Saturday, September 19, 2020

Does Tennis Owe Its Players a Living? Nava Brothers Win Doubles Title in Portugal; Koepfer's Journey from 'Pretty Terrible' in College to ATP Top 70; Zheng Reaches Another $25K Final

Early this month The Ringer published a lengthy look at the financial struggles of lower ranked professional tennis players, focusing on former Tennessee star Hunter Reese. Paul Wachter, who wrote the article Does Tennis Owe Its Players a Living?, played at Division III Swarthmore in the 1990s, so he knows enough about the the structure of the sport and the level necessary to succeed to explore the nuances involved. (He is wrong about Reese getting an "automatic" US Open doubles wild card in 2014; no NCAA wild cards are automatic, and because his partner Mikelis Libietis was from Latvia, Reese was offered a wild card with another American. Also, the US Open and French Open are not ATP Masters events).

Earlier this summer, I published an article from high school senior Nicholas Wernink that looked into the financial inequities in pro tennis, particularly on the Challenger Tour. Those issues are also explored by Wachter, with 2017 NCAA champion Thai Kwiatkowski also weighing in on the perils of being outside the Top 100. The lack of work available for the past six months, particularly in the United States, has just added to the stress; the entire sport of tennis is going to have to continue to deal with the fallout from the pandemic and finding solutions to this decade-old problem is not going to be a high priority. 

Reese did find his way to Europe for Challengers this month, playing in France last week and reaching the semifinals of the Challenger in Romania this week with former Notre Dame star Alex Lawson. Whether those paychecks will cover his expenses is another question, but I'm sure he is happy to just be back playing. 

I hope the USTA is able to figure out a way to schedule some Pro Circuit and Challenger tournaments yet this year; it's tough enough to try to stay afloat as a player when you have opportunities to earn income. Without that, it's impossible.

Emilio Nava lost his quarterfinal singles match to qualifier Nicolas Alvarez Varona of Spain Friday, but he and his older brother Eduardo won their first professional doubles title at the $15,000 tournament in Portugal today. The Navas, who beat the No. 2 seeds in the semifinals, defeated the unseeded German team of Sebastian Fanselow and Maik Steiner 6-3, 6-4 in today's final. Fanselow, the former Pepperdine star, has reached the singles final, where he'll play 2019 Wimbledon boys finalist Carlos Gimeno Valero of Spain. 

Former Tulane star Dominik Koepfer of Germany lost to ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic today in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open, but he managed to come back from a set and a break down to force a third set before falling 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Koepfer, who will move into the ATP Top 70 with his showing in Rome, was featured in this ATP website article, which quotes him as saying he was a "pretty terrible" college player at the beginning of his career.

Dominik Koepfer says attending Tulane University beginning in Fall 2012 was an easy choice because he, “didn’t really have one”. It was the only Division I institution to offer him a spot on its team.

"I went to college, but wasn't very good. I would say I was pretty terrible the first year,” Koepfer said. “But I started to work my way up."
Koepfer may not have been impressive early in his Tulane career, but he won one of the collegiate majors, the Indoor Intercollegiate Championships in 2015, and was No. 1 in the country most of his senior year of 2015-16, before finishing at No. 4. He certainly should serve as an inspiration to any player who might have had a late start in the sport and didn't receive a lot of recruiting attention.
China's Qinwen Zheng, who turns 18 in a couple of weeks, has been extraordinarily busy since the end of the shutdown, playing five consecutive weeks on the European clay. After a quarterfinal appearance in her first tournament, Zheng won back-to-back events, a $15K and a 25K, before falling in the second round of a $25K last week. Although her WTA ranking rose more than 200 places, to 410, with those results, Zheng had to qualify at the $25,000 tournament this week in the Czech Republic, but after three qualifying victories and four main draw victories, she has reached another final. She swamped No. 2 seed Victoria Kan of Russia 6-0, 6-1 in the first round and surrendered just two games to Katie Volynets in the second round. In Sunday's final, she will face No. 4 seed Gabriela Talaba of Romania, the former Texas Tech star.


Karl Martin said...

Obviously the tennis powers have decided that as long as parents keep subsidizing the lower ranked players, the system works just fine. For every lower ranked player that runs out of money and quits, another takes their place. Its always been that way. It is what it is, a winner takes all sport. No amount of Behind the Racquet or complaining from lower ranked players will change that.

Capitalism can be brutal. The lower ranked players do not have leverage. And if one of these 120th ranked players went on an amazing run, played great for 3 years, improved a ton, won a slam and $4 million....do we really think they would care about the other lower ranked players? Had Hunter Reese had his career take off and been top 20 ATP and be worth $15 million, would he really give any back to the lower players?

Jack Mennis said...

Every “minor league” in sports is the same in terms of difficulty in making a living without financial assistance. Why should tennis be any different? Actually, tennis being an individual sport gives one a far greater opportunity to rise in the ranks than other (team) sports.

Alex Ho said...

All minor league sports are struggling with Covide (baseball shut down, G league shut down early...). Zero sports competition here in California other than MLB and NFL, no sanctioned youth sports going on, high school fields and gyms on lock down. Club sports are allowed to practice with distancing but no games and only if they have a facility they can use. High schools starting to practice or do conditioning but not looking good for games.

Nothing has changed, players outside the top 100 have never made a living playing tennis. To be the 1000 ranked player you are an amazing player, but if you are outside the top 100 you are losing money. Paul Watcher/Hunter Reese/Noah Rubin can wish all they want that amazing tennis players outside of the top 100 should receive a salary with benefits but it will never happen. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of players who have sustained a career inside the top 50 moved through futures and challengers within months to 3 years. There are late bloomers for sure who can grind challengers for years and move inside the top 100 but many of them bounce back and forth inside and outside and don't make a great living.

The challenge with tennis (golf is the same) is that you pay your own expenses on tour vs being on a team where you get small salary in minors but at least expenses are covered. That being said most minor league players are dropped for younger players if they don't quickly advance to the next level. There are a lot of men in that 120 to 300 range for years who don't want to give it up. Hard to have to much sympathy for doubles specialists either, most people don't really care to watch doubles matches.

Jon King said...

I agree with these comments, no use dreaming about making a living in tennis unless you move through the lower levels rather quickly. Thats why the top players can do such amazing things, they are rare and special talents. I have to agree on Hunter Reese, seriously? A living in tennis at all? A living in tennis as a doubles specialist outside the top 50? That is just not a realistic view on life. Kids today can make tons of money playing competitive video games if they are the best players, things changes and there is no fair or unfair, just reality. People who worked hard and owned multiple video stores went out of business when things moved online. Taxi drivers went broke when Uber came along. No one owes anyone a living, the free market speaks, and if there was money to be made by the 15oth ranked tennis player, great. But the market does not support that.

JSC said...

Or just because a thing has existed in a specific state for a long period of time, it does not mean that it cannot be reimagined. Might it be tough? Absolutely! However, more and more, it seems easier to dismiss the possibility of change by stating that the nature of the thing is immutable. Nonsense! What has happened to ingenuity and vision and thoughtfulness? Instead of obsessing on algorithms to classify, reclassify, and obfuscate rankings and ratings, perhaps it is time to spend some quality time working on how the current system can be reimagined to keep the sport alive and growing, without quick gimmicks, but by opening discussions to include those concerned. Why dismiss their contributions so quickly? Let’s not dismiss solutions before meaningful debate takes place. And why knock doubles? It is refreshing to watch teams enjoy the play and smile, or are we hooked on the torture that singles play can become? Both can have a place. Contrary to common belief, the world is not entirely binary - and I am an IT type :)

SeminoleG said...

@Alex Ho - Don't think you can compare Tennis to ANY OTHER sport. YES Tennis players pay their expenses, but so do every other individual sport. Golf has a Q school, then a player can set his schedule which allows him earn a living off the Tour. Knowing the event calendar which takes into travel cost and the biggest difference is the US Golf Association ensures enough events in the US to get people who can make a living to the higher level tours. BUT I've said this is the model tennis should consider. Golf has sponsor exemptions (WC) and a structure in which the best players seem to make it.

@jack, Team sports are subjective and a honest comparison is just not feasible. The best players on ANY Team are not necessarily better than some guy/gal in the Minor leagues. Timing, Contacts, Organization philosophy, Playing style etc..Factor into those decisions.

Seems It comes down to if WTA/ATP see value in these tours. I cannot speak for the ATP, but the WTA had 10k events years ago. If you follow the history of the Top Female players almost ALL played the 10-15K circuit and amassed enough points/ranking to make the WTA. They then played well enough to stay on tour. So the WTA benefited from this "proving" ground and it has benefited them.

"What if" these lower level tours were to vanish, could Tennis Survive? Looking at Early Rounds of events the lat few years I'd question that.

Alex Ho said...

Players in Q school are on or below top 100 in golf which is exactly what we are talking about with Challengers. If you don't make it through Q school you are stuck on Web.com tour (money is better on web.com tour than challengers) or mini tours which are very similar to challanger/futures (sponsor exemptions are similar to wildcards in tennis).

I think WTA/ATP sees value in futures/challengers, but like I said before players who sustain a good living on the tour move through these levels fairly quickly and there is not an expectation of making a living on these tours. The tours are still valuable for players to build a ranking while in juniors and college. The futures/challengers serve a purpose for the ATP/WTA as a low cost system which players have to play their way through, no players wants to go back. It can also be cheaper for juniors to play futures that are closer geographically than flying cross country for junior event.

If USTA wants to have futures/challengers in US they should have 4-6 in a row at Lake Nona or Carson and create a bubble, not sure how feasible it is with costs and logistics. Players often are housed with families which cannot happen with pandemic.

SeminoleG said...

@Alex Ho - Q school does allow you to plan your schedules and entry into events is assured. Tennis truly depends on what players enter "that" event.

BUT your point is valid that the USTA needs to FIND A WAY! Period, with a $100M Facility that is sitting idle for our young pro's speaks volumes as to why the PD staff was CUT. No innovation, or determination to get the US kids up the Professional Ladder. Wonder how US Players felt watching $500K+ of USTA Salary going to folks watching Jennifer Brady play... Really!

Rapid COVID testing is available, Orlando Hotels are at 50% capacity, and Courts are available. So anyone, someone tell us why we cant get Challengers/Futures for our young men and women. We talking about a few hundred people, not an impossible task. If Tunisia, and Cairo can run back to back events why can't USA?

Zoo Tennis - Time for a in-depth Interview with thenUSTA on this? What if this extends to March, who is advocating for our USA young Pro's.

Guess it is asking too much.