Sunday saw the final round of qualifying at the ATP tournament in Estoril, with the winners of the 4 matches played going through to the main draw. In the high-profile world of Federer, Djokovic et al., playing tennis is about titles, performance, and securing a historical legacy. For these guys trying to qualify though it’s a weekly slog for a pay check and enough ranking points to do the same next week. But it doesn’t have to be.
The disparity in earnings with better-known names is extraordinary. Today’s eight potential qualifiers – all ranked outside the top 100 – had together played 162 matches to date in 2016, between them earning a little over USD 300,000, at about USD 2,000 a match. It’s less than what Raonic earned for winning just 5 matches at the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells. Factor in all the travelling required, paying for a coach or a fitness trainer (but certainly not both) and you can see the effort required to eke out an existence. Compare this to Marcel Granollers, ranked 50 in the world: he’s earned about USD 250,000 this year at an average of USD 8,500 per match. Milos Raonic ranked 11, has earned over USD 50,000 per match this year. Novak Djokovic? USD 155,000 per match. This buys the top players better coaching, nutritionists, fitness trainers – a different sport from the qualifying that took place today. Seeing as Shakespeare died 400 years ago yesterday: Tennis by any other name does not smell as sweet.
Let’s take as our example today, Steven Diez, a 25 year old Canadian who beat Argentinean Marco Trungelliti to qualify for the main draw. Ranked 255 before this week, he has played 40 matches this year, mostly at Futures level, the lowest level of the ATP Tour, where for winning three tournaments and 34 matches, he has earned a total of just USD 7,762. Diez is unlikely to have broken even and will have had to make compromises on transport, accommodation, and preparation that do not register for higher ranked players. By winning 2 matches in qualifying for the main draw of the Estoril Open, Diez is guaranteed at least USD 5,000, two thirds of what he’s earned in four moths. This will sustain him only so long though.
The iniquities of prize money distribution are a favourite topic of this site (see here, here, here and here) and are brought into focus once again by a recent report in the UK Daily Mail of further anticipated increases in Wimbledon prize money. Prize money allocation for grand slam and ATP tour events in recent years has disproportionately benefitted those making the later rounds of tournaments to the detriment of those seeking to make a living. No one suggests that the top players do not merit a greater share of prize money than, prior to the last few years, they had historically been used to. However, the winner of the French Open this year does not need another EUR 200,000 to take them up to EUR 2m. Wimbledon and the US Open do not need to compete with each other annually to deliver the largest prize in grand slam tennis (last year USD 3.3m for the US Open winner).
The grand slam tournaments have said that recent percentage prize money increases have been greater for the early rounds than for later rounds. This is spin – and damaging: a 20% increase for second round losers at this year’s French Open is an increase of EUR 10,000; an 11% increase for losing semi-finalists is an increase of EUR 50,000. Prefer to see it visually? Here you go.
Increase in prize money awarded by round at grand slam tournaments 1990-2014 (adjusted for inflation, 2014 dollars)
The same issues around increased prize money inequality have appeared between the ATP main tour and its second tier Challenger tour.
Index of prize money: ATP Tour vs ATP Challenger Tour 1978-2018 (projected)
To be clear, it is a choice on the part of grand slam tournaments, the ATP and WTA tours and the ITF. The effect of these choices is that it adds to the difficulty for players to break through as they do not have the resources to compete with wealthier peers. Players are breaking into the top 100 now aged 25 on average as opposed to 1980 to 2000 when it was just 22. More players will leave the game as a result as they do not have sufficient capital to invest in their breakthrough.
For the tours, the result is fewer if any insurgencies led by young players, fewer teenagers in the top 100 than before, a potential loss of quality in depth, and a tour that could become staid quite quickly. Perhaps most damagingly the blow back from prize money choices is also seen in the match-fixing scandals that have beset the tour in the last 12 months.
The weekly slog at qualifying brings to mind Sisphyus, whose punishment for tricking the gods was an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill and watching it fall back down. Players at the tour’s lowest levels have not committed a similar crime but are currently destined to endure a similar punishment. It may not be good for the gods of the governing bodies either, but it is in their power to address it.