Tennis may seem like a highly profitable sport, with a tremendous amount of money distributed during Grand Slam events. Below the surface, however, at the lower levels of the game, problems persist for the men and women trying to make a living.
Financial Issues at the Lower Levels
One player impacted by the skewed financial structure of tennis is 33-year-old Ukrainian Illya Marchenko. Marchenko has been as high as No. 49 in the world and is now ranked just outside the top 150, a ranking where it is often a struggle to simply make a profit playing the sport.
“I don’t like the whole system in tennis,” said Marchenko, “We play way too many tournaments in every corner of the world while nobody is watching.
“And many times our pay-checks are less than the flight tickets cost. I don’t this is right. But I can’t see it changing any time soon.”
The majority of players in a similar position to Marchenko share this view, which is that players should not be breaking even and often losing money while doing their job.
Perhaps a better system will develop in the future, but for now players must travel around the world in an attempt to gain points and a higher ranking. As well as this, there is a necessity to play as much as possible, with many travelling on an almost weekly basis, to prevent other players from overtaking them in the rankings.
Too Many Professionals?
On the contrary, should there be a limit to how many professionals the sport can adequately fund? According to Sports Illustrated Executive Editor Jon Wertheim, this is an unfair demand.
Wertheim argues that compared with other sports, specifically those such as basketball and American football with a regulated amount of players, “tennis doesn’t really have those firm cutoffs” regarding who is and is not classified as a professional.
“Not everyone that wants to be a successful rockstar can be a rockstar,” said Wertheim, “At some level there’s a finite market for how many people can be pro tennis players.”
When analysing the amount of prize money earned at the top level of the game compared with those ranked outside the top-100 of the rankings, the difference is staggering.
Novak Djokovic, current men’s world No. 1, has earned over $150 million during his career. World No. 150 Alex Bolt, meanwhile, has earned just over $1 million, which with expenses is likely much less than that figure.
While it is obviously fair that the top players earn much more prize money than those less successful, it seems that the money could be distributed more reasonably in the sport. Wertheim argues, however, that this is simply the business element of the sport on display.
“It’s not really incumbent on tennis to make sure everyone that wants to be a tennis player can be a tennis player. Maybe the market can only support x number of players.”
Marchenko would disagree with this notion, and he believes that there are possible ways to solve the financial issues that many tennis players find themselves facing. One solution he offers is for tennis players to be able to capitalise on the immense amount of betting that takes place on matches at the Challenger and Futures levels of tennis.
“I would be more than happy to get a percentage of all bets placed on my matches. Because by the amount of messages I get on my IG and other pages, it looks like people bet a lot.
“So somebody is earning money from it, but not us, the players.”
Financial Inequality Remains For Women’s Players
Another aspect of tennis that has caused great debate over recent years is the subject of gender equality and equal pay.
Both the men’s and women’s competitors at all four Grand Slam events receive the same prize money, which is a fact that should be celebrated. Below the surface, however, there are still financial inequalities in the sport.
The prize money for women’s tour events outside of the Grand Slams are much less financially rewarding than men’s events, meaning the financial situation for lower ranked women’s players is even worse than for the men.
Another issue within women’s tennis is the difference in how the athletes are represented by the media in comparison with the men. According to an ITF (International Tennis Federation) research project conducted earlier this year, women’s tennis matches are twice as likely to reference the clothing, the health and medical treatment and the age of a player.
Despite these troubling facts, Canadian two-time Mixed Doubles Grand Slam champion Gaby Dabrowski chooses to focus on the positives regarding gender equality in tennis, especially in comparison with other sports.
“I think tennis is probably the most lucrative or one of the most lucrative sports for women. This is amazing,” Dabrowski said, “I think there’s a growing market for incredible female athletes and tennis offers many.”
“It’s hard to compare female sports with male sports because sport has been predominately male driven for a long time. You can’t argue that.”
“Naturally I think that men are promoted more, but that doesn’t mean the women aren’t promoted well. I think it more depends on who you are and where you’re from that determines your popularity.”
While it is evident that drastic improvements could still be made, tennis is heading in the right direction and is somewhat of a pioneer in terms of gender equality among the world’s most popular sports.
There are clear financial problems below the top level of the game, with the COVID-19 pandemic making matters even worse. And although tennis is a progressive sport in terms of gender equality in many ways, there remain issues for lower ranked players that need to be resolved.