Breaking the bank
Originally published on 04/02/16 00:00
In prize money alone, Novak Djokovic pocketed more than $21 million in 2015. And let’s not forget his lucrative endorsement deals with ANZ, Peugeot, Seiko, Jacob’s Creek and HEAD. In August, Forbes Magazine rated Djokovic as the 13th highest-paid athlete in the world, estimating that his off-court earnings in 2014 hit a cool $31 million.
But while the bank balances of the likes of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are topped up even while they’re asleep, it couldn’t be further from the reality for the majority of professional tennis players.
Britain’s Dan Evans, well known among British tennis fans for his occasional Davis Cup heroics, ends the season ranked No.183 in the world and with prize money totalling $47,913. With career wins over players such as Kei Nishikori, Bernard Tomic and Philipp Kohlschreiber, the former world No.123 has been one of Britain’s more successful players since turning pro in 2006.
Evans, who won his first title in six years at the ATP Challenger event in Knoxville, USA, in November, collected $7,200 after beating American teenager Frances Tiafoe in the final. While his career prize money of $490,353 might sound like a higher-than-average salary for a decade’s work, the life of a tennis player is a nomadic one with high outgoings for travel, accommodation and other expenses.
The International Tennis Federation’s Pro Circuit Review, published in December last year, calculated players’ expenses to total $38,800 for male players and $40,180 for female players. Despite a combined prize money pool of approximately $282 million, the report found that the top one per cent (the top 50 men and top 26 women) earned more than half of that total prize pot. In fact, in 2013, only 3.7% of men and 5.2% of women made a profit from traveling on the professional circuit.
“There was only one tournament where I walked away with more than my expenses,” says Nicola Slater, who reached a career-high doubles ranking of No.167 in 2013. “And that was at Wimbledon in 2013. I have won six [ITF] doubles titles, among those a $75k and two $50k events, but expenses outweighed winnings. I didn’t play $10k events, firstly because winning it wouldn't give me enough points to move up even one spot in the rankings and, secondly, because the winners got $250 for doubles.”
The eldest of five children, Slater took on five jobs during her final year at school to fund a summer of tournaments, which ultimately earned her a tennis scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi. The 31-year-old has been based in the US ever since, and after transferring to Florida State University, she graduated and turned semi-professional, earning money as a coach to subsidise her life on tour. However, the hours spent on court looking after her bank account came at a cost.
“When I was coaching all those hours I naturally wasn’t preparing and training correctly or resting the way I needed to,” said Slater, who was coached by Judy Murray as a junior. “Four torn ligaments in my ankle sent me to hospital and cost me all the money I’d saved up in 2009. Then knee surgery cost me everything I’d saved in 2012.”
In 2013 Slater went all in; she quit coaching and within a matter of months had climbed more than 700 places in the world rankings, winning a $75k ITF event in Nottingham and earning a wildcard for Wimbledon with Lisa Whybourn. Although they lost in the first round to French pair Alize Cornet and Pauline Parmentier, it was Slater’s biggest payday, collecting just under £4,000. That money was enough to pay her way on tour for three months, but she explains that controlling costs is a delicate balancing act.
“To keep costs down I stayed with host families as much as possible,” she recalls. “In the States, I would drive from tournament to tournament as much as possible, which was not ideal since a nine or ten-hour drive is rather exhausting. I’ve done 13-hour bus trips, stupidly alone one time in Mexico where I had a layover for two hours in Mexico City, something I didn’t realise was extremely dangerous until afterwards. I’d stay in bad areas because it was where the cheaper hotels were. I’d end up sleeping in my clothes and shower at the club because the hotels were undesirable when you try to keep costs down.
“I’d eat at cheaper places which meant food wasn't as healthy or good quality. As I got older though I ended up paying extra for those things because I realised it is important towards your success and although it costs more, it would help performance and in turn get me further in rounds and pay off that way.”
This year Slater turned to Pledge Sports – a crowdfunding platform that has helped tennis players from Europe, the US and Africa raise more than £60,000 – to finance one final spell on tour. Through donations from friends, family and total strangers Slater raised $5,300 which helped keep her on tour for nearly two months, during which time she reached the final of the Aegon Trophy in Surbiton with Tara Moore and played in the Wimbledon qualifying event, which proved to be her final match as a professional.
“I am done playing,” says Slater, who is now the director of College Smart, helping international players find tennis scholarships in the States as well as coaching 16-year-old American Taylor Bridges. “I didn’t have the money to continue and far too much credit card debt. I have no regrets but if I had the chance to change anything I would have given up coaching sooner. I’m not sure how I would have funded myself but coaching was a catch-22 situation.
“If crowdfunding had been around earlier in my career that would’ve made a big difference. I think if I’d been younger, people would have been more willing to help; it doesn’t look good when you're 30. I think when you’re 15 people are more interested. As a doubles player at 30 I think I still had another 10 or 15 years, but it's a tough sell.
“If someone said, ‘Here’s $150,000 to try and make it,’ I would absolutely go for it. I know I have the tools, it’s just the money. But I’ve learned my lessons and hopefully I can put them to good use to help others.”