News | October 28th, 2021
PETER VARNEY LOOKS AT THE CHALLENGES FACING TENNIS PLAYERS RANKED OUTSIDE THE TOP 100…
Whilst the media relish in the news that the UK has new number 1 tennis players in both the men’s and women’s games, who are already commanding highly lucrative endorsement contracts, spare a thought for the other side of the game and the very many lower ranked players who are working their socks off day in day out, waiting for that ‘lucky’ break which will launch them into the upper stratospheres of the game, or even just onto the WTA/ATP Tours as opposed to the all but forgotten ITF Pro Tour where the prize money barely covers the cost of the player getting to the tournament let alone playing in it.
In reality it is only the top 100 or so players in the world who actually make any money out of tennis and most of this is from endorsements. For sure, those talented enough to win a Grand Slam or top-level WTA/ATP event, will go home with money in the bank (and deservedly so) but without this kind of cash, and the massive (and it is massive) product endorsements, players ranked below that top 100 mark, especially those trying to break through the top 250 barrier, life is far from rosy.
The reality is that tennis IS an elite sport. There is no getting away from it. If you have the cash to spend then you can afford the experienced coaches, the reputable training venues, the hitters, the back-up team etc, but without this you have to make sacrifices. You may only be able to employ a coach part time; you may have to practice on local courts as opposed to at a specialist academy; you may have to travel alone around the world to questionable (and more often than not, unsafe) places; but you do so for the love of the game and in the vain hope that one day your time will come and you will rise up the rankings and at least earn enough to cover your costs.
So, what are the costs involved if you want to be a tennis player? Well, by far the biggest expenses relate to the cost of a coach and the cost of competing. A professional player will train on the court for, on average, 4 hours a day, 6 days a week. A suitably qualified coach will cost at least £40/hour which means the player is already in for £960/week. Add to this the cost of a fitness coach (at least £25/hour if lucky) say 5 times a week (£125), and you are already in for over £1,000/week so £4,000 per month. And this is just when you are training at home in the UK.
Add to that the cost of physio at £50/session (should you get injured – and players do!); a psychologist (£50-£100/hour); the cost of kit (shoes alone cost c.£100 each and a player will get through a pair a month); strings (a reel of string alone costs over £200) and stringers (£20/racquet); and you are already at a huge loss even if you live at home rent free!
All of this is before you have even left the country to compete. To rise up the rankings you have to compete, and this is a massively expensive exercise. By far the biggest costs are from flights and accommodation. The tournaments are staged all over the world and a player has to travel to where they think they have the best chance of success. So, this may mean ‘locally’ to Europe or much further afield to the US, South America or one of the other more far-flung continents.
On top of flights, the player then has to pay for accommodation. Each tournament suggests a local hotel and many players will choose to stay there as they will more often than not, provide transport from there to the tournament venue but in order to save some money (as the hotels are rarely subsidised), many players choose to stay elsewhere but then they have the added costs of travel to and from the venue each day so it’s a fine balancing act to find the cheapest option.
Add on meals, visas, covid tests, laundry (yes players need to wash their kit each week), entry fees, balls (the players often have to pay for the first lot of practice balls) and each trip has set the player back several hundreds if not thousands of pounds (as players will tend to be away for 3-4 weeks at a time) and this is all without a coach. If a player takes his/her coach (which is preferable) then you need to double the expenses!
Over the course of a year, a player will travel to compete for 20-30 weeks of the year and the costs of that will be at least £30k. Add on the costs of training at home and a player is in for a bill of at least £50k-60k per annum. But here is the reality check. The winner of a $25k tournament (the most commonly staged tournament event in the women’s game) only takes home £2,800 (before tax) and a quarter finalist only £474 (before tax) so you do the maths! A player would need to win almost every tournament played at this level to get anywhere near close to covering the costs involved and in reality, that simply does not happen.
Surely there are various governing bodies (national and county) that can support these players? Unfortunately, this is not the case. The county tennis associations have limited budgets and tend, on the most part, to give small grants towards juniors and or participation or small facility development projects (new courts surfaces, clubhouses etc). The national governing body, does on the other hand, have more significant funds but these are typically distributed to just a small pool of talent – the focus being on giving lots to a few rather than less to more.
Other sources of financial support include families and friends if a player is lucky or the tennis charity, Tennis First, which offers small grants to juniors to help cover the cost of travel to competitions. However, whilst these sources are undoubtedly helpful to a struggling junior player, the need for investors/personal sponsors in the senior game is paramount if the UK is to be able to produce a continually developing flock of top-level players as opposed to one or two highfliers at any one time.
Tennis is such a tough sport in so many ways. Not only does a player need great skill, fitness and tactical know how but they also require mental strength, resilience, self-belief and above all, finance! You can have all the skill in the world but if you do not have the financial support then you are finished, and your talent will go to waste. I do wonder how many potential top-level players there are out there who simply cannot afford to play. So, when observing all the current media interest in the topflight players of this fine sport, spare a moment for those who have not quite got there yet and who are grinding it out day by day, week by week, making a financial loss but trying to hang onto a dream that they too can reach the top at some stage in the future.
Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images