PARIS (AP) — Two rounds of French Open tennis haven’t come close to turning Marco Trungelliti into a millionaire.
But even after taxes, the $67,000 the Argentine earned this week in prize money for one win and one loss should cover much of his costs for the rest of the year, including travel to other tournaments and paying his coach.
“It’s the first time in my life that I have money in my pocket,” said the 26-year-old, ranked 166th.
With about $33,578 from a first-round loss, oft-injured American Brian Baker is thinking about hiring his own physiotherapist. He won’t hire a coach, partly because of the cost.
“Do I want to spend all of my savings trying to hire a coach and physio and go all out this year and just hope that I make it big again? … That’s always a big ‘if,’” said Baker, a former top-60 player whose career has been ruined by serious injuries. “If your body doesn’t hold up and you’re finished, then you’re down 150-grand or whatever. It’s a tricky thing.”
Big pay hikes at tennis’ four major tournaments are helping lower-ranked players, allowing to them to hire help to compete on a more equal footing with the superstars and their support teams.
Still, they are hardly rolling in money like counterparts in wealthier sports. Soccer has hundreds of players making megabucks. In tennis, you don’t have to search far down the ranks to find players for whom balancing the books is as vital as a good forehand. Just look about fifty spots below multi-millionaires like Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
“In my country, so many think that I’m a freaking billionaire,” said Ricardas Berankis from Lithuania, ranked 50th. “But trust me, it’s not like that.”
Since top players such as Federer leaned on Grand Slam tournaments for larger slices of revenue, prize money has increased, with a particular eye on helping players who lose early. A first-round loss at this French Open is worth double what it was in 2011; second- and third-round losses more than double — now about $67,000 and $114,000, respectively.
The U.S. Open paid $19,000, $31,000 and $50,000 for rounds one, two and three in 2010; the amounts last year were $39,500, $68,600 and $120,200.
For Eric Butorac, a doubles player who has been on the ATP Player Council for eight years and is now its president, the increases have “helped an immense amount” and are having a noticeable effect. Many players five years ago couldn’t afford to travel with a coach. Now “almost nobody” has come to Roland Garros without one, he said.
“Our intention was never to have players necessarily rolling in the dough,” he said. “What we wanted was that a player ranked 90 in the world could have the same experience, or a similar experience, to a top player and feel like they were on somewhat of a level playing field.”
With friends in the lower ranks, Federer and others at the top “understand the struggles, they wanted to help,” Butorac said. On the men’s side, the pool of players making at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars in prizes per year has grown to about 200 — 150 in singles and 50 in doubles, he estimated. He said he pulled in $180,000 last year, and had about $75,000 in expenses.
“That’s a quality life,” he said.
Still, players still see room for improvement. Roland Garros organizers say the tournament generated $220 million in 2015. The prize pot was $30 million.
For Berankis, the players’ share is “a joke.”
“They give peanuts here and there, and they are screaming, ‘We are helping them a lot,’” he said. “It’s not really fair.”
A first-round loser in Paris for the third time this year, Berankis rattled off a list of typical expenses. Stringing rackets is $30-35 each, with six to eight needed per match. A coach is anywhere between $1,600 to $5,500 per week. There are flights, and taxes. In Paris, he shared a physio with two other players to reduce costs.
“Soccer players, basketball players, they don’t pay nothing for their own expenses … everything is paid out by the club,” he said. “That’s the big difference.”
Swedish player Johanna Larsson, ranked 62nd, said her expenses top $100,000 per year. She can’t afford to travel full-time with a coach and this year hired a training partner for only two weeks. She books hotels and flights herself, scouring websites for cheap deals, “it’s not more glamorous than that.” She got $67,000 for her second-round loss; the Slams “are basically financing our tennis,” she said.
“I try to save money on most things that I can and I think it’s pretty much the same for every player,” she added. “The players who are in the top 20 don’t have to worry that much. But you have to get that far.”
Players need a CEO’s head on made-for-tennis shoulders: Spending too much one year could leave them short the next if wins don’t follow.
“I can’t permit myself a physio,” said Gilles Muller, ranked 42nd, from Luxembourg. “With my season last year, I could have stretched to that. But it’s too much of a risk for me. I have a family.”
John Leicester is an international sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester