On a day when Wimbledon widened the gap in prize money between the haves and the have-nots (see text following the interview), I interviewed Steven Diez, a qualifier here in Estoril, who this year has also had to play Futures tournaments.
Grand Slams and ATP events belong to the top tier of men’s professional tennis. Challengers belong to the second tier with Futures being the third tier. If men’s tennis were biology, we would say that Grand Slam / ATP events and Challenger / Futures events belong to the same Kingdom – tennis – but you wouldn’t recognise them as being the same Family. Indeed, whereas the top players benefit from unequal allocations in the increases in prize money, those on the Challenger and Futures tours fight for scraps.
Steven Diez, who is 25, was born in Canada to Spanish parents, and now lives in Barcelona where he grew up. He turned professional in 2007, worked his way up through the Futures and Challengers, and by March 2014 had reached a career-high ranking of 191. But a combination of mononucleosis and injuries to shoulder and wrist kept Diez out of tennis for large parts of the next 18 months: his ranking fell to 807 in August 2015. Since then he has rebuilt his ranking, primarily through playing Futures tournaments. Before this week in Estoril, Diez had played 41 matches in 2016, earning a mere USD 7,762. This week, in Estoril, he earned almost EUR 5,000 just for winning two matches in qualifying.
The below text has been lightly edited.
AM: What was it like to go back to the Futures level to build your ranking again?
SD: At the beginning it was pretty hard. The last two years before my injury I was playing mostly Challengers and Grand Slams. If you’re paying for a coach and everything, you won’t earn a lot of money playing Challengers. At the end of the month you’ll be kind of equal. Depends if you do really well or not, how much you pay your coach or if you play more in Europe [where Diez is based]. If you go to South America, North America or Asia you pay for flight costs as well. Depends if the Challenger pays for the hotel or not. And if not, you have to pay.
On the Futures level, no way [you can break even]. Even if you win Singles and Doubles titles you could maybe break even if you string your [own] racquet at the tournament, depends what tournament it is. Tournaments can charge you up to EUR 15 per racquet. Me? I string my own racquets, I have my own stringing machine I take with me every week. If not, I wouldn’t be able to play tennis probably because my brother and I calculated I saved EUR 6,000 or EUR 7,000 a year, by stringing my own racquets.
AM: What was your profit or loss for the 3 months you played Futures this year?
SD: I haven’t really thought about it. Luckily I’ve been playing in Spain as well. Most of the tournaments I went to in my car. 2 or 3 of the tournaments I played were actually in Catalunya near my home. I was sleeping at home but I think if you go to 3 or 4 futures and you’re not at home and you don’t win them all you would probably lose easy.
How much would it be? If you stay a whole week at a hotel with your coach, it could cost EUR 400. That would be a good deal with breakfast and everything included. Plus food for the week – that could be EUR 40 / day for 7 days, so that’s EUR 300 more. That’s EUR 700. If you get your racquets strung at the tournament venue, that’s another 10 racquets to be strung, you’re talking almost EUR 1,000 a week. If you win the tournament, the prize money is EUR 1,000. That’s without counting any plane flights. That’s playing in Spain [i.e. at home] and going with your own car.
I didn’t play any doubles this year because coming back from injury and playing so many matches, it wasn’t worth it. Now, if you lose the first round in doubles you get EUR 20. Before if you lost in the first round of doubles there was no money at all. Only if you won a match to get to the quarter finals, there was I think EUR 35.
AM: What do the players think about the different rates of pay between the tours?
SD: If you ask [a player] from the ATP level , they’ll say that if you want to make more money, win more matches. Depends who you ask: if you ask someone from Futures tour, they’ll “we’re 200 or 300 in the world and you look at someone who’s playing football and they’re 300 in the world, they’re maybe playing for Newcastle United or Athletico Madrid, earning millions.”
AM: Impact on younger players breaking through
SD: I am not sure why this year, the ATP made qualifying draws 16 [people in the draw, 2 rounds of qualifying] instead of 32 draws [3 rounds]. I don’t know what the reason is, I haven’t spoken to anyone at the top. But you’re closing so many doors for people ranked at 500, 600. They may be young and they have a tournament around the corner, around 200 km from their house. They want go and play it, but they can’t play it anymore because they know they can’t get in.
I don’t know what the reason was for the 32 to 16 [change to the qualifying draws], but now if my ranking goes up it’s actually pretty good, because with 16 draws, now they pay for the hotel and last year for 32 draws, they wouldn’t pay for the hotel.
I don’t know how many players make a living out of tennis. Top 120? And from the top 120, from the top 60 through to the top 700, [the players] play teams, every weekend there’s club matches, in Germany, France and Italy. And people that are 400, 500 in the world, if it wasn’t for these club matches, if their parents are not rich they couldn’t be playing this sport. It’s not possible with the money in Futures. If you ask someone from Futures they say there’s not enough.
SD: If you play a $10k on hard court [an ITF event where total prize money is USD 10,000], there’s only one chair umpire and they are not to the same standard as ATP umpires. If it’s on a clay court it’s ok, if there’s a close call the chair umpire comes down and can say it’s in or out, but hard court, no. There’s no line umpires so it’s really hard for a chair umpire to say if a ball is in or out, if a serve is 200 km/h. So I think there are things besides the prize money they can improve in Futures as well.
AM: Futures prize money
SD: The ATP every few years have been increasing prize money for the Challenger events. ITF Futures changed the $15k tournaments to $25k this year, and next year they’re supposed to change the $10ks to $15k. But the thing is in Spain and a lot of countries there are a lot of $10ks and maybe there’s a handful of $15ks in the whole year.
But before, there were almost 40 tournaments a year and now I’m not sure if they’re even 30 in Spain. And of those 30 there might be 4 or 5 $15ks. So next year they’re changing the tournaments, the lowest [level of prize money] will be a $15k [as opposed to $10k now]. That’s good, that’s really good for the players. But who’s going to pay for that other $5k. In Spain, some clubs are cancelling $10ks. How are they going to do a $15k? So it’s better for the players that there’s more money but there’s going to be fewer tournaments.
In the light of Diez’s experience, the announcement today by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) of prize money for this year’s Wimbledon feels tone deaf.
Prize money will be increased for the singles champions by 6.4% from GBP 1.9m to GBP 2m. However, those knocked out in the first round will see their prize money increase by just GBP 1,000 to GBP 30,000, an increase of 3.4%.
What is illogical though is that the above increases were announced at the same press conference that also set out a number of anti-corruption measures to be employed at Wimbledon this year, such as monitoring and investigation of betting patterns, enhanced accreditation procedures, and education for players and officials. These initiatives are to be welcomed and will hopefully be implemented by other tournaments. More broadly, Chris Kermode, the head of the ATP, has quite rightly emphasised the sport’s zero tolerance of corruption, i.e. match-fixing.
However, given the number of match-fixing allegations made about matches on the Challenger and Futures tours, the low level of prize money at these levels, and the resulting vulnerability of players to corrupt approaches, the toolkit to combat corruption in tennis should surely include increased prize money at the lower levels of the game.
It is in the power of the ITF, under whose auspices Wimbledon, the other slams AND the Futures tour operate, as well as within the power of the ATP, which runs the Challenger tours, to make this change. It is inconceivable that Novak Djokovic will miss another GBP 100,000 if he wins Wimbledon this year. However, a fraction of that money would make a significant difference to a number of players and go some way to help protecting the integrity and reputation of tennis.
Back to Steven Diez. He lost his first round match today to Taro Daniel in unfortunate circumstances. Leading 5-2 with a double break – and having played some well-crafted tennis – Diez freakishly hit his own thumb with his racket. Following a medical time out, Diez was broken and, in some pain, went on to lose the set and the match. Diez had beaten Daniel twice before and was confident of progressing to the second round.
Still, for his 3 matches this week, he picks up EUR 4,680, not much less than the USD 7,762 for the 41 matches prior to this week. Mostly, I feel sympathetic he did not win another EUR 3,000.
Ranked 264, Diez is off to play two Challenger tournaments in Uzbekistan next week. We wish him well and hope to see him in London for Wimbledon qualifying.