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The Darker Side of Tennis Player’s Earnings

From the outside tennis appears to possess a lustre of high standards with regards to players’ earnings. In the 1970s Billie Jean King, one of the most successful players of all time, advocated tirelessly for equal pay for men and women and won the illustrious Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, lauded as a triumph for women’s tennis and a boost to her campaign. This triggered the US Open to become the first grand slam to champion equal pay for men and women and eventually in 2007, Wimbledon finally followed suit. At the grand slam level, a first-round loss earns a player roughly £55,000, a sizeable chunk guaranteed for players that automatically qualify for the main draw, and which only increases as the draw progresses. 

As well as lucrative earnings at the pro tournaments, sponsorship earnings contribute hugely to players’ yearly earnings, often eclipsing their match winnings and setting them up comfortably for years to follow. Sponsorship for elite players has meant that eight of the top ten highest-earning female athletes in 2022 were tennis stars, according to Forbes, and their wealth mostly derived from sponsorship deals. Similarly, Federer earned $85.7 million in 2022, a season where he was often plagued with injury and which marked his retirement – with just $700,000 out of that sum coming from prize money. Whilst not every top player possesses Federer’s marketability that has generated eye-watering sums, tennis’ elite are similarly assisted in this way, with the majority of the top hundred supported by endorsement deals that proffer generous monetary succour. 

However, this vision of a well-supported system in which tennis professionals can only prosper is a façade, failing to reflect the current lifestyles and challenges of the majority of tennis players endeavouring to break into the top hundred, often regarded as a significant milestone towards ‘making it’. Compared to other sports, tennis has a much steeper drop in pay down the rankings. Below the top one hundred mark (and even towards the lower end inside of it), players are resigned to entering lower-level tournaments due to not being ranked highly enough. These draws offer significantly less prize money and ranking points, and the players are not likely ranked high enough to attract a sponsorship that would offset some of their costs. When a player has factored in basic expenses such as travelling, accommodation, food and entry fees, an early round exit can often render them at a loss, especially with additional but vital expenses such as a coach or team to assist them. These sorts of expenses aren’t incurred by team-based sports, such as football or basketball, where teams will cover the costs for their players, and these players at a professional level will often be on much higher wages. Another issue in the same vein is the risk of injury; where most injured footballers are privileged enough to have free treatment (another expense paid by the club) and will still be paid, tennis players who suffer an injury will need to pay for medical expertise at a time when they aren’t going to be gaining match earnings since winnings are performance-based. All of this is evidenced by statistics that suggest that 80% of the top thousand ranked players don’t earn enough money annually to cover their expenses, a tough pill to swallow for the players which often forces early retirement to preclude further financial difficulties.  

One of the main reasons that these difficulties have occurred is through a disjointed structural body that oversees professional tennis. The men’s tour (ATP) and women’s tour (WTA) are separate bodies and exist alongside the four grand slams, which operate independently, as well as the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which presides over global events like the Olympics and Davis Cup. The inexistence of a single organisation means that a lack of unity and a disconnected system has failed the players, offering no single solution to addressing these salient financial issues. The lack of structure has not only failed current professionals but also ex-junior players; the transition from junior tennis to the professional circuit is extremely challenging and unpredictable for a variety of reasons. It is not uncommon for the top junior players to fail to live up to expectations and be stuck outside the top hundred for many years, a situation both unfamiliar for those used to success and daunting when they consider how they can afford rising costs. Noah Rubin, a former junior Wimbledon champion, whom McEnroe referred to as ‘the most talented player’ his academy had come across, retired aged twenty-six, the prime years of a tennis career, owing to a struggling career where he peaked at 125 in the world, despite being ranked as the sixth best junior globally. In 2022, he announced his retirement and switch to pickleball, a burgeoning racket sport that is gaining traction with a wider audience, enabling Rubin to utilise his tennis skills in a  more cost-effective manner. Players are often driven to more strenuous measures to fight these costs, with players such as Dustin Brown, a former top hundred player, stating that he lived out of his Volkswagen campervan to tournaments and would string opponents’ rackets for money, sometimes making more money from this enterprise than he would at the tournament. Other players will share rooms with players they are facing the next day to reduce costs and tennis channels on YouTube documenting players’ current careers are increasingly being established as another source of income. At the darker end of this scale, players are resorting to match-fixing in order to gain money from bets to maintain their career, an illicit activity that threatens the integrity of the sport and has led to life bans from the tennis authorities. 

This begs the simple question: what can be done to address this? Recently, Djokovic and Pospisil, both professionals themselves, have established the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) – an organisation for both men and women in the top 500. It acts as the closest thing to a players’ union, protecting the interests of the competitors, in a sport where tournaments share 18% of the revenue with players, compared to other sports where the figure lies much closer to 50%. The body has garnered seminal support from both current and former players and is the first step towards taking serious action to address these issues. Tournaments and tennis federations must offer greater financial aid, and not let players be solely drowned with expenses, but enable them to compete and progress their career. Furthermore, protectionist measures need to be instilled to provide a safety net for players that are injured, to avoid further financial losses. The bottom line is that unique talents risk slipping through the net due to a string of misfortunes – bad draws, injuries, poor runs of form – and are at greater risk of hanging up their racket. The pay disparity in tennis must be addressed: the dichotomy of the sport is exemplified best by the fact that the average annual earnings (without costs) for a player ranked onwards from 251 is £29000, just over half of the earnings of a player that loses in the first round of Wimbledon alone. The sport risks driving away its own players; promising juniors may be unwilling to take the gamble of a pro career and this will tarnish the sport till adequate solutions are finally reached. Tennis is a cut-throat sport, but the failure to present the necessary changes means that livelihoods are at stake for players who have trained their whole lives, lest purposeful action is taken to solve these pressing challenges.

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