"Qantas?" asked the friendly custodian of our very humble pensione hotel in Valencia, Spain. "Thank you but no, I flew Air India" I stammered in the tortuous English so often used by Aussies in Europe. Actually, I may as well have been speaking gibberish after that Air India flight, as my recollection is that it had nine stops on the way from Melbourne: Sydney, Perth (still in Australia!), Madras, Bombay, Bahrain, Athens, Rome, Madrid and, finally, Valencia.
"To be 24 years of age and the 500th best tennis player in the world is not glamorous in any way – it’s plain ugly."
Paul McNamee, Grand Slam winner and noted sports administrator
So some 48 hours later I'd arrived at this humble abode a touch dishevelled. Undaunted, our Señora again inquired "Qantas"? So parrot-like I repeated (this time even more slowly) "A-i-r I-n-d-i-a", greeted by the same blank look.
Clearly my pidgin English was not resonating. Then, finally, it dawned on me …. she was saying "Cuanto" meaning of course "How much?", thinking I might want to know the cost of the room, which would certainly have been the next stop in our conversation. "Si gracias" (I did know something!). So I discovered our triple room was 300 pesetas a night, to be occupied by three 'green' Aussie tennis players in Europe. That equated to $1 each a night - affordable if not much else.
Those were the days when you could try and do Europe on $5 a day, inclusive of room and meals. There was even a book by that title and it was the tennis players’ bible. Surviving was very tough when I started out as a professional player in the mid-1970s and selling gut strings with a margin was a very popular earner.
But I don't really think too much has changed (other than the flights!) for young aspiring tennis pros. The raw numbers of course are different - $5 won't get you too far - but the principles are the same. That's not completely true, as top enders like Federer, Djokovic and Co are far better remunerated than their equivalents in the 'old days", and the likes of Rafa Nadal, circa 1975, would not have been sighted in our Spanish digs. Yet for tennis journeymen, life on the road has arguably become even more tough.
Ernests Gulbis, now a top 15 player on the ATP Tour, allegedly made the statement that without access to the private jet of his 'rumoured' billionaire father, he couldn't make a decent living outside the top 30. No one could feel too sorry for Ernests, of course, but how does his statement stack up? To be competitive at the Grand Slams, you really need access (as a minimum) to a good coach and fitness advisor.
Expenses are the player's responsibility and putting together and funding a quality team, as well as facing hefty withholding taxes in nearly every tournament (plus the payment of more tax in your place of residence), means the net return is massively eroded. On the women's WTA Tour, there are even more humble pickings.
Here's a snapshot guide to what the players are grossing in prize money (US$) at the various ranking benchmarks based on the 2014 year-end rankings:
10. Ferrer ($2.5M) Kerber ($1.8M)
30. Rosol ($750K) Svitolina ($670K)
50. Carreno Busta ($530K) Watson ($383K)
100. Zeballos ($152K) Wang ($107K)
200. Londero ($51K) Barbieri ($40K)
300. Escobar ($15K) Wongteanchai ($15K)
400. Checo-Calvo ($11K) Klaffner ($17K)
500. Jebavy ($8K) Scholl ($5K)
Looking at the above, it's obvious if you're top 10 or better, life's pretty good. But then it starts falling away. At top 30, you'd be clearing about $250K. So Ernests may have been exaggerating a little but he's not too far off the mark. By top 50, players would be clearing maybe $100K-$150K per annum. Around top 100, many would be pretty much in the red and losing money, and it's not pretty after that. One can make the point these figures don't include endorsements but I can assure you unless you're a young star or ranked in the top 20, there's very slim pickings to be had with endorsements.
Ranked at 500, Roman Jebavy, a 24-year-old player from the Czech Republic, went from one Futures tournament to another in 2014, winning $104 for a first-round defeat in Turkey, $292 for quarter-final appearances in Italy, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, $1200 for his best result in Italy (final), and when he went up to the Challenger level (only one step from the ATP Tour), unless he battled through qualifying (which he only did once), he received no prize money whatsoever. Thanks for coming!
Roman tried to qualify at Tour level in Romania, winning a round and picking up $500. So he played 23 tournaments this year for a grand total of $8300. No wonder he didn't leave Europe. To be 24 years of age and the 500th best tennis player in the world is not glamorous in any way – it’s plain ugly. This is pro tennis’ reality check. This world is a long way from the glittering and opulent one inhabited by the likes of Federer, Nadal, Ivanovic and Sharapova, the players we see on TV and in the magazines.
If I've got one piece of advice for good but not great singles players like Roman, it’s learn how to play doubles, because that can pay a few bills.
Just consider Australian Rules football for moment. The AFL has 18 teams with 45 players each, all 800 of them on contract with minimal expenses – and all making a good living. The same can be said of every major team sport in USA and, as for the cream of European soccer, that's just excuse me.
So if you're considering being a tennis player for financial reasons, think again. However, you'll have a heck of a time trying to make it, seeing the world and making many friends in the process. So it's a labour of love, and I never regretted a minute.
Paul McNamee was the Tournament Director of the Australian Open from 1995 to 2006, and instituted its tagline "the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific". One of his current roles is coaching Su wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei, who recently won two Grand Slam doubles titles partnering Peng Shaui of China.
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