‘Why am I here, playing for literally $6?’: The stunning financial reality of pro tennis

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NEARLY EVERY TIME Kiranpal “KP” Pannu tells someone what he does for a living, he’s bombarded with questions about his seemingly glamorous lifestyle as a professional tennis player. It happens almost every day.

“Unfortunately, all of their assumptions are wrong,” Pannu said recently, sighing. “And I’m like, ‘Well, if only you guys knew the other half.'”

In 2022, Pannu earned $6,771 in prize money. But his expenses, predominantly for travel, cost $34,500.

He has found ways to make money on the side — primarily through short coaching stints — and to save money, such as sharing accommodations with fellow players and going without health insurance.

But it makes for a challenging life full of uncertainty and financial insecurity.

“It’s hard to really consider myself a professional when I can’t even really provide for myself as a 25-year-old,” Pannu said. “I’m lucky that my parents are in a position where they can help me. They can’t help me a lot, but they can help me enough to where I can get through.”

Pannu ended the season ranked No. 664. And his experience is far from unique for lower-ranked professional tennis players.

Coaching, training and travel are all exorbitantly expensive. Combine that with small purses at lower-level events and a lack of sponsorship opportunities, and it produces a persistent financial strain. It also sets up an unlevel playing field: While the big-name players are traveling with sizable teams, the lower-ranked ones sometimes don’t even take a coach with them to events. It’s even more difficult to win without that support, creating an ever-widening gap between those at the top and everyone else.

“The most common struggle for anyone ranked outside of the top 100 is financial, and the stress it causes,” Vasek Pospisil, a 2014 Wimbledon men’s doubles champion, said. “They’re trying to cover travel expenses and needing to make decisions about where to cut costs, and then not being able to travel [to events] the way they would like to. … And it’s a snowball effect, it makes it even harder for the lower-ranked guys to break through because they just have less resources.”

How tennis players are paid

THOSE ASKING PANNU about his job are likely thinking of the players who dominate Grand Slams — and not those playing on the fringes of the ATP and WTA, or on the lower-level tours. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and the recently retired Roger Federer have each earned over $130 million on the court throughout their careers, and Serena Williams walked away from the game in September with just under $95 million earned. 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 (including a bonus from the ATP in Alcaraz’s case). During the 2022 season, 97 players — 58 men and 39 women — made over $1 million on the court.

Every tournament has a set amount of tiered prize money, which varies dramatically depending on the type of event. At the Australian Open this year, the paycheck for someone who loses in the first round will be $73,375.72, with the singles champions ultimately earning $2.05 million.

Because of the high earnings potential, players have attempted to compete at majors even when suffering from injuries. At the 2022 French Open, Facundo Bagnis showed up to his opening-round match with a heavily strapped right calf. He struggled to move around the court but earned $65,000 in a very lopsided loss to Daniil Medvedev.

The paychecks and ranking points available continue to decrease for lower levels of tournaments. The 1000-level BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, one level below a Grand Slam, offered a $426,010 paycheck to the winners in 2022. A first-round loser walked away with $17,580. At this week’s ASB Classic in Auckland, a lower 250-level tournament, the men’s winner earned $97,760 and the women’s winner took home $34,228, with those exiting in the first round earning $6,895 and $2,804, respectively.

The second-tiered tour for men is the ATP Challenger Tour; for women, it’s the WTA 125 series. There is also an ITF Tour for both men and women. In 2022, the range of pay on the ITF Women’s Tour ranged from $50 (first round of qualifying at a W25) to $15,239 for a winner at a W100 tournament, its highest-level event. Brenda Fruhvirtova, who won a tour-high eight ITF events in 2022, earned a total of $43,071 for the year.

The prize money in doubles is significantly less at all events, and many players compete in both singles and doubles to maximize earning potential.

Some players, particularly those who are just starting out, are able to find a benefactor who contributes a set amount of money one time or annually to help offset the cost of expenses. Danielle Collins famously thanked Marty Schneider, her longtime benefactor and financial mentor, for his support after the 2022 Australian Open final. Pannu said an athletic booster for Columbus State University, his alma mater, gave him approximately $20,000 for his first season as a professional.

“Wouldn’t say it lasted a year by any means, but at least it was enough to get me going,” he said.

Many players have other jobs as well, including Pannu, who has opted to skip tournaments to make guaranteed money through coaching. During those weeks, he’ll work “as many hours as I can” in hopes of making around $800.

And then there are endorsements. At the lower levels, some players have deals in which they are sent free gear but not compensated financially. Vicky Duval, who ended the 2022 season ranked at No. 413, has had such agreements with Head and Oakley since her junior days. She formerly had an unpaid partnership with Asics and remains devoted to its sneakers, but that ended when the brand said it no longer had the budget to do so. Instead, another player with an Asics contract and the same shoe size — whom Duval declined to name for fear of getting her in trouble — regularly gives Duval some of her sneakers and other gear.

“She’s my unofficial sponsor,” Duval said.

The enormous and uncertain costs

PLAYERS ARE RESPONSIBLE for paying for their own transportation to and from tournaments, as well as the support staff who travel with them, including coaches and physios. Accommodations are provided or subsidized for the players at majors and ATP, WTA and Challenger events, but at many lower-level tournaments, like on the ITF tour, players are responsible for accommodation costs.

Pospisil ended the 2022 season ranked at No. 98 and managed to just get into the main draw for the Australian Open — something that could be the financial difference for his entire season.

But Pospisil estimated the travel costs for himself, his coach and his physio will be about $30,000 for the year. He wanted to take his fitness trainer to Australia but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth another additional expense. He booked one-way economy tickets for flights, because he was not sure how long he’ll be there or where he’ll be playing after, and the trio are sharing an apartment he found on Airbnb because it was cheaper than getting individual hotel rooms.

He made an “educated guess” and booked the apartment through the sixth day of the tournament. If he is still in the draw at that point, he will have to find another place to stay for himself and his team.

Of course, Pospisil knows at least he will be making a profit of some kind no matter how he fares. For others, even that isn’t a given. Jamie Loeb, who ended the year ranked at 265, wasn’t sure if her ranking would be good enough for her to make the 128-player qualifying draw in Melbourne. And she might not find out until a few days before she would leave her home in New York, making travel even more costly.

“It’s so hard to plan based on the prize money, the location, just the points, like, ‘Oh, if I go here, I might get X amount of points.’ There’s just so many unknowns, and it is exhausting,” she said in November.

Ultimately, Loeb, 27, was several spots outside of the qualifying draw and she instead started the season at an ITF event in Malibu, California. She won the title and earned a $3,935 paycheck — over $14,000 less than if she had lost in the opening round of qualifying in Melbourne — but got 50 ranking points. A player earns only 40 points for winning all three qualifying matches and getting into the main draw.

Loeb predominantly played ITF-level events in 2022, and every tournament she played required a similar set of questions: Where is it and how much will it cost to get there and stay there? Is her ranking good enough for direct entry or does she need to go through qualifying? What is the prize money? How many points could she earn?

To save money, particularly at events where housing isn’t provided, Loeb has stayed with host families at some tournaments, and shared rooms with fellow players at others — which occasionally has resulted in awkward moments when they then have to play against one another. She no longer has her own apartment, instead living at her parents’ house when she isn’t on the road.

“Most of the time you’re losing money at those tournaments, even if you win, unless you’re staying at someone’s house and not traveling with a coach.”

Jamie Loeb, pro tennis player

Loeb has won 10 titles on the ITF Tour during her career, with most, including the event in Malibu, coming at the $25,000 level. But she said that distinction is often misleading.

“People think if you win a $25,000 tournament, that’s what you get, but I’m like, ‘The joke is on you,'” Loeb said. “[That amount] is split up amongst everybody, plus taxes, plus expenses, so most of the time you’re losing money at those tournaments, even if you win, unless you’re staying at someone’s house and not traveling with a coach.”

Like Pannu, Loeb frequently travels alone, meaning she is a one-woman operation, accountable for not only her play on the court, but all of the other logistics. That typically includes booking practice courts, as well as transportation to and from the venue, and finding and preparing quality food to ensure peak athletic performance.

At lower-level events, simple things like practice balls and water are frequently not provided, and players are responsible for securing those as well.

There’s also the problem of health care. Both the WTA and ATP offer two levels of membership to its players, based on rankings, with differing health care options offered for each category. While the annual membership dues are less for those in the second-tier of WTA and ATP membership, the rates for health care raise dramatically, according to several players. The WTA declined to give numbers to ESPN, but Duval estimated it nearly tripled.

As a result, many players ranked outside of the top categories look elsewhere. Duval and Loeb have single-payer health care through other carriers. Other American players stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. Pannu, who represents New Zealand but is based in Atlanta, was paying around $400 a month to do the same but has decided he can no longer afford it and currently has no health insurance. He doesn’t deny the lingering “What if?” thoughts that occasionally creep in.

Pannu said he would “beg” an ambulance not be called if he suffered a serious injury during a match.

Former US Open junior finalist Tornado Alicia Black made headlines in 2017 for crowdfunding the costs of her hip surgery because her Medicaid wouldn’t cover the procedure. For players like Duval and Loeb, there are questions about what would happen if they were to need emergency medical care in a foreign country with their current plans.

“I see some doctors who maybe aren’t as good because they’re with my plan,” said Loeb, “And maybe I’m not getting the best treatment I could be.”

The effect on performance

WITH ALL OF this going on behind the scenes, it can be difficult for a player to be at their best once it’s time to actually play a tennis match.

“It’s a constant [weight on your shoulders],” said Noah Rubin, who recently announced he would be taking a break from professional tennis. “If you don’t have the finances to have a team or to feel comfortable playing the way you need to play, then you’re not prepared against people that are. In that way, you’re probably going to lose a match, which then equates to you not making more money, and it just keeps going.”

Rubin, the 2014 Wimbledon junior champion, reached his highest ranking of No. 125 in 2018. After dealing with a series of injuries throughout his career, the 26-year-old couldn’t bring himself to play the lower-level events — yet again — to improve his ranking enough to play ATP tournaments. He made the decision to walk away from tennis, at least temporarily, in September and is now playing professional pickleball.

“When I was playing at this level at 17, it gave me a little chip on my shoulder,” Rubin said. “It was like, ‘I can’t be here — how do I get past this level?’ I think that was good pressure then, but when you’re not doing well, and it lasts for years, it becomes the pressure you don’t want as a tennis player … So this year, it became, ‘Why am I here, playing for literally $6? Is this good for me as a person? And can I get through this level again without losing my mind?'”

Rubin knew a wrist surgery was potentially looming as well, and that was another contributing factor in his decision. A lengthy absence from competition can be financially destructive for many who are already scraping by.

Duval, 27, understands this dilemma all too well. She’s never been able to play a full season. She cracked the top 100 in 2014 and appeared to be a rising star in the sport, but then she was sidelined after a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Since making a full recovery, she has struggled with a series of knee injuries, and has played just 55 tournaments since the start of the 2018 season.

To earn a living, she has done some coaching, interned with the WTA, created freelance illustrations for the USTA and, most recently, provided guest commentary for the Tennis Channel. She also earned her degree with the WTA’s partnership with Indiana East University. The stress of trying to support herself is relentless.

“It’s tough entering a tournament knowing that if you’re not making the semifinals or the finals, you’re for sure losing money that week,” she said. “That’s definitely an added layer of subconscious stress, and those things manifest in how you play sometimes.”

The huge barrier to entry

THE FINANCIAL STRAIN in tennis starts early. Jeremy Gibbens-Schneider, a former NCAA player and Canadian junior who now runs a tennis academy in Ottawa, still vividly remembers the sticker shock from his teenage years.

“When I was about 15 or 16, I knew a coach in Toronto, a high-performance coach who was extremely, extremely transparent, and people judged her for it,” Gibbens-Schneider, now 26, said. “But I actually appreciate the honesty that she had. Her first meeting with high-performance parents, and they would say something like, ‘This is what we want to do, the kid really wants that, we want to go for an NCAA scholarship or play on tour.’

“And her first question would be, ‘Do you have access to a hundred thousand dollars a year?'”

While Gibbens-Schneider doesn’t want to scare the prospective families he speaks to, he tries to be upfront and provide realistic costs and expectations in his own work as a coach.

“A kid that wants to play at a high level needs 80 to a hundred matches a year,” Gibbens-Schneider said. “Tournaments play a massive role, especially as the student becomes a little bit more invested probably around the age of 14 to 16, maybe ITFs start happening. … It’s a bit of a shock, for sure, especially at first.”

Gibbens-Schneider has tried to brainstorm creative ways for players to fundraise — even encouraging them to call local businesses to see if they’d be willing to provide funding. He said one player was able to get about 50% of his yearly costs covered through that approach.

In the U.S., there are several respected tennis academies, many of which also offer high school academics and boarding as well. Annual tuition for IMG Academy, located in Bradenton, Florida, and perhaps the best known, is $88,900 for those in 10th grade and above this current school year. According to the organization’s website, there are no scholarships and a “limited amount” of financial aid available.

But there isn’t a guidebook, or even much advice, available to young players about funding a very expensive dream.

Olivia Lincer, 18, began playing international events in 2018 as a 13-year-old. She had been playing USTA tournaments, but her father, Magic, who is also her coach and runs his own academy in Connecticut, said he didn’t believe she was challenged enough at those competitions. They made the decision for her to play the junior ITF circuit — but that solved only one of the problems.

“The ITF circuit for juniors obviously is more serious and more competitive, and the goals were totally different because she was trying to reach a ranking that would allow her to play the [junior] Slams,” Magic Lincer said. “That eventually happened and was an incredible experience, but then again, it comes to the point that juniors are traveling and living the same way how the pros are doing it, except they don’t get a single dollar for it.”

Throughout her junior career, Lincer won four singles titles and two in doubles. She reached her peak ranking of No. 65 in 2022, and she notched her best Slam result with a third-round appearance at Wimbledon in July. But there is no prize money for junior tournaments.

As a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Poland, Lincer switched her national representation to Poland in 2022. She ended the year ranked at No. 575 after playing several senior ITF-level events, and she will be playing at the University of Central Florida starting in the fall of 2023. In addition to the opportunity to get a free education, Lincer said the university will also provide funding and support for up to seven professional tournaments during her first year.

The recent allowance of players to earn money through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals has also made collegiate tennis more enticing for some, although international athletes on student visas have strict restrictions on how much income they can earn. For Lincer, collegiate tennis is a best-of-both-worlds opportunity that was simply too good to pass up. It’s also different from what the family said she experienced at the junior level with the USTA, in which she received no support, financial or otherwise.

“Early ranking and results has so much to do with finances, and who can afford the private lessons and the tournament travel.”

Martin Blackman, USTA general manager of player development

With a sizable national campus in Florida and a system of 17 regional sections, the USTA covers regional and national training camps for young players throughout the year, with stipends for parents and private coaches to attend as well. It also provides access to the performance team services for those 15 and up. According to Martin Blackman, the USTA’s general manager of player development, the organization has tried to make this more inclusive in recent years.

“Early ranking and results has so much to do with finances, and who can afford the private lessons and the tournament travel,” Blackman said. “So we made 70% of the selections based on rankings and results, and the other 30% based on recommendations from a coach’s commission.”

Starting at age 13, grants for up to $9,000 are available for those who reach certain age-specific benchmarks. These financial awards were temporarily suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the USTA said they will return for 2023. There are also grants available for those in financial need, as well as to subsidize travel for any American junior player — and their parents or coach — who qualifies for the Grand Slams. Players who are just starting their professional careers are also eligible for grants to help them in their first year on tour.

While this system is far from perfect, it still provides opportunities for American players — like wild cards for the US Open and other events held in the country — that many players around the world simply don’t have access to. While Pannu was able to get a wild card for main-draw entry at the ATP 250-level ASB Classic this week, he said there wasn’t much else Tennis New Zealand could do for him throughout the year because of the country’s lack of other ATP events and the federation’s limited funds.

Could the sport be losing out on perhaps the next Williams sisters or Federer simply because of the prohibitive price tag?

“I know it’s happening all the time,” Pospisil said in response to that question. “The number of stories that you hear over the years of players that are already incredibly talented that stop playing. And I’m not even referring to the ones that stop even earlier before you even realize their incredible talent. Yeah, 100%, this is happening.”

The tipping point: The pandemic

FOR PLAYERS WHO were barely staying afloat, the prolonged absence of the tour in 2020 and uncertainty about when it would return was a harrowing challenge. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ former coach, posted an open letter on social media about the situation.

“What happens when players are forced out of work for an undefined period of time? Well, they don’t get paid,” Mouratoglou wrote. “Some of them are giving up on their dreams and are calling it a career. It’s been the case for too long. Although we have done away with the long-established male supremacy in the financial field, tennis retains one of the most extreme levels of inequality in any sport.

“The thing is, tennis crucially needs them to survive. Tennis can’t live only off its elites. The tours would atrophy.”

Djokovic, who was then the president of the ATP Player Council, called for top players to help contribute to a fund established by the sport’s governing bodies to provide money to lower-ranked players. Dominic Thiem openly criticized the idea, questioning the professionalism and work ethic of players in that situation and stating he would rather give his money to “people or organizations that really need it.”

His comments sparked backlash and furthered the conversation. Ines Ibbou, then ranked No. 620 in the world, posted an open video response to Thiem on her Instagram account in which she shared her reality as a professional tennis player from Algeria struggling to break through with limited resources.

“I’m wondering, Dominic, what is it like to have a coach who assists you on tour, a personal trainer, a physiotherapist, a mental coach, a dedicated staff?” she asked.

Venus Williams and Nick Kyrgios were among the players who commended her for speaking up.

What’s next?

AT THE 2020 US Open, the first major to be played once the tour resumed, Djokovic and Pospisil announced they were starting the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) in part to help address financial disparities and inequities in the sport, and to ensure the players and their interests were fairly represented in decision making.

Lacking public support from any women on tour, and without an immediate clear shared vision, initial reaction to the news was mixed and there seemed to be more questions than answers. But now, over two years later, the organization has announced its inaugural player executive committee, made up of four men, including Djokovic and Pospisil, and four women, most notably current world No. 2 Ons Jabeur. The organization has also since hired Ahmad Nassar, the former president of NFL Players Inc., as its executive director and hopes to start making an impact in 2023.

Just five months into the job, Nassar told ESPN he had already spoken to “hundreds” of players, both men and women, to get an understanding of their biggest concerns.

“Players are frustrated — they want to be paid more,” Nassar said. “But then they have a superpower that nobody else has because they’re the players. Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, they do a terrific job of monetizing those events, but I think there’s growth there. And if we say, ‘Look, the players can actually help drive that growth,’ and in exchange for that, they want a set percentage, not a set pool, but a set percentage of the revenues that ideally they’re helping to drive.

“That becomes an example of the type of thing that helps close that gap between where tennis is and where it should be, but also helps the players directly. And the problem is, right now, everybody’s trying for growth in isolation.”

A base salary has been floated as a possible solution, but it remains unclear where that money would come from in tennis’ current structure. Unlike the major sports leagues, there isn’t one governing body. Instead, several organizations, including the ATP, WTA, ITF and the four majors, operate independently, all with their own media broadcast rights agreements and revenue breakdowns.

Other players ESPN spoke to 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.

“Djokovic [or whoever ultimately wins] doesn’t care about the extra $500K or even a million,” Rubin said. “But if you put that million to qualifying, that’s a game-changer for those in the draw.”

Instead of a traditional salary, Nassar pointed to licensing agreements for players as a group entity, like one might see in a tennis-themed video game like NBA2K or Madden. Pieced together with multiple similar deals, this could potentially create a substantial passive income. Helping players find and secure sponsors and maximize their own personal branding — an issue raised by many — is another goal of the PTPA in the coming years in hopes of generating more personal income.

For now, in the early days of the 2023 season, things remain the same, and for many, it will be another year full of worry and financial uncertainty.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of professional tennis players who are in my exact position,” Pannu said. “Financially, it’s very, very, very tough. But sometimes money is not the most important thing. And I think that is kind of an understood principle by everybody in a similar position to me. … I want to know that I did everything I could to chase my dream, and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ll figure it out from there.”

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