degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2013.