It's tough at the top of the bottom - Paul Kimmage on the struggles of making it as a pro tennis player
The world's best tennis players are in Florida this week for the Miami Open, an ATP Tour Masters 1000 event. But what if we come down to the level below that (the ATP Tour 500 series)? And below that (the ATP Tour 250 series)? And below that (the ATP Challenger Tour 125 series)? And below that (the ATP Challenger Tour 100 Series)?
And what if we step down another level (the ATP Challenger Tour 75 series)? And go down again (the ATP Tour Challenger Tour 50 series)? And again (the ITF Future 25s)? And again (the ITF Future 15s)?
Still with me? Great, because we've finally arrived. This is the bottom rung of the professional tennis ladder - a Future 15s event at The Campus in Quinta do Lago - and what I'd like you to do now, on this glorious Wednesday evening in the Algarve, is to stand behind the baseline on Court Number 1.
"What do I see?"
"There's an umpire and two players."
"But no line judges or ball boys."
"And there's a lot of swearing going on."
"Christ! The speed of that serve!"
"And the tempo of the game!"
"How many hours have they invested to learn these skills?"
"If you didn't know better it could be Federer and Djokovic."
The first set is almost complete and the light is starting to fade when Natalino Machado, a 22-year-old housekeeping supervisor from Lisbon, skips past the six spectators watching from the clubhouse patio to complete her evening checks. A bin requires attention on Court Number 2 and as she reaches down to replace the liner, she seems oblivious to the drama unfolding alongside.
Natalino has never heard of Ugo Blanchet, the young French professional, and has no idea that Peter Bothwell, the guy playing opposite, is the Irish number one. And if you told her she would earn more money than both of them this week she would probably think you're insane. But that's the truth of it.
"I picked up my prize-money after the match and got €100 for the week," Bothwell says. "It won't even pay for my flight home."
Home is Hillsborough in Co Down. The elder of two boys born to Nigel and Louise, he played rugby, hockey and football in school but tennis was in his blood. "Mum played Fed Cup when she was younger, played junior Wimbledon twice, and went off to America to try to play on the Tour but didn't have enough money and got into coaching.
"I played rugby until I was 16 in school, and enjoyed most sports, but the thing that excited me most about tennis was how difficult it was. I liked being out there and having to fight for myself, and not many people from Northern Ireland had played on Tour before so I had a chat with my parents after my GCSEs and decided to give it a go."
Giving it a go meant five years at the Soto Academy in Spain under the tutelage of Dan Kiernan and a training regime of six hours a day. He won his first world ranking point a year later and in 2015, at age 18, became the first Ulster man in three decades to play Davis Cup for Ireland. He won the Irish Open in Carrickmines last year - his first professional singles title - climbed to 317 in the ATP rankings and looked to take his game to the next level.
"Winning the first title on home soil in front of my parents was special," he says. "And it gave me great confidence. I thought, 'I'm good enough to be out here. Why can't I do this every week?' My game was in a really good place and I headed out to the States to play some Challengers but I damaged ligaments in my foot the first week out there and didn't play for four months."
His first tournament back was a Futures event in Majorca at the end of January. He's played in four events since - two in Tunisia and two in Portugal - and hasn't yet found his stride but still dreams of reaching the summit. He's on the bottom rung of the ladder but the margins are fine.
"I could go to Miami this week and train with the big guys and I wouldn't look out of place," he says. "I played a Challenger last year and practised with Jaume Munar (from Spain) who is (61) in the world. We hit for 45 minutes and played a couple of games - it was 3-3 and I lost the tie-break.
"We played Norway in the Davis Cup last year and I lost a tight match - 6-3 7-5 - to Casper Ruud (the world number 98), so it's just trying to maintain those levels and get back to my best. But again, the margins are small. I serve at 115 to 125 (mph), the big guys are serving 125 to 135, so my ball speed and tempo is a bit slower. They're probably hitting 75 (mph) from the back of the court - we're hitting 60 to 65 but the margins are small.
"They serve better, and return better, and hit better spots on the court when they are under pressure. Drop a ball short with them and the point is done but we'll miss sometimes and won't finish it off. But I'm still improving. I'm still fresh and the hunger is there. And most people are breaking (into) the top 100 at 27 now - it used to be 19 or 20 - so I still have time."
What he doesn't have is money.
He does not have a sponsor and there's no grant from Tennis Ireland. He gets clothes from a friend at Ellesse and his racquets from Wilson but spent more than his prize-money last week just having them strung.
"It's a grind trying to make ends meet. My friends see me in Quinto do Lago and think, 'He's living the dream', but I'm staying near a train station with four other guys in an Airbnb and we're cooking our own meals. I think the first prize this week is about €1,100, so unless you're winning every week you're losing money. But I wouldn't want to do anything else."
He survives with the support of his parents and the generosity of family and friends but that can't last forever. And the game hasn't started to eat him yet but he knows it will.
"I haven't set any limit," he says, "but the longer you stay in Futures the more it will eat you up. My goal for the year is top 100 in the ITF (he is currently 333 and 613 in the ATP rankings) - that won't get me into the Challengers next year but will put me in a good position to play in them the following year."
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