Professional Tennis' Looming Class War

I was watching a little Tennis Channel the other night...

There was Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison christening his new Indian Welles Stadium 2. There was Roger cashing in once again in Dubai with all his bff emirs and sheiks. There was the head Virgin himself, Richard Branson, flying all the world's greatest players to his private isle for a little off season hit and giggle tennis shindig. Then there was tennis' new World League holding its first draft. The World League you ask? It's a new end of season international 4 team league based in Asia employing our sports brightest past and present stars. And quite handsomely too. Nadal is rumored to be pulling a million a match. Boris Becker was quoted as saying "Tennis needs this."

Ok Boris...But if I may ask a question...What exactly is your definition of tennis?

See, I had just spent the better part of my day catching up on some reading. A series of articles written recently have surfaced, chronicling the hardships of life on the professional tennis tour. But not the tour that we fans are familiar with. There was a long piece in Grantland titled "The Futures is Bleak" on young post college player Jason Jung and his struggles on the satellite tours. There was English journeyman Jamie Baker's piece in the Independent, detailing his retirement from what he deemed "the world's cruelest sport". Even relative success, Russian Dmitry Tursunov, voiced his concerns in an essay over the 200k it costs him in training and travel costs annually. And the social media world was getting in on the discussion with the launch of a Facebook page by struggling touring pro Keith-Patrick Crowley, titled "ATP and ITF- Time for Change", a site where successful pros past and present are weighing in on what can be done to ease the growing inequities in professional tennis.

The published essays detail the hard luck stories of the lower ranked professional players whose entire careers take place far away from the cameras and bright lights of tennis' mainstream media. These articles tell a far different story about what tennis needs than what Becker declares. The articles speak of a work environment full of financial hardship and career insecurity, with world class athletes struggling to break even financially as they pursue their careers, often going in to serious debt if injuries befall them or they suffer a sustained lapse in form.

The images of opulence and excess being fed us daily by the Tennis Channel  juxtaposed against these essays on the real life hardships of  tour life are getting harder to ignore. What gives tennis? There appears to be a growing disconnect between the media messaging and the reality of all the tennis life entails. Is tennis on the cusp of an emerging class war ? The inequalities that exist in the sport of tennis have never been more visible. Is it time to start asking some hard questions? Are these levels of inequality desirable? Are they healthy for the long term direction of the sport? When does inequality become a problem? How much inequality can we tolerate and still have a sport that functions?

 

Before you all go screaming you redistributive commie bastard, Inequality is a burning issue, not just in sport but in greater society as well. Inequality is a very slippery slope. Expanded out to its most absurd conclusion looks somewhat like Tom Tomorrow's biting comic strip.

The hard message now emerging to the greater tennis world in these essays of lament is that the pursuit of the professional tennis dream is no longer a venture worth pursuing. The barriers to entry to where a player can start seeing any kind of return on his lifelong investment have become too high, so high that these life time tennis professionals are advising future generations to pursue other options in life, for the costs associated with achieving any meaningful success in tennis are no longer worth it.

Disgraced politician John Edwards spoke of there being two Americas...the Haves and Have Nots... Has tennis fallen in to this same trap?  Watching the tennis channel and reading these essays; Its hard to believe both parties are talking about the same sport.  If you check the ATP world rankings, there they all are. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic firmly atop the ATP world rankings followed by a long list of roughly 2000 players, all vying for the same ATP ranking points and prize monies, yet in vastly different working conditions.

The rumblings coming from tennis' lower classes are not sour grapes from guys who just didn't have it. They speak loudly to the systemic problems professional tennis faces going forward; that the sport rewards far too few far too well.

These players are not looking for a handout. They  want less punishing working conditions in order to stay out on tour pursuing their athletic dreams without getting crushed in the process. In a play on Edwards two Americas, the haves and have nots. Tennis two opposing parties are the have everythings and the wanna have everythings. Let me introduce the opposing parties of the debate in greater detail.

TENNIS' ONE PERCENT

Tennis' one percent. We all know them. They're damn near family to the hardcore amongst us. Well, we sure wish they were family...

In 2013, the aggregate earnings of tennis' 1 percent, the top 10, was 50 million dollars.

And they deserve every cent they make. Tennis has always had its stars, but this generation of icons are pure box office.

The Fed/ Nadal/Djokovic era of the game transcends sport. They are culturally significant athletes, certainly once in a generation performers, possibly once in a lifetime performers. And they are far from done putting up records that may never be approached by future stars. They are such the total package, on the court, in front of the camera, in the boardroom, all done with the utmost of class, with just the right amount of panache and sex appeal.  These guys have it like few other athletes do, further driving them to other worldy levels of international popularity.

Their celebrity did not happen over night. The top players in the game  have been atop the rankings for a decade now, long enough for the passionate tennis fan to develop deep connections to them. And lets be clear here. We the obsessive tennis fan have a major role in the making of our tennis icons

It's an odd symbiosis. Without the obsessive spending fan, the players are nothing. Without the super human exploits of tennis' top players, there would be no obsessive fans to drive tennis' popularity They are the fan creators. We are the icon makers. Their play awes us. Our fandome enriches them.

In a good year, our sports elite will play 70-80 matches for our nail biting entertainment. Tennis Channel and a strong internet connection and a good fan can damn near watch them all. What more does the tennis fan need? The expanded television coverage of ESPN and the Tennis Channel provides us with a near constant infusion of our most beloved players playing tennis like its never been played before. When their play commences, all other activities cease. When they shake hands,  life can resume its regularly scheduled programming. You've got your tennis fix, with the product  never being better, stronger, cheaper, and more accessible than it is right now.

One would think seeing our favorites so much would numb us to the experience. Quite the contrary. Its an obsessive, drug-like, addictive fandom that has evolved these past few years. We become part of their extended teams. When they play, we play. We root for them like it was our asses on the line. Their matches become mood altering experiences for many of the most earnest. We share in their thrills of victory, we agonize together in their heart wrenching defeats. This is a serious kind of pact we have entered in with them...We fans just can't seem to get enough of the stars with who we align 

Case in point. Indian Welles 2013  Federer is scheduled to warm up for his evening match at one o'clock on a side practice court. On a sweltering hot desert day, easily 5000 people cram in to every nook available to catch a glimpse of the Swiss star.

And I was one of them. I secured a spot behind his court where the taller people could barely see. One o'clock comes and Federer is late. Twenty minutes later, still no Federer, and the crowd is getting antsy. Impatient, I begin to wander around. Immediately behind Federer's court was  Frenchman Gilles Simon, playing a practice set against another tour player. I slide over to watch. No trouble getting a seat here. 5000 fans sitting impatiently, staring at an empty court. Not a soul watching  world top 20 player Simon putting on a virtual shot making clinic for the 20 minutes I watched.

The Simon practice moment spoke volumes to me that day. The fans are not coming to these events strictly for the tennis. The allure is deeper than that. Hollywood has its maps of the stars. Tennis tournament venues are no different. The court scheduling becomes tennis' star map. These events become a tennis fan's paradise, plotting out their viewing schedules, to get as close as they can to the greatness they admire.

And the lower ranked guys are no different. They also want to be connected to the top guys . They share the same sport, the same dreams to be the best. They are all part of the same vocation, the same ATP singles rankings system, all vying for the same titles and prizes. So it must have felt great for the rank and file a couple years back when the top players spoke out in unison over the unfair working conditions on the ATP tour. Players such as Murray and Nadal went so far as to publicly contemplate striking if their demands were not met.

Awesome. The top guys looking out for the bottom guys. You knew they wouldn't turn their backs on their roots. It wasn't that long ago that Federer made a cool 520 bucks in the Geneva Challenger of 1998 while  Nadal pulled 117 dollars for his first round loss at the 2001 Madrid Futures. They understood that tennis was like any other ecosystem...That the top to the bottom are all connected and if any link of that chain were to break, the whole fragile ecology of tennis could crumble

Well, actually, not really. What the big boys really wanted was a shorter schedule with less mandatory events...for them..those big events they play and everyone else watches...Ostensibly to ease up the year long demands upon their time, in actuality, to free them up more at the end of the year to cash in on their enormous global popularity...with world league million dollar matches, exhibitions with  middle east oil sheiks, or a private island pro-am on Neckers isle with Richard Branson.

Yeah, take that, you rank and filers. The leaders of your sport threatened to strike if the tour didn't reduce the season's length. That translates in to less tournament opportunities for you to earn a living. For those in tennis' lower classes, this must be hard. You'd like to think they were looking out for you. You don't want to think poorly of the big boys. You want the big boys to recognize you and your struggles. And occasionally they do.

Every now and then, they throw you a crumb. .Maybe they warm up with you, or hire you on as a hitting partner. Hell, maybe they take a selfie with ya and post it to their social media.  The hard reality is in spite of their professions of caring about those less gifted than them, the guys at the top aren't looking out for you guys. Not at all. They're looking out for themselves and what benefits them

The bitter pill in all this is the elite players asked for a shorter season and they got it, without a whole lot of bickering. If they wanted to help the rank and filers compete in a more economically secure environment, they could do that to. They run the game, they are the heads of  the ATP player's boards. They have huge clout. The facts are they haven't helped when they easily could. 

With tennis' one percent not about to throw the rank and file a lifeline anytime soon,  what can the rank and file do themselves to improve their working conditions?  For it is apparent, nobody at the top is going to do this for them  They made it out of the masses and attend to far different career needs now. The lower ranked are on their own here. First, let me give a better view as to who they are, what they really want, and the hurdles they face...

The Rank and File

 

Tennis' minor leagues. Satellites, Futures, Challengers. It's where it all begins for every touring pro. It's  where it also ends for most aspiring touring pros. Its the farm for world class players as well as assistant teaching pros. Those with big games don't remain their long. They graduate quickly to the higher weighted, larger prize money tournaments.

 

Those without the biggest of games also don't remain there long. A player has to be awfully good to break even financially at this level. The overwhelming majority of players competing at this level invest a couple years in playing, scratch out a world ranking somewhere in the 300-2000 range, get a chance to travel the world playing professional tennis, yet they get the clear message that their best chance of being center court at the US Open is as a fan and not a player.

 

Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Most are content to accept their fate as tennis mortals, segueing in to their post tennis adult life with few regrets. Others aren't so quick to give up on the dream. And rightfully so.

 

In the past 10 years, the successful touring pro demographic has aged. The days of the teen phenoms taking the tour by storm seem to be gone, at least for this tennis cycle. Players are routinely playing successfully well in to their thirties, as the emphasis on training and conditioning has lengthened the shelf life of many world class players.

 

The average age of a professional breaking in to the top 100, where they can finally begin to see a financial return on their investment, is now 24. With  players bypassing college these days, nearly all touring pros in the top 200 in the world turned professional in their teens.  The path to tennis prosperity has grown longer and more demanding than at any time in history. The sport has gone increasingly global with talent emerging from all corners of the world. Tournaments are everywhere all the time. In the days of less competition, great results used to be rewarded with substantial  leaps in the rankings. Now with a dozen events going on simultaneously around the world, a player's points earned are muted by the fact that dozens of other players are accumulating the same number of points in different events around the globe. With one ranking system for all 2000 players, upward mobility in the current system has never been more difficult to achieve.

 

One term for the journeyman player's life is "go everywhere, go nowhere"...Travel the world, have some good runs, some poor ones, you are firmly ensconced within the rank and file. With a world ranking of 400, a player in 2013 earned pre-tax, pre-expenses prize money of 12,000 dollars, ranking 300 made 20,000 dollars, ranking 200 made 42,000 dollars, ranking 100 made 300,000 dollars The goal for all the rank and file is to chase points, to get the ranking up around the 100 mark, to where a player has direct entry in to the majors as well as the qualifying of the Masters 1000 series of events.  It is in those events that a living can be made, and where  fame and fortune may be attained

 

With the number 300 player in the world earning below the US poverty line for a small family,  the question to be asked is how can anybody afford to travel the world taking on heavy costs year in year out. The answer is most can not. The ones who can are players who come from resources or have the support of national federations. Otherwise it's a mad scramble. Some players are able to secure private sponsorship, others travel in packs in efforts to cut costs. Some are using creative means to secure funding, by taking their careers public, selling shares of their future earnings to supportive investors.

 

The economics are tricky. As a coach, if a parent came to me declaring they were putting aside tens of thousands of dollars for their teen's professional tennis career, I would think that somewhat delusional. Yet to not start preparing at an early age for a professional career is now becoming irresponsible. For the reality of the modern game is the system is not set up for players who do not come from serious resources. It takes years and years of hard traveling and good fortunes before a player can even come close to breaking even, let alone start seeing a return on their investment. An injury or a bad year, and every player gets them and has them, and a player is right back starting at the bottom, having to grind his way back up through the ever swelling ranks again.

This is the tour life for well over 90 percent of the masses This is what the rank and file players in the essays are complaining about. That the sport they love isn't showing them a lot of love back.That the structure of the tour life is making it harder for players to see their tennis futures through to a proper conclusion. And that changes are needed. And soon, or the rumblings within the rank and file threaten to spill over, causing friction and disharmony in the sport between the players at the top and bottom for years to come.

In part 2 I discuss the systemic barriers to success in professional tennis as well as some innovative ideas for the rank and file to earn a better living