Translation of Russian article appearing in Tennis Weekend, January-February 2015 edition, pages 46-49 by Vitaly Yakovenko
Dazzling riches and poverty on the ATP tour
We continue our discussion about prize money in tennis (see also TW edition 10/2014). The first part of our feature discussed the vast budgets at the disposal of the Grand Slam championships, but on this occasion, we are going to discuss the earnings of the simple “journeymen” of the global tennis circus.
How much does a “decent journeyman” earn on the men’s tour? What kind of income does he earn and how much actually ends up in his pocket? Let’s do the math. Fortunately, Benjamin Becker, ranked 40 in the ATP rankings, is quite happy to estimate what his actual earnings are for us along with our colleagues from the German monthly “Tennis Magazin”.
Benjamin, who is not related to the great Boris Becker, although he shares the same surname, is quite a modest man. He’s not one for sports cars or wearing a “flashy” Rolex. Although, based on his earnings, he could afford these items. His total prize money during his career is USD 3.5 million. But this 33-year-old pro from Saarland in Germany is sensibly looking to the future. After all, the end of this career is not that far off. But, in his own words, he still hasn’t managed to secure himself a comfortable living for when he retires. How come? Well, let’s start from the beginning.
In his time, Benjamin was a promising junior, but as he embarked on his professional career, he didn’t win any particular honours. The young German left for the United States where he attended Baylor University in Texas, majoring in Finance and International Business. At the same time, he competed in the university tennis team, leading them to victory in the national collegiate championship. But he stopped harbouring any thoughts of a proper professional career until a benefactor appeared and decided to sponsor Benjamin’s return to the professional tour. The famous coach Tarik Benhabiles, who had worked with Andy Roddick, became his mentor. “Without the financial support I wouldn’t have made this second attempt,” Becker admits. Incidentally, his sponsor has already had a full return on his money. And more besides. When he took to the court again, the Saarland native felt much more confident. Indeed, at the US Open in 2006, Becker beat Andre Agassi in 4 sets, which was to be the last match in the brilliant American player’s career.
But let’s return to Becker’s days as a junior, when he received support to continue his career after not too successful a start. But very few are lucky enough to have such far-sighted benefactors. “Many talented players fall by the wayside because they’re not able to pay for travel to tournaments off their own racquet,” says the German. “The prize money is too little in the lower categories of tournaments – Challengers and satellites.”
This is also one of the main reasons for the dissatisfaction felt by tennis players, which almost led to open conflict with tennis bosses and a boycott of the Australian Open in 2013. The organisers of tennis’s “Big Four” tournaments barely had time to respond, and after an emergency “summit” with players’ representatives, the total prize fund for their tournaments was increased after agreeing to redistribute the total prize fund “for the benefit of poor players”. But the main issue still remained unresolved. What things are professionals still unhappy with today?
In actual fact, since 2006, the prize money at the Grand Slams has almost doubled, whereas the money at ATP 250 tournaments has only increased by 20%. Not to mention that the Grand Slams pay players an abnormally low percentage of their income in prize money. For instance, the US Open spends 4-6% of its income on prize money, compared with ATP tournaments which spend around 30% on prize money. Since 2004, the prize money at major tournaments has grown at lower rates than inflation.
“If you’re in the top 100 in the rankings and you travel with just one trainer, you’ll end up with a modest surplus of USD 20-30,000 a year,” reckons Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, a member of the ATP Player Council, and one of the active leaders in the movement for fair prize money. If you take the top 100 football teams or golfers, or top 100 players of any sport broadcast on TV for that matter, their earnings will be disproportionately more. Who’s at fault for this? “The Slams put the squeeze on everything. If they start to share out the income more, it will make sense to break into the top 100,” states Stakhovsky. “But, it’s possible that some people will think it’s absurd that a player who has lost in the very first round can earn USD 50-100,000. But think of what he has invested just to get there and play. Flying to Australia is a feat in itself as it takes 24 hours. I certainly wouldn’t think of flying economy there. That’s just unrealistic.”
“All the Grand Slams and ATP 1000 tournaments are mandatory for the stars,” explains Benjamin Becker. “That’s why their organisers don’t pay any appearance money. But the lower-level tournaments – “250” series – which barely make ends meet, need to pay out huge sums to attract the top players.”
According to his own calculations, Becker spent last year around EUR 130,000 on a trainer, food, flights and equipment. Sergiy Stakhovsky spends even more – around EUR 170,000 all in. “After the Masters tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, I was around 5,000 in the red,” says Stakhovsky. “And, basically, there are no cheap hotels in Indian Wells. The cheapest room costs USD 144 a night. Prize money is also taxed at 38%. So, you arrive there at least four days before the tournament starts. You spend a minimum of three and a half weeks in the States. You pay for a trainer (weekly salary) plus food, hotel… And what about flights?”
Transport costs account for a significant proportion of the expenses incurred by professional tennis players. “I mainly fly economy”, says Stakhovsky. “We can’t actually buy tickets early. And you can’t buy cheap tickets either. We often buy them on the day we’re flying. We’re talking about different figures again. Last year 85,000 [translator: not sure if this is euros or dollars given that amounts were quoted in euros previous paragraph.] went on tickets alone. I earned USD 428,000. We deduct, on average, 30% from this amount for tax. These are the sums involved.”
Winners of Challenger tournaments are paid USD 5-15,000. This means that, just to offset their transport costs, players need to win almost every week. “Playing at Challenger level, you can just about still retain professional status, which is not the case with Futures,” comments Becker. He uses the term “professional” to mean that a player can pay for the services of a trainer and transport costs only from prize money.
Unlike the highly lucrative advertising contracts enjoyed by elite players such as Federer or Djokovic, who travel around the world with a whole entourage including trainers, physios and stringers, Benjamin Becker makes do with the services of one trainer. He’s never had his own physio. Most of his fellow players, like him, share one physio provided by the ATP. This obviously doesn’t help reduce the level of injury suffered by players on the tour, who come out on court and play with injuries that haven’t healed until the pain becomes unbearable. In the lower echelons of the world rankings, where players can only rely on prize money, it becomes a desperate battle for survival. “It’s getting even tougher,” admits Becker, fully aware of the practices that go on in Challengers and Futures from first-hand experience.
Apart from being excessively motivated, one of the main features of the life of those typically featuring at the lower ranking levels is total thrift. As Becker explains, “Everyone tries to save as much as they can. In the US I have always stayed with families. I arrived at one tournament in Ecuador in a taxi without any doors. The road twisted and turned through the mountains and I was glad to get there alive!”
And one final recollection from Becker. In the soup he was served in the players’ restaurant he found a… screw. True enough, it’s not just the players that are scrimping and saving, but the poor tournaments too…
Translation by GJM