Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. Together the three have dominated men’s tennis like no other troika in the history of the game, winning an incredible 51 Grand Slam singles titles, including the Serb’s triumph at the US Open on Sunday. For good measure they have also added 91 singles Masters 1000 titles to their trophy cupboards. And in the process have banked approximately $339 million in prize money.

Add to that the millions from endorsements (Federer’s annual earning in 2017 including prize money and endorsements was $77.2 million) and it’s not been a bad few years at the office for three of the greatest sportsmen to have ever played the game.

It is indubitably true that not everyone can be a Nadal, Federer or Djokovic. One can argue that even multiple Grand Slam winners Andy Murray, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who between themselves took home $135 million in prize money, were once in a lifetime phenomena. Then there are David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych - the eternal bridesmaids, two men who never won a Grand Slam, but earned $60 million in combined prize money.

The staggering numbers are however hardly surprising given the riches in tennis.

In 2018, the total prize money on offer (all figures in US$ equivalent) at the Australian Open was $42 million, French Open $48 million, Wimbledon $40.80 million and US Open $50.40 million, making the four Grand Slams cumulatively worth $181 million for the players with the men’s and women’s singles winners taking home between $3.5-$4.0 million per Grand Slam. That is undoubtedly a set of extremely attractive paydays.

It’s harder than you think

Attractive as it may seem at first glance, before you rush off to enrol your four-year-old Junior Federer at the local tennis academy to swing his racquet for your retirement benefit, it’s worth considering a few facts about the business of tennis.

At any point in time there about 1,500 players active on the ATP list. The first step for a young player is clearly to get into this list on the ATP computer to ‘be in the game’ so to speak. But given how the prize money numbers drop off beyond the Grand Slams and the ATP Masters levels, to make a career that is sustainable purely as a singles tennis professional, the aim has to be to finish in the top-50 on an ongoing basis. That, however, is no easy task.

Consider the case of Somdev Devvarman. He was the only collegiate player to have made three consecutive finals at the NCAA. His 44-1 win-loss record in 2008 at the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championship is unprecedented. When he turned professional later that year, India had reason to hope he would put the country back on the singles tennis map for the first time since Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan breached the top-25.

His career would however pan out differently. Playing through multiple injuries and indifferent form, his highest career ranking by the time he retired in 2017 was a disappointing 62 with no career singles titles and $1.4 million in earnings to show for a career spanning nine years. In a note tinged with sadness at the time of retirement he said: “Playing for me was always super fun and passion that was dying or slowing down."

Leander Paes is one of the greatest sporting legends India has ever had. But consider this - Paes’ highest ranking in singles was 73 which he achieved in 1998 when he was 25. The fact that he is worth almost $9 million in prize money today (he is 45) owes much to the fact that he realised very early that he would not be able to make it as a singles player and switched to what would turn out to be a magnificent doubles career. The very next year he reached No 1 in the doubles rankings and over the next two decades would win an incredible 18 Grand Slam doubles titles, nine each in men’s and mixed doubles. If doubles paid as much as singles Leander would have earned north of $50 million by now.

Enrico Piperno, former national champion and another talent who decided fairly early he didn’t have what it takes at the highest level and moved on to coaching and sports management, said recently: “It (getting an Indian player in the top-50) is almost impossible now, the closest being Somdev who was ranked 62nd. The reason is, where is the support, where is the funding? Where is the infrastructure in place? Where are the kids to bank on?"

The cost of success

Piperno asks some very relevant questions. So indeed what does it take to be a top-50 player besides of course the talent, the dedication and the training?

Travel cost of a professional player on the circuit is typically between $50,000 and $150,000 per person depending on which events are played, where they’re located etc. Food costs a further $5,000 to $30,000 per person per year. Professional coaches start at the $50,000 per year range, plus any expenses. At the top level coaches are often paid a percentage of the player’s earnings (10-15%, rather than a fixed amount) so the cost of employing one may be as high as $1-1.5 million for the top few players. Most fall somewhere in between. This doesn’t include the additional costs the elite players pay out for trainers, physios, additional coaching, etc. While most players on the circuit at this level at least get their racquets free, it costs between $5,000 to $40,000 a year for private stringing and customisation services. Then there are other expenses like ground transportation within the destination cities and transfers, tournament penalty fees, fines, clothing and additional equipment for non-sponsored players, medical expenses and massage.

So in the end a top-50 player, to maintain their place in the rankings (beyond their actual talent and match play) will have annual expenses anywhere between $175,000-$2,000,000 with most in the $200,000 - $500,000 range.

An appreciation of those numbers is crucial in understanding the challenges that face tennis aspirants.

Not even accounting for the frustrations of the unfulfilled dreams of Grand Slam podium speeches, the $156,000 a year Devvarman earned on average is an amount that is barely enough to survive on at the top-50 level. That he did so for almost a decade is a testament to his tenacity and perhaps a reflection of the absence of an alternative.

For such players at the cusp of the top-50 level it is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario - you don’t earn enough to afford what it takes to break into the top level and stay there and if you don’t spend it, it’s unlikely you can break the barrier in the first place.

An expensive path

Every tennis parent dreams of Grand Slam success for their talented offspring. And some even achieve it. But a vast majority don’t. The reason has far less to do with talent and ability and more with how they and their wards underestimate what it takes to get to and remain at the highest level of tennis. While there are no guarantees in life, it is only a rare and happy marriage of two factors - jaw dropping talent and deep parental pockets - that lights up the path to success in the business of tennis.

Anindya Dutta is a banker and a sports analyst

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