By Peg Duthie
At the start of every Grand Slam, some hapless player fails to win even a handful of games during their first-round match. The general public gets a gander at the loser’s paycheck, which at Wimbledon 2014 was 27,000 pounds (42,084 USD). The snide “nice work if you can get it” jokes practically write themselves.
But, what are the likes of Petra Martic earning the rest of the year? As Paul Wachter, Archie Bland, Sean Davies, and others have pointed out, life in tennis’s minor leagues is not even remotely as lucrative as those cameos at the majors might suggest. In the wake of this year’s Wimbledon — and L. Jon Wertheim’s musings about the widening gap between “run-of-the-mill tour events” and the Slam — I thought it might be interesting to study the income of Wimbledon’s first-round losers from a couple of different angles. I used the top quarter of the ladies’ singles draw as my sample.
First, how much has each woman earned so far in 2014, and what percentage of that is from the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon?
We are in the 28th week of 2014 — done with three of the Slams, but with five months left to go. Thus, the percentages should be reviewed with a grain of salt — with luck, each woman will earn between $224 and $120,000 at the remaining tournaments on her schedule (not counting Fed Cup, where the stipends vary among the participating countries and are not tracked by the WTA), which should lower the percentages you see in this chart. At the same time, the players whose Slam paychecks currently reflect 60% or more of their YTD earnings aren’t the ones you can bet on going deep in lesser tournaments, or even qualifying for the main draw of the higher-tier WTA events.
A skim through Samantha Murray‘s results page at wtatennis.com shows her earning less than $1,000 at most tournaments; Anna Tatishvili’s checks generally fall between $1,000 and $2,000; Tamira Paszek, who continues to wrestle with injuries and ill health this year (this week, she couldn’t finish her match during the second round of Bucharest qualifying because of dizziness), collected less than $1,000 each time at five tournaments but more than $2,000 per tournament at six other events. Olga Govortsova’s earning pattern (or lack thereof) resembles Paszek’s, ranging from $530 in Estoril and $887 in Prague to $2,774 in Monterrey and $3,199 in Shenzhen.
Here’s a look at our first-round losers from another angle: what was the smallest paycheck they’ve received this year?
It’s worth keeping in mind that it’s neither logistically nor physically feasible for players to compete every week, and also to remember that win or lose, players must cover the cost of food, gear, lodging, transportation, taxes, entry fees, coaches’ stipends, and so on.
Why do these numbers matter? To start, they may be affecting the quality of tennis during the first rounds of Slams. When the paycheck is twenty to forty times the size of one’s average winnings, odds are that players will show up at the office even when they’re not in fighting trim. Alisa Kleybanova lost to Lauren Davis 6-1 6-3 in the first round, with a heavily taped shoulder; she hadn’t competed in any tournaments since Roland Garros, and she’s had to drop out of World Team Tennis, which would have occupied the rest of this month.
In Kleybanova’s case, it’s not clear how severe her injury was before her match (and she was up against Davis, who’s playing the best tennis of her career to date). With Martic, however, it’s hard not to wonder if she shouldn’t be sitting out of competition entirely. At the forum that’s my main tennis hang, some members recently expressed concern about how much time Laura Robson seems to be needing to recover — but look at what’s gone on with Martic:
- May 17 – second round of Nurnberg quals: injures wrist during win vs. Kristina Barrois.
- May 18 – withdraws from final round of Nurnberg quals
- May 27 – retires during first match at Roland Garros (Svitolina wins 5-0)
- May 31 – withdraws from Nottingham $75K and Nottingham $50K
- June 6 – withdraws from Eastbourne
- June 24 – is bageled and breadsticked at Wimbledon (Dominguez Lino wins 6-0 6-1)
- July 5 – withdraws from Bucharest
That’s nearly two months (and counting) sans income outside of the two appearances at Slams — and, at this rate, Martic won’t be making the main draws of much else in the near future (her ranking’s now down to 177). Perhaps she genuinely believed her wrist had healed enough for her to be competitive at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but I can’t help seeing it through the lens of (relative) financial security: would the risk of aggravating an injury be worth $73,718? If you can resist that gamble, you have more faith in the future than I do, more sense, or a larger nest egg.
The financial support a player receives — be it through earnings or grants or other programs — can also affect their decisions regarding nationality, as well as whether they can continue with a tennis career at all, and to what degree they can stand on principle when they disagree with their national tennis federation.
When Anna Tatishvili became a U.S. citizen this April, she indicated that continuing to play for Georgia was not financially feasible for her, particularly in light of her recent injuries (full statement here). Naomi Broady infamously lost her Lawn Tennis Association funding after after posing with a condom machine. In 2013, she “was looking at doing first aid courses, language courses, to become an au pair in Paris because I couldn’t afford to play tennis”; this year, she’s earned enough to buy two handbags, invest in driving lessons, and find a coach. To be fair, the LTA reportedly offered to reinstate Broady’s funding soon after the incident, but her family continued to boycott the association. (Speaking of difficult choices: Broady’s brother Liam does now accept LTA money — a decision that has effectively estranged him from his father.)
I don’t have grand or brilliant ideas at hand for what needs to be done. As a fan whose piggy bank contains more echoes than Euros at present, I appreciate the lower ticket prices of qualifying rounds and non-Slam events, but I’m not blind to how this translates into less revenue (and, by extension, less prize money) for the players in those draws.
I’m also all too aware that my interest in qualifying rounds and challengers is the exception rather than the rule (more than once, I’ve been asked if I was a player’s coach, either because I was the only person in the stands audibly cheering for them or because my compulsive scorecarding made me look official); if entertainment value ought to be the be-all and end-all of compensation (as some proponents of inequal prize money would have you believe), what is the point of funding anyone other than Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters, and Sharapova?
When I attended the Fed Cup playoff in St. Louis this past April, the other fans in my section were very vocal about how they felt the USTA had misled them into believing they would get to see Serena. Sloane, Madison, Caroline, Alize, and Virginie were all Top 100 players at that point, but that was not what those fans had traveled to St. Louis for, and they felt gypped. … and I, in turn, couldn’t help feeling like a fool when I found out the USTA was offering tickets at $10 to anyone who walked in that Sunday, in light of the $46 I’d forked over to Ticketmaster in advance.
But how will future superstars be discovered and developed if the current farm system is scrapped? Will World Team Tennis and the International Premier Tennis League prove to be sustainable alternatives? (Why do players effectively give up defending/earning ranking points in order to play WTT? These 2012 and 2013 features on Amir Weintraub were eye-openers for me. Should you find yourself wondering why some of your favorite prospects — such as, in my case, Taylor Townsend — aren’t ranked higher when the US Open rolls around, it might be worth checking on where they spent the rest of this month.)
Again, I don’t have ready answers. But for changes to happen at all, there has to be more awareness of the overall structure of the tours — of how, for instance, that $42,084 paycheck in June is for many players essentially their compensation not for just a single match, but for all the sets they played in front of thin crowds, for the weeks they aren’t earning anything at all, and for their presence in the draw — without the Anna Tatishvilis, we likely wouldn’t get to see the Serena Williams in action during the round of 128.
There has to be more help for the players (ranked 128 to 309) who will show up in, say, Carson next week; the champion will win $7,600 (with 30% of that deducted for taxes), but the first-round losers will net only $444, which may not cover even the plane or bus fare it cost to get to or from the tournament, let alone the rest of their expenses (including a $40 entry fee).
But where is this help to come from? Some challengers are well supported by the communities hosting them (Winnetka and Midland come to mind), but there are other events (including some on the main circuit) where the attendance has been so anemic that I felt sorry for the sponsors. Might we one day conclude that the general public isn’t interested enough in professional tennis for anything more than exhibitions?
That’s a doomsday scenario, of course, but I raise it to emphasize this question: how much money are we willing or able to invest in the next Kvitovas and Djokovics?
If you’re feeling uncomfortable, please rest assured that you’re not alone.