It’s been a while since there was a posting here, it changes today. The subject of this isn’t very sexy, glamorous and definitely doesn’t cater to casual fans but it needs to be said. With the recent news that Rafael Nadal threw his toys out of the pram and resigned as vice president of the ATP Players Council ties in with the subject matter.
For those who follow the game closely know that the lower ranked players have been struggling financially on the tour. The frank Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov made comments about tennis players being underpaid and was slaughtered for the comments, especially from the sanctimonious Andre Agassi who told him to get him some perspective. Naturally within the tennis media for the interests of a good story it wasn’t taken out of context. What Kafelnikov actually said “tennis players are underpaid in comparison to golfers”. He wasn’t wrong then and he isn’t wrong now.
To the average person in the street or sports fan the perception that professional tennis players are highly paid, pampered primadonnas rings true to a certain extent. It only covers the top players who for the most part now get more money in personal sponsorships, commercials, appearance money than in prizemoney. Unfortunately this is not the case for the vast majority of players on the circuit while they work through the various stages of the tour battling it out on the Futures and Challenger jungles before attempting to make it on the ATP.
Income inequality has actually increased since the ATP started their tour in 1990. The USA Today article about Indian Wells where tournament owner Larry Ellison the man of Oracle fame in his infinite wisdom decided to increase the winner's purse from $611,000 to $1 million from the previous year an increase 64%. By contrast, first-round losers would pick up $7,709 instead of $7,115, a $594 bump equivalent to 8%. Naturally they took Ellison’s terms as the ATP has never really been about its members since the structure is meant to be a partnership between the players and tournament directors.
Indian Wells and Miami are compulsory events that go for almost a month combined, there is no need for it to be 10 days. It was marketing tools attempting with Miami to call it the “5th Slam”. Yes, I could hold a tournament in my front garden and call it a Grand Slam, it doesn’t mean it’s a Grand Slam. In fact it even has less meaning than a Justin Bieber track. The point since they are 96 player draws many of the guys who are on the edge of the Entry List would rather not play these events. For example lose 1st round in both events, pay for the flights, racquet restringing, paying the coaches or physical trainers they end up $5000 in debt, how does this situation benefit the sport?
This is not a new problem, in fact it was worse in previous generations with the distribution of prizemoney to the players. The ITF who run the Slams only gave 7% to the players. Tennis Australia, FFT (French Tennis Fed), LTA and US Open are making a lot of money but not distributing it fairly to the players who make the money for them. Fans aren’t there to see the sponsors, officials or tournament directors, this uneven distribution of the wealth was the catalyst behind a potential strike at the 2012 Australian Open.
When it comes to the ATP they give around 30% of the prizemoney to the players, but as with the ITF the biggest problem is the distribution of prizemoney in between the rounds. It’s too low for the early rounds and as Robby Ginepri stated "I have a little bit of a problem at tour events where winner gets almost double of what you make from finalist".
Where the biggest problem with the income inequality lies is the Challenger Tour. The prizemoney hasn’t increased since the 1980s when there is more money within the sport than ever before. The lowest level Challenger now is 30k up from 25k, with the increased overall costs the players relatively at the level from say 75-200 are making less money than the 1990s. The Challenger Tour is tough and it’s here where players have to fight, scrap, go to some tough environments to prepare them and develop their skills for the main tour. Yes, even big guys like Federer and Nadal played challengers before making their mark on tour, though to the mainstream tennis media, average gloryhunters and slapnuts issues like this tend not to be discussed, they’re more interested in some quotes taken out of context from some top player which have no relevance to the sport.
It’s in the interests of the ATP to have a stronger and more financially viable Challenger tour. Federer and co aren’t going to be around forever, can’t just market everything around them. The PGA looks after their lower level golfers in a manner that tennis could only dream of. A golfer in the top 150 isn’t struggling financially at all and this is a sport that is less international than tennis. As the game of tennis becomes more speed endurance based especially with slower courts due to ATP policy of surface homogenisation.
It has shown already that career breakthroughs are happening at more advanced ages as it takes time to develop speed endurance. This means more time will be spent on the Challengers before these players are ready for the main tour and difficulties of struggling when it’s not economically viable. No, this does not mean all players get stretch limousines from the airports to their hotel and courts or they get showered with everything without having earned it.
Michael Ruseell gives thoughts on ATP management
If it was only about economics then there wouldn’t be a Challenger tour at all, if the ATP want to have a successful second tier then they have to improve the prizemoney to a level that has parity with the increased costs. Michael Russell says, "You need other guys to make up a whole tour just like in golf and other sports. It would be nice if it were spread around a little more. We need the top guys to stand up and help everyone else out a little bit more." ATP tournaments are obliged by ATP regulations to guarantee the players five days of free lodging and one meal per day, this doesn’t happen on the Challengers and should be extended to this level.
Guillermo Cañas summed it up perfectly. "Is the ATP discriminatory?" It’s discrimination from an economic standpoint, like any multinational corporation. It’s just another of millions that there are in the world. Point being that I accept it, but I'm not buying into it that it is a group of players that decide (players union) because it isn't like that.
Difficulties of making it on tour
Unless players come from a powerful tennis federation USA, France, UK, or with Spain and Italy where there numerous Futures and Challengers where to earn your points, then it’s very difficult to making a living on tour when expenses are included with low prizemoney at these levels. Many of the hyped youngsters like Harrison, Tomic and friends have the benefits of powerful management groups like IMG, Octagon or Lagardére Unlimited behind them who have too much influence within the game as they will give their players favourable treatment with wildcards.
Goran Ivanisevic when he was an emerging player said “I had to sleep in the streets somewhere in France and wash myself in public restrooms because a sponsor failed to pay for my accommodation, he barely spoke the language, did not know anyone, and his parents did not have the money to support him (it was war at that time); eating 3 burgers once a day in McDonalds for an entire week.”
Ivan Dodig: Didn't have any money due to the war at the time. He slept under a bridge and it was very difficult for him. “If I won some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments. Sometimes it was good, sometimes [it was] not so good. I was taking care of every Euro. I had many tough situations in tournaments having to play without money and many times without anywhere to sleep."
Even in Spain where there are many tournaments it’s not immune for their players to struggle financially. Albert Montañes before he cracked the top 50 wasn’t doing very well and his mate “The King” Oscar Hernandez. “For players like me, in the Top 500, you don’t have money. I didn’t want to say to my parents, ‘Please pay my hotels and the tickets and everything to play tennis,’ because I was feeling like I was losing my money and I would have been losing the money of my parents. I said, ‘Okay, that’s not my life. I cannot be a good player.’”
Then there are the problems with distance that the South Americans and the Australians suffer from since all the major tournaments are in Europe and North America, so they need a base in either continent. Unlike the Australians who now have a rich federation to help them financially, the South Americans apart from the Colombians who are very fortunate that they have a company Colsanitas who look after their expenses, have a sponsorship with Babolat. It helps them for sure especially in the initial phases when it's needed the most.
Gaston Gaudio had to take a loan from Hernan Gumy when he went on tour after his parents business fell on hard times, so he turned professional as a way to help them. Once he was able to make the 100 for a couple of years, then he could earn a living. Agustin Calleri couldn’t afford the travel and had to work in his parents shop to get the funds so he can travel.
Peter Luczak on when he started playing. “24 hour Greyhound bus rides, as I was not a rich kid at all. There were a group of 7 of us in a basement of a house, 2 beds, 1 couch, and the rest slept on the floor. Before the tournament we would play games of cards or chess to decide who would get a bed, once you lost your singles match, and then you were on the floor. I got the nickname of “Lucky Looch” and “Diablo” because I was always winning these games and getting the bed.
One of the guys travelled with a stringer, so he was able to do all of our racquets. When it came to food, there were the 29c McDonalds burgers, I would have 5 of them in one sitting, eating 2 minute noodles and the free player lunch.
Dustin Brown: "To be able to continue my career, my parents bought me a camper in April 2004 in order to travel through Europe and play as many games as possible."
"I would eat and sleep in my camper and I was travelling all over Europe, up and down for seven years to make it in professional tennis, holding the Jamaican flag high week by week, while my parents struggled to pay for the camper.
"I made a name for myself in Europe with my camper, my only chance to make it in tennis.”
Mariano Zabaleta, Gaston Gaudio and Luis Horna
Mariano Zabaleta on whether tennis is an elitist sport. “I don't believe it is. However there are certain problems, to play tennis there is a large expense for racquets, strings, shoes, t-shirts, you have to be a member of a club, paying for the court and not forgetting the travel. Therefore I believe that there were many very talented players that did not come through. They didn't have the support in their moment of need and they fell through and begged the AAT to give them some financial possibilities.” All of the above examples highlight the problems of making it on the tennis tour without having the right help or management company.
The above guys were fortunate that they were able to make it, but there are plenty of others who haven't due to not being from the right country, couldn't get a sponsor so they could travel to events like Chilean Jorge Aguilar and Diego Hartfield when the Argentine economy collapsed he only made $500 for the season.
Nadal resigns from of ATP Players Council
Another possible barrier hindering the lower ranked players has been removed with Rafael Nadal resigning from the role of vice president of the ATP Players Council. Allegedly the main reasons that he has thrown the toys out of the pram are that Roger Federer the president of the ATP Players Council refused to back the ludicrous idea of a 2 year ranking system.
To any sane fan who isn’t a slapnuts or a gloryhunter the 2 year ranking system idea is in poor taste, all it would do is making it even harder to breakthrough to the top echelons and the same players will be there even if they haven’t been performing. As the graph shows were the 2 year ranking implemented at the start of 2012 then Nadal would still be number one in spite of Novak Djokovic winning 3 Grand Slams, a semi final at Roland Garros, winning 5 TMS events in 2011, yes that’s really fair.
Two Year Ranking System at Jan 1 2012
There was an argument that allegedly helps injured players, but that’s a myth as well. The current situation with the protected ranking for long term injuries works well enough currently.
Nadal facing defeat on the 2 year ranking system
While Nadal has a legitimate claim about the season length, the off season is too short to recover from the grind of the previous season and to do a proper fitness base leading into the next season. The counterargument is that the lower ranked players want more tournaments so they have the opportunity to earn income. It’s a difficult situation though if the prizemoney was increased at the lower levels like it should be, then this might not be such a problem. It’s not just the top players that play too many events during the year, but since they are top players more notice is taken of their concerns.
What Nadal has shown that he wasn't suitable for this role at all. When elected to a position like this, there are different agendas where negotiation is needed and your personal interests are put to the side for the game. Instead he chose to promote his interests where he benefits to the detriment of the sport.
It’s always easier to highlight problems than to find solutions, at the same time the Players Council with Roger Federer who already has decided while he is around the odious 2 year ranking system is dead to push for better distribution of income to the lower ranked players. Of course the top players earn their money nobody can deny that, they bring in the sponsors, TV rights, ticket sales and make the Grand Slams profitable but the reality is that the ATP and ITF have shown they care nowt about the majority of players and it’ll take something drastic which hurts their profits for any tangible change to happen in the new future.
Shout out to Machi for helping me with some info that contributed to the article thanks man.