Many of us may have applied for jobs during our lifetime only to get told, “You need experience." But there lies the conundrum… How do you get experience when no one is willing to give you that opportunity to gain experience?
And it’s the same conundrum in Tennis.
Players at the top are travelling with their coach, a physio, a strength and conditioning coach, their partner, their agent, a hitting partner and in some cases an array of other extended support staff.
Unfortunately players on the other end of the tennis spectrum, in some cases, struggle to afford to take one person with them, let alone a whole team. And there lies the disparity.
While some might claim that those who work the hardest deserve the accolades and remuneration that comes their way, it can also be argued that the stark contrast is unfair.
It then becomes an even bigger challenge as the lower-ranked players also need to confront an uneven playing field.
In January, we saw incredibly talented Tennis players grace our shores and strut their silky skills on Australian tennis courts.
The Australian summer of tennis culminated with Novak Djokovic lifting up his tenth Australian Open trophy after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas. On the women’s side of the draw, we saw Aryna Sabalenka victorious over Elena Rybakina in three thrilling sets. Sabalenka dropped only one set throughout the tournament and that was in that final at Rod Laver Arena.
Likewise the man affectionately known as the ‘Djoker’ showed he was back to his sublime best.
Djokovic and Sabalenka earned a whopping $2.975 million each for winning their respective championships.
Tsitsipas and Rybakina each returned home $1.625 million wealthier for being the runner-up. As per the Aus Open website, the world’s best tennis players competed “for more than AUD $100 million prize money this summer.”
We often hear about how much the top echelon of players make/earn but no attention is given to how much some players on the other end of the tennis spectrum really struggle to make ends meet.
During the Australian Open, I had the opportunity to meet female doubles player, Angela Kulikov, and an interesting discussion ensued. It was eye-opening.
Often when we think of tennis players, we think of the glamorous lifestyle they live, having the opportunity to travel the world. And getting paid exuberant amounts to play out their passion.
One is sometimes even filled with a bit of jealousy thinking about how they travel to exotic places around the world and stay in five-star accommodation.
But the reality is not all rosy. The top players who dominate Grand Slams like the Djokovics, Nadals and Federers of the world may have it comfortably.
Throughout their careers, they have worked extremely hard and each earned incredibly well. Serena Williams retired late last year (although she doesn’t like to use that word) having earned just under $95 million.
Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek, the year-end top-ranked players in the ATP and WTA respectively, each earned around $10 million last season in prize money.
And these amounts do not include earnings from sponsorship and endorsements.
But those on the fringes of the ITF, ATP or WTA, grinding the lower-level tours have it completely different.
They travel all year round competing in tournaments and challenger events around the world and in some cases, struggle to afford a coach or to even travel to compete.
For many, it can be quite challenging, full of financial insecurity.
“Most people look at us and think, ‘Oh, you’re a professional athlete and travel the whole world and you make a lot of money.’ But for most of us, that’s not the case. It’s much harder than it looks and much less glamorous a lot of times than it seems to be on TV,” Angela Kulikov said.
And Kulikov explains the reality can be daunting. “Even for us as players, not just fans. For myself, I had this whole idea growing up of what this life on tour would be, and now I’m experiencing it and while it’s still tremendously rewarding, I definitely have days where I’m “Oh geez!”
“On the ITF tour. This is doubles. I’ve gotten cheques that were under $1,000 for winning the tournament. My flight is probably going to be more than $1000.”
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
And qualifying for the first round of a Grand Slam, like the Australian Open, can be life-changing.
"For a tennis player grinding the ITF or ATP tours, $80,000 could completely change the trajectory of their life. It could be life changing and career changing for them whereas for someone like Djokovic or Nadal it won't make much difference," the American tennis champ explains.
In less than two weeks after the Australian Open, Kulikov travelled to compete in Leon in France and then in Linz in Austria. She is grinding the tour in these smaller tournaments in front of tiny crowds to maintain her ranking.
But she often reflects on how slight differences can have major and sometimes catastrophic impact on a tennis player’s career.
“The slim margins for change in this sport are crazy. We already understand the margins between winning and losing a tennis match but when you look at the implications of what those matches can do...
“If you can make the main draw of a Grand Slam, whether you do it through qualifying or you happen to be at the top of your country and can get a wild card into there, the doors that can open for you just with one match win and that prize money (are incredible).”
“And the other wildcards that can get thrown your way because you’ve demonstrated potential are quite fascinating,” the 24-year-old said.
With a wry smile, the American reflected on life-changing turning point in her own life. “Can you imagine what would have happened if this moment changed right here?” she reflects.
“I was playing in the first big ITF tournament I won. It was a $100k in Palm Harbor in Florida in April. In the first round, I was playing horrible. I didn’t feel good on the clay and we were down a match point. And one of our opponents missed a fairly simple volley wide by an inch.
And we somehow got through that match and then won the tournament and won the next tournament and there was all momentum. Suddenly you’re confidence goes up and your tennis goes up, we did better in a few other tournaments and ended up winning a WTA in Hamburg and then the USTA was able to help award us a wild card to the US Open.”
“I just laugh sometimes, if that volley in Palm Harbor was an inch to the left there’s a chance I might not even be playing tennis today. And it’s incredible to think, even in singles on a grander scale, the impact and ripple effect that some of these matches can be,” the doubles specialist said.
While happy with how her doubles career has progressed, she is focusing on her ongoing back issues and recovering health at the moment. But the doubles specialist hasn’t fully given up hope of playing singles.
“If I could get my back to a full recovery and I was healthier, I would consider playing a few singles events if they fit in my schedule but I’m happy with the way my doubles has progressed and enjoying the life I’m living on the doubles tour so in the interim, I’ve made that decision to be a doubles specialist.”
Kulikov explains the financial strain players face to have a support network around them
“Anyone who is doing it right on tour is at least traveling with a coach and obviously the expenses for that are really high and people have different coaching agreements, it adds up and not everyone can afford that.”
“Just to have someone there can make a huge difference. When you get in those super tight moments in the match, you can just look in your box and fee you’re not by yourself. It makes such a massive difference but it is really expensive. You’re doubling your expenses when you bring someone else with you.”
Its’ tough when you get trapped in that perpetuating cycle. A player needs to win to progress their career but then have no support to improve.
Some in Tennis HQ might question how many fans come to watch players at the lower-levels? And they might argue that the money is better spent remunerating those that generate the money and get ‘bums on seats’.
And perhaps they have a valid point from a business perspective. And if they are truly happy with how the state of tennis is and don’t want to see it progress further.
“Even Novak Djokovic himself is doing a lot with the new players organisation because he recognises that disparity and he sees there are so many more potential champions we could be helping if we can just give them more opportunity at the beginning that the ones who have already broken through don’t need as much as they’ve already made it over that hump.”
In 2014, the AFL introduced new equalisation measures to help the less wealthy clubs. They have continued to support less-performing clubs. The aim is to avoid big blowouts and have a competition where every week at every match, either team has a realistic chance of winning.
And it could be argued this has been achieved. Nowadays, there are fewer walkover matches and each round, each team has a genuine chance of competing. This is better for the clubs, the competition and the fans.
Sporting codes takes initiatives from other sporting bodies all the time and try to seek ways to adapt and develop. And maybe it’s time Tennis took something out from the AFL and shared the pool around more and invested into the future.
Even if they tried it for a few years as an experiment and tested to see if the quality of tennis overall improved.
There are so many more potential champions. And some of these young talented tennis players just need an opportunity to shine. And this might just give them that impetus to do just that.
The elite players will continue to earn enough from endorsements and sponsorships and it might just make things slightly easier for those that are lower-ranked.
And then after a three-year trial period, if they assess the results and find the quality of tennis has not improved overall, then they could always resort back.
It seems like a win-win solution but then again, I don’t make those big decisions.