Not enough professional tennis players earn a livable wage from the sport.
It’s a problem that is well-known, at least for those directly involved in the sport.
When Novak Djokovic spoke out earlier in the year that only ‘400 or 500’ players were making a living from tennis, he followed this up in a recent ESPN interview, describing it as a ‘failure for our sport’.
For the world’s 4th most popular sport in terms of viewership, with over 1 billion fans watching tennis globally, this statement doesn’t seem to add up.
How can a sport that is so popular have so many professional players who are barely making any money?
Well, the proof is in the pudding and Novak isn’t the only one who’s been voicing his concerns.
New Zealand player, Kiranpal "KP" Pannu, currently ranked 717 in the world with a career high of 574 at the start of 2023, earned a paltry US$6,771 in prize money last year. His expenses, predominantly for travel, cost US$34,500.
While Pannu’s situation certainly isn’t unique, what’s even more alarming is that there are players much higher up in the rankings who are also struggling.
Indian number 1, Sumit Nagal, recently spoke out publicly about his financial struggles, claiming to have only 900 Euros in his bank account. Even when taking into account his prize money, his salary from the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) and the financial support he gets from the Maha Tennis Foundation, Nagal is only, in his own words, ‘just breaking even’.
For a player like Nagal who is currently ranked 157 in the world, that is quite shocking.
The WTA, of course, has the same issues. American-born Czech player, Gabriela Knutson, with a career-high ranking of 227, recently shared videos of how much female ITF players had spent and earned so far in 2023.
American Madison Seig, ranked inside the top 400, laughed as she revealed she had earned $US4000 ($A6000) while spending up to $US25,000 ($A38,500). And that’s without a coach.
In fact, most of the women interviewed couldn’t afford a coach, the majority spending more than they had earned.
Aussie Maddison Inglis, currently ranked 254, was one of the few players fortunate enough to make a profit for the year, earning A$40,000 and spending between A$10,000 and $15,000.
The high costs of being a professional tennis player may be foreign to the casual observer but are well known for those toiling away on the tour, exacerbated by the individual nature of the sport.
As a global sport with tournaments held all over the world, the expenses are a huge burden for one player to shoulder. Aside from the obvious travel and accommodation costs, there are training costs as well as the cost of hiring a coach (if at all).
When you couple that with the smaller purses at low-level events and a lack of sponsorship opportunities (especially for lower-ranked players), this adds considerable financial strain.
Indeed, this is a concern that the ATP tour, to its credit, has recently attempted to address.
In August, the ATP revealed a new financial initiative, called "Baseline," that guarantees a minimum income for the top 250-ranked men's singles players every season.
It will guarantee base earnings of $US300,000 ($A462,000) for the top 100, $US150,000 ($A230,000) for players ranked 101st to 175th and $US75,000 ($A115,000) for those ranked 176th to 250th.
Meanwhile, the ATP’s plan includes ‘injury protection’ to pay players who participate in fewer than nine top-tier ATP Tour and second-tier ATP Challenger events in a season.
A ‘newcomer investment’ will offer access to $200,000 in funding when players first make it into the Top 125, offset against prize money they make.
The new program is set to begin in 2024, for a three-year trial.
While this is a good start, there is still a long way to go to supplement the income of hundreds of struggling players out there.
Djokovic’s continued commentary on the pay debate may appear to be all talk, but the 24-time grand slam champion put his words into action three years ago.
Officially announced at the U.S. Open in 2020, Djokovic, along with Vasek Pospisil, founded the PTPA (Professional Tennis Players Association) with a central mission to "promote, protect and represent the interests of its players" on the ATP/WTA tour.
As the first player-only association in tennis since 1972, the PTPA represents singles players in the top 500 and doubles players in the top 200 of the ATP rankings and WTA rankings.
The idea behind the PTPA was to act as a sort of union through which players could fight for their rights and hold the ATP and WTA accountable.
In August 2022, the PTPA hired Ahmad Nassar, the former president of the NFL Players Incorporation, as the new executive director and now has a full-time staff of 12. The team focuses on a wide range of issues from pay structure, understanding and appealing various fines, and helping with the never-ending travel issues.
Speaking to us across two episodes of the First Serve radio show back in August, Nassar believes that the player power of an individual sport like tennis should be stronger but in reality, it’s the exact opposite.
“The tennis players are uniquely left behind in that global sports industry ecosystem. More (players) should be able to generate a living from a top 5 global sport than are currently. Should it should be several hundred, or several thousand even?” Nassar pondered.
Along with the ATP’s recent “Baseline” program announcement and the PTPA, many other solutions have also been suggested.
A base salary has been floated, but this may be difficult given tennis doesn’t have just one governing body like most major sports leagues. Tennis has several organisations, including the ATP, WTA, ITF and the four majors, all operating independently and all with their own media broadcast rights agreements and revenue breakdowns.
Many players have suggested a change in the distribution of prize money at events, specifically the majors, in which more of the prize money would go to those who lose in the early rounds.
Additionally, Nassar has pointed to licensing agreements for players as a group entity, such as a tennis-themed video game like NBA2K or Madden in place of a traditional salary. With multiple deals across the board, this could potentially create a substantial passive income for players.
The PTPA has also pointed to helping players find and secure sponsors and maximise their own personal branding as another way of generating more personal income.
Addressing the concern that the PTPA could just become another ‘fragment’, adding to the myriad of other organisations which would complicate the governance structure of the professional tour more, Nassar was positive in his response.
“We’re here to help unify those different fragments.”
For now, at the tail-end of the 2023 season, while there are progressions being made, a lot of work still needs to be done, and for many, it will be another year full of worry and financial uncertainty.