For the champions of tennis, the hiatus mandated by the novel coronavirus pandemic has offered a rare chance to relax and recover from nagging injuries while leading charitable initiatives, sharing upbeat social media posts or both.
But for the hundreds of players ranked outside the top 150, players who struggle to make ends meet even in good times, the suspension of the men’s and women’s tennis schedules has jeopardized their careers and sent one to social media with a different intent.
Classified for employment purposes as “independent contractors,” tennis pros are essentially mini corporations that must balance their ledgers after covering expenses that include international flights, hotels, meals and coaching fees.
For the sport’s elite, prize winnings more than cover those costs, plus luxuries such as a traveling hitting partner, physiotherapist and family members joining them on the road. Sponsorship deals often represent millions more. As the highest-paid male and female tennis players in 2019, according to Forbes, Federer earned $93.4 million last year, of which $86 million was from corporate sponsors, and Serena Williams earned $29.2 million, of which $25 million came from sponsors.
For players ranked roughly 150th or lower, however, life on tour is a break-even proposition. And that tenuous math is breaking down for many now that the pandemic has halted all tournaments until at least July 13.
Explained 375th-ranked Sofia Shapatava, 31, of the former Soviet republic of Georgia: “There is a huge gap, and it’s insane. If we compare it to the 300th-best player in [soccer], they get millions for sitting on the bench for a secondary club. The 300th-best player in tennis — most cannot even afford a taxi to the hotel with their bags.”
To draw attention to the financial hardships of lower-ranked players, Shapatava launched a petition on Change.org on March 19, calling on the International Tennis Federation and the men’s and women’s pro tours to help those at the margins make ends meet until tournaments resume.
She initially got pushback from sports fans who called her ungrateful, apparently convinced all tennis pros lead pampered lives.
“People say, ‘You choose to play tennis!’ ” Shapatava said by telephone from her mother’s home in Tbilisi, where she and her boyfriend/coach, who normally live in Germany, are staying during the pandemic. “Yes, we choose to have this struggle. That’s why so many of us have side jobs, like me, coaching and playing exhibitions.”
But with her country on lockdown, she noted, those options aren’t available. There are no side jobs to be had during the pandemic.
As the magnitude of the global health crisis deepens, some tennis organizations are trying to address the needs Shapatava cited in her petition, which had more than 2,000 signatures as of Saturday afternoon.
This month, after Wimbledon officials announced they were canceling the grass-court classic in 2020, the Lawn Tennis Association, Britain’s governing body, committed a relief package worth nearly $25 million to help British players, officials and venues brook the sudden loss of income because of the pandemic. That relief package will include grants and interest-free loans for singles players ranked between 101st and 750th and doubles players ranked between 101st and 250th.
On Monday, officials of the Madrid Open, originally scheduled to start May 1, announced they will hold the tournament as a three-day video game instead, with top players participating from home. With the support of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association, the virtual tournament will benefit players in financial need and broader virus-relief efforts.
Like all major sports, it’s unclear when tennis will resume. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sport’s global calendar — forcing the postponement of the French Open and canceling what remained of the European clay-court circuit, scuttling Wimbledon and the grass-court season and now threatening the North American hard-court season that leads to the U.S. Open, scheduled to start Aug. 31.
Anyone ranked outside the top 100 faces a precipitous drop-off in earnings.
Said pioneering sports agent Donald Dell, co-founder of the ATP and a Tennis Hall of Fame inductee: “Everybody looks at tennis and sees that the [top] 25 men and women are making a fortune. But for the men, after you get beyond 135 or 150, it’s really tough.
“ … Mid-level players now have two or three problems,” Dell added. “Where do they go? Most want to stay inside and not get sick. But who do they practice with? And what’s their livelihood?”
It’s even tougher for female players because there are fewer mid- to lower-tier women’s tournaments and, in turn, less prize money at stake.
To compete in a typical lower-tier ITF women’s tournament that offers $25,000 total prize money, Shapatava must travel to the event, pay for her lodging and meals and hope to win a qualifying match just to enter the main draw. If she loses that first match, Shapatava said, she might walk away with $9 to $15 after covering her expenses.
“Honestly, that’s not even meal money,” she said.
In her case, sponsorship never has been a source of income.
As a young player from a family that, for a time, was homeless after the Soviet Union’s breakup, Shapatava competed in so many tournaments around the world trying to improve her ranking, while coaching on the side to help pay for expenses, that she exhausted herself and didn’t get the results that might have attracted sponsors’ attention.
Her career-high ranking in singles was 186th in September 2014.
“To get good results, you have to spend a good bit of money on a coach and travel,” she said.
At 31, it’s not just her ranking but her age that work against her. “No one would sign me as a potential rising star; I’m not in that age group anymore,” she said.
Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the WTA, said via a statement that the organization empathized with hardships the pandemic has created for players, fans, tournament owners and staff alike.
“We wish there was a way everyone, especially those in need the most, could be compensated at the level they were expecting,” Simon wrote, “but the needs are so great, and the WTA unfortunately is not in a financial position to do that.”
That leaves many pros who aspire to a top-100 ranking at what Rennae Stubbs, a former world No. 1 doubles player with six Grand Slam titles, describes as an eye-opening moment.
“If you’re inside the top 100, you’re putting money away,” said Stubbs, 49, who retired from the pro tour in 2011. “But if you’re not, it’s difficult. You have travel, maybe a coach, and taxes that might take 20, 30, 40 percent of your prize money. For a lot of players, it’s a moment to think about, ‘What do I have to fall back on?’ — whether it’s an education or another skill.”
Now a tennis analyst with ESPN, Stubbs has seen her own earnings drop as tournaments she would have covered for the network are canceled. Gone, too, is money she made from coaching.
“There is a trickle-down effect,” Stubbs said. “It’s a very scary time for a lot of people.”