MyTennisHQ Interview: Clay Thompson

Quick Facts

  • School: UCLA
  • Year Graduated: 2014
  • Current Job: Entrepreneur


Clarence Alley “Clay” Thompson IV was born May 4, 1992 in Venice, California. Clay is an absolute legend. The 6 foot 7 (2 meters) player joined the UCLA Bruins in 2010 as the #3 recruit in the nation. Clay was a key player for the bruins, amassing a phenomenal 108-35 singles record during his four years at UCLA.

His senior year was one of the best seasons in school history. Going 37-8 that year, Clay was nails all year long. During the fall, he won the backdraw at the ITA Men’s All-American Championships in Tulsa, which earned him a spot At the ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships in Flushing, NY. He took home the prestigious title defeating Hiltzik in the finals. Clay also won the So Cal Intercollegiate Championships at UCLA, defeating teammate Mackenzie Mcdonald in the finals. His great form continued throughout the dual match season, finishing the year with a 15-5 singles record in the #1 position.

Clay’s senior year form earned him several accolades, including ITA National Senior Player of the Year, First-Team All PAC 12 selection and ITA Single All-American Status. He was the number 1 player in the nation from Jan 2nd until June 4th 2014, dropping to number 2 after teammate Marcos Giron won the NCAA Singles Championship.

After graduating with a degree in creative writing, Clay played professionally for a few years, where he reached a career high of #408 in the world. His playing style and on court charisma made him one of the most entertaining players to watch on the pro tour. Clay is an entertainer by nature and even though his career was shortened because of the financial burden of being on the tour, Clay built a cult-like following in the process.

I was lucky to be Clay’s teammate for 2 years at UCLA and he is one of the greatest guys I have ever met. He is unapologetic about who he is, which is a hard thing to find these days. His interview is fantastic and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

7 Questions With Clay Thompson

#1 What was your recruiting/school selection process like?

My recruiting process was pretty painless, I was fortunate enough to be the #3 recruit in the country according tennisrecruiting, in the pre-UTR days. A lot of people don’t know this but when I was a freshman in highschool I was actually verbally committed to Pepperdine with the intent of graduating high school early and joining the team in what would be the spring of my senior year. I decommitted from Pepperdine in 10th grade, citing my desire to look into other options as I felt like I was somewhat forced into that commitment by my coaching team.
Afterwards, I was looking at Virginia, Georgia, Duke, Harvard, Stanford. I took a visit to Duke and Ramsey Smith showed me an incredible time. Along with all my friends I had at that school I was very close to wanting to commit then and there.

Georgia was supposed to be my next visit, I completely forgot about my flight and had a voice message from coach Manny Diaz letting me know he would be picking me up at the airport in a couple hours. As I was sitting at my home in Los Angeles, that was a pretty difficult phone call to make. After this, my parents sat me down and basically said, you grew up in west Los Angeles and you are thinking of going to Athens, GA? Do you even know what that’s like? I didn’t. Soon after I called Billy Martin, who up until this point had not expressed any interest in recruiting me, and asked if there was a possibility to become a Bruin. I took an admittedly uneventful visit before deciding that it was probably in my best interest to stay close to my support team and familiarity of Los Angeles.

I think this comfort and familiarity is very underrated. By going to UCLA and not having to spend 1-2 years acclimating myself to a new environment, I was able to hit the ground running.

RANCHO MIRAGE, CA – MARCH 07: Professional tennis player Clay Thompson attends 13th Annual Desert Smash benefitting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on March 7, 2017 in Rancho Mirage, California. (Photo by Michael Bezjian/WireImage)

#2 What was your favorite moment/story/aspect of college?

Everything about it. I loved my college experience. I loved my classes, loved most of my teammates, loved the practices and singular mindset that we all had of chasing NCAA greatness. I loved being in LA still and establishing myself as a bigger part of the community. It’s very tough to pinpoint my favorite elements of what college meant to me so i’ll tell one of my favorite stories:
My sophomore year, I was slotted in at the #2 position in the beginning of the year. Nick Meister played #1 and we were very deep across the board. We had a shot of winning the title that year, but one major obstacle stood in our way, Steve Johnson and USC. Don’t think I need to go into detail about how good Stevie was, but to put it bluntly he was unbeatable in college tennis.

As USC was our biggest competition in pursuit of an NCAA and Pac-12 title, we had to figure out a way to beat them. Playing #2 for USC was Raymond Sarmiento, someone who has owned me for my entire life since playing in the 8 and unders. Raymond was unbeatable for me, he had such a mental advantage, probably having beaten me upwards of 15/16 times with me never getting a victory. I played him in our first match against USC and lost, Nick lost to Stevie and we lost the match. Billy Martin wanted to change something, so he put me at #1 and Nick at #2 for the next match, I lost to Stevie in ~40 minutes but Nick beat Raymond and we won the match. Furious, Peter Smith protested the lineup and stated that in no world am I the number 1 player for UCLA and we only did it to stack and give Nick the best chance to beat Raymond. The Pac-12 committee decided that Peter was right and moved me back to #2 for our Pac-12 championships. My pride had been wounded and as I took the court against Raymond in Ojai, CA in front of hundreds of fans, I felt something different that day. I beat Raymond in straight sets for the first time in my life and in Vitas Gerulaitis fashion said at the net “Noone beats Clay Thompson 17 times in a row”

I went back to playing #1 for the NCAA tournament and had a spring in my step everytime Coach Smith and I interacted from that point forward (we have a great relationship). I think this story relates how much college tennis can mean to someone, this match was one of the best experiences of my life to that date.

#3 How did college tennis prepare you for the rest of your career/life?

The best thing that tennis in general teaches you is how to lose every single day and still get up and strive to get better the next day. Once you achieve #1 player on your team then you are losing until you achieve #1 in the country, and then for a brief moment you are on top of the world until everyone comes gunning to take it away from you. This idea of day after day chasing a goal while getting knocked down pretty much every single day is one of the most important lessons that I have brought into my professional life as an entrepreneur. Let’s just say getting your idea torn apart by narcissistic venture capitalists is a lot easier after giving every ounce of effort you have only to get steam rolled by Steve Johnson and told you are worthless by USC fans.

Otherwise; time management, learning to work with a team towards a specific goal, communication (big for a tennis player) all were positive lessons I learned from college tennis.

#4 A lot of juniors and parents worry that tennis will suffer because of the academic demands of college. What advice would you give an 18-year old in terms of balancing academics and tennis?

My best advice on this matter is to communicate. Your professors understand that you are a student athlete and you have a job to do for the university outside the classroom. The thing those professors don’t like is the cocky athlete who takes advantage of them and expects a good grade. I was very open with my professors about my priorities, and let them know that even though tennis slightly outweighed their class in terms of my day-to-day priorities I still wanted to learn as much as I could from them. To this effect, I made an effort to go to as many office hours as I could, especially after I had to miss class. I think just this effort alone and willingness to communicate with them made my life a lot easier and is something that my highschool, Crossroads, really helped me understand.

So, to any incoming freshman my advice is, be open about your priorities and communicate with people. If there is a problem then at least you will deal with it immediately rather than waiting until you see a bad grade on your transcript.

#5 Another thing we see parents worrying about is how the social component of college will affect their kids tennis. What would you tell an 18-year old going to college in regards to having fun without compromising their tennis/academics?

​Again, I think understanding yourself and being open with yourself and those who support you is key. I told Billy Martin I was rushing a fraternity my freshman year, and he politely asked me to rescind my application as he thought it would be too much for me with my tennis and classes. I trusted in his wisdom and I think he appreciated that. The issue comes about when kids feel a need to hide their behavior from (parents, coaches, teachers) and usually when you have to hide your behavior you are not making the right choices. I felt, as I’m sure that many other freshmen do, the social component was very important for me. If you express your social life to be an important part of your life you must be willing to make time for it and I think that coaches are there to help you identify how to make time in your schedule for certain things. Any coach that completely shoots you down and says no you don’t need a social life or this priority is not important for you don’t do it, is not looking out for your best interest and I would recommend making a change. At the same time, if you completely disregard their advice and are not willing to meet at an equal ground then you are also being unfair.

I think anyone who knows me would say that I was brutally honest and open about my behavior for better or worse, but I think that this helped me understand myself and what worked for me. I always listened to other peoples opinions on what they thought, and then decided whether or not I actually wanted to follow those opinions.

#6 Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting college again today?

Won the 2014 match against Guillermo Acorta (Oklahoma) so we could have made it to the NCAA finals to play USC. No, actually, I know Karue and Marcos know how I feel on this one. This is the only regret or real negative experience that I have looking back on my entire college career. 2014 was the year our entire team came together for the first time in my UCLA experience, everyone on that team had each other’s backs and did everything in their power to win the title. Losing that match, as the #1 player in the country and on the team, remembering how my teammates were cheering me on and how their heads fell as I lost. Man, that memory is harrowing for me and I will never ever forget it.

I wouldn’t change a thing about the rest of my college career, even the 2013 NCAA net touch. That’s an incredible story and honestly that team didn’t deserve it as much in my opinion.

The only advice I would give my freshman self which I think is extremely important for anyone at any point in their life is: Find what works for you, believe in it and own it. The sooner you can understand what system and behavior works best for you, share it with others openly and ask for their support. College schedules are meant to train good habits in you, but every person is different. Use the template of college schedules to figure out the best routine for you and don’t be afraid to tell your (coach, parent, girlfriend) that this is what works best. My most productive year in college (tennis and academics) came when I understood what worked for me and what didn’t. Luckily my coach, Billy Martin, was very supportive and I think most coaches will be if you can be open and honest with them.

Game vs. Stanford

#7 In your case, why did you think that college tennis was a good option as opposed to going directly to the pro tour?

The decision for me came down to, graduate high school a semester early and go pro vs finish high school and plan for 4 years of college. I always remember this being an extremely critical decision in my life. I had everything set up for me to leave Crossroads and set out on tour. On one hand I had a bunch of people that were incredibly successful in their respective fields telling me that college is an absolute necessity and on the other hand I had a group of coaches / trainers telling me I should go pro. Ultimately, I was having too much fun being in school and I thought for my development the best thing to do would be go to UCLA and pursue both tennis and academics with equal vigor. I often look back at this decision and think, what if I would have taken that deal and become a top 10 player in the world? I honestly think that choosing to go to UCLA closed the door on becoming a top 10 player in the world, which who knows if I even would have been able to achieve otherwise.

However, knowing myself I really don’t think I would have been fulfilled on that path. I have asked myself before: Okay, your life or Jack Sock? It takes me less than a second to answer that question. I would have loved to play professional tennis at the highest level, but honestly, unless your #1 in the world it’s not worth what it takes.

UCLA allowed me to focus on my personal development; mainly education, tennis and social. Playing professional tennis in this day and age requires the absolute neglect and stunting of any development besides your athletic ability and tennis specific strategy. While I believe that tennis is the absolute best sport for anyone’s personal development, I also believe that the current landscape of the sport shuns the characteristics that once made our sports great champions.

Karue Sell

I’ve had some pretty cool experiences during my tennis career. I’ve reached the semifinals of the Orange Bowl U16 and as a junior, I ranked as high as #33 in the world. I have had wins over Dominic Thiem, Kyle Edmund, and Hugo Dellien (not sure how well I would do against them today, though). One of the coolest things I’ve done while playing was reaching the finals of the NCAA’s with UCLA, so I’m a great supporter of college tennis. I’ve won 3 futures since graduating, and I broke the top 400 on the ATP rankings. And most importantly, I have been to Pete Sampras’ house.

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