Tuesday 22 January 2019

14,000 professionals and only 600 making money – problems in tennis entirely of their own making


James McGee. Photo: Sportsfile
James McGee. Photo: Sportsfile

Oliver Brown

If the mood takes you today, and you fancy a quick hit-up at your local park, there is a fair chance you will enjoy kinder conditions than some tennis players trying to do it for a living.

At least, on the average municipal court, you have some assurance that it will be usable. Less so at the farthest extremities of the Futures circuit, where, in 2014, pictures circulated of a forsaken practice court in Sousse, Tunisia, with a net so mangled and threadbare it looked as if it had been attacked by locusts.

Andre Agassi. Photo: AP
Andre Agassi. Photo: AP

This week, tennis has acknowledged its wealth-gap problem in the starkest terms yet. Take point No 83 of the independent report into corruption in the sport, which has highlighted a "tsunami" of match-fixing at lower levels.

Here, it concedes, based on data last collected four years ago, that only the top 336 men in the world by ranking, and the top 253 women, can be expected to break even. Given the International Tennis Federation (ITF) estimates that there are around 14,000 nominally professional players worldwide, this equates to a small army who are willing to tolerate short-term destitution in chasing the dream.

The problem, essentially, is that tennis has created a vicious cycle for itself.

On the one hand, it holds its hands up that the distribution of money is profoundly inequitable. But on the other, it continues to do nothing to bridge the divide - indeed, in 2019, the situation will be even worse for the waifs and strays trying to make an honest dime in the wilds of Vietnam or Uzbekistan, with far fewer main-tour ranking points available at the smallest ITF events. In 2020, there will be none at all.

Such a move will, according to the Association of Tennis Professionals, "further protect the integrity of the sport".

The one rather glaring flaw in this logic seems to have gone unnoticed: that the more tennis strives to safeguard "integrity", the more it accentuates the polarisation between the haves and have-nots, which it has identified as one of the main causes of match-fixing in the first place.

This sickness within tennis, where prize money for the US Open passes $50 million (€41m) while the rank and file are left to slum it in cold-water hovels just to make ends meet, is not highlighted nearly enough by the long-awaited match-fixing report.

Of the main recommendations, only one addresses financial equality directly, talking in abstract language about improving the "pathway" for players who are struggling. But there are few concrete details on how to achieve this, especially when the 27 points that the winner of a $25,000 tournament once stood to gain are soon to be cut to zero.

Out in the boondocks, tennis can be a pursuit of peripatetic bleakness, with daily privations so acute that they would make even Jack Kerouac's road trips look opulent.

Argentina's Tomas Buchhass, who had hauled himself to a Futures tour stop in Temuco, Chile, once wrote a long lament about clay courts so rutted that they posed a risk to safety, and about officialdom so inept that a ball that flew over the back fence could not even be replaced.

Ireland's James McGee reflected how a derisory €500 cheque for winning a final in suburban Madrid would cover barely a third of his weekly expenses for return flights, accommodation, food, transport, laundry and racquet-restringing - and all this without the coaching that would be essential to propel him to the next level.

Tennis is labouring under a delusion, too, if it assumes that a player ranked 336th is somehow turning a profit.

Mark Petchey, Andy Murray's former coach, has pointed to the case of Jay Clarke, the 19-year-old who has risen from humble origins in Derby to be identified as a future star of British tennis.

Clarke is at No 227 in the world, 109 places above the sport's imagined cut-off point, and so far this year he has made the grand total of £8,778 from 11 events.

Considering that flights alone would swallow up more than half his winnings, the best he can hope for is a Wimbledon wildcard and a guaranteed £35,000 first-round loser's fee. But this is a luxury afforded to vanishingly few.

Put it this way: how many rags-to-riches tales do you hear of at the top of the men's game any more?

Of the rising talents, Germany's Sascha Zverev has clearly benefited by coming from a tennis family, with his elder brother Mischa also an ATP player and his mother Irina a prominent coach.

Dominic Thiem, likewise, is the son of two tennis coaches from the outskirts of Vienna, and was hitting balloons with a flyswatter almost as soon as he could walk.

Stories of blue-collar grafters like Andre Agassi - who as a teenager would subsist on lentil soup and pitch up at events in California in beaten-up jalopies - are increasingly rare.

At least in golf, often lampooned for its starchy image, Jason Day has managed to carve a route to the top despite having his first three-wood retrieved from a rubbish tip.

In tennis, there are usually two options: either you are hot-housed almost from the cradle, or you face a grindingly futile trek through the foothills.

The latest inquiry seeks to pass the buck for corruption to betting companies, claiming that they should no longer sponsor tournaments, but the root of all such malfeasance lies in obscene wealth disparities between the top and bottom. And together, these constitute a crisis entirely of tennis' own making.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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