The four Roland Garros singles finalists received over $11 million AUD last weekend – but the opposite end of professional tennis isn’t nearly as glamorous.
Each week, hundreds of matches are contested at lower levels of the tour – with many players travelling thousands of kilometers to compete, in nations such as Egypt and Tunisia.
Players ultimately enter with the hope of earning points and boosting their ranking – and in the case where absolutely everything goes to plan, they may just break even for the week.
But how does it work?
The ITF runs a series of male, female, and junior events each week that aim to provide a platform and first step in what is a marathon to tennis’ pinnacle.
Those names that become etched in sporting folklore all start at ‘ITF’ level before bursting onto the global stage.
On this day 20 years ago, a young Novak Djokovic had just stepped onto the professional tour and held a worrying 0-2 record.
The Serbian would win his next seven matches and has since collected a further 1168.
But for most, the transition takes far longer – if it does eventually occur – and requires significant levels of commitment and persistence.
18-year-old Australian Yamaan Bushnaq recently journeyed to Africa for multiple ‘ITF’ events in Egypt and discussed the difficulty in winning a match at any level of professional tennis.
“My second week, I versed a guy ranked 900 in the world, with a 13.5 UTR. I played a brilliant match and lost 6-1, 6-2,” he told The First Serve.
“It’s crazy, this guy’s 900 in the world, he’s a freak and he earnt $0 that tournament.”
The Aussie played multiple tournaments in Sharm El Sheikh – one of three major resort style events (alongside Antalya, Turkey and Monastir, Tunisia) which hosts 12 consecutive weeks of competition from January to April.
“The three calendar tournaments are very isolated. (Sharm El Sheikh) is just a block of land with a beach, a hotel, and tennis courts – there’s no community feel.”
While the teenager complimented the resort itself and the cost per night (approximately $110 AUD) – which includes a room, food, and access to gym and court facilities – he was not alone in questioning the prize money.
At 15K level (the lowest professional category), players in qualifying require three wins just to reach the main draw – with a final round loss returning no monetary or ATP ranking reward.
And the tournament champion – who has beaten out 87 other players (qualifying included) to lift the title – earns just $2,160 for what could demand eight hard-fought wins.
“I’m not playing as much now because I was so far behind the eight ball. And even if I am at the eight ball, I’m still going to earn very little”, the Aussie said.
“It’s the difference between rolling the dice and being the person who makes it or being stuck at futures level and wasting your money playing, but never earning it back.”
At the risk of sounding cliché, professional tennis requires a pure gamble on yourself – one that all but naturally gifted stars like Carlos Alcaraz must take.
“You can’t go (to ITF events) with no money, assuming that you’ll make money and fund yourself”, the Australian said.
“You go there with money and then if you do make any, it’s a bonus.”
Like many, the Aussie holds the belief that little separates players within the top 100 from those inside the top 500 or 1000.
“A big part of it is mental. If you just watched a practice between Matthew Dellavedova (Australian ranked #542) and Yoshihito Nishioka (Japanese, ranked #27), you would probably think they are at a similar level. It’s just a lot of tweaks, mentally, tactically, and playing the big points well.”
“But it’s still so hard to get there even though that difference isn’t that great.”
The Aussie’s experience in Egypt has helped him develop a greater appreciation for those that have reached the top 100, particularly naming Jason Kubler as an “underrated” story of perseverance.
“It has changed my perspective when I watch players on tour, appreciating how hard it is to win one Grand Slam match”, he said.
Ultimately, more players should be making a living from the sport and the current drop off in both salary and notability from tennis’ elite to those with triple digit rankings needs major attention.