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Hard and lonely road to tennis glory

Aleksandra Wozniak (30), a former top-25 Canadian tennis player, was forced to arrange a quick cheap flight back home, after losing a match at the small tournament in Dothan, Ala. There she would prepare for the next small tournament just a week later in Charlottesville, Va.

On both tournaments, Wozniak, a veteran making a comeback, competed alongside a bunch of players all struggling to pull themselves out of tennis’s underappreciated lower rungs. And among those players was also Hungarian Fanny Stollar (19), a rising prospect, with hopes of joining the tennis sport’s elite. Both athletes are sharing a platform on the International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit, the junior varsity of professional tennis, where purses are too small to earn a living.

Players on the Pro Circuit compete at remote stops like this two, and at any given time 70 such tournaments may be taking place around the globe, with more than 2,000 players competing to earn a small wage, barely to pay their hotel room. Players must attend Pro Circuit to attain a certain ranking, so they can go into the WTA events, which is everyone’s goal. Although tennis distributes about $280 million in prize money each year, there is not much left for this small tournaments, since 60% of that goes to the top 1% of the men on the ATP Tour and women on the WTA Tour, according to the International Tennis Federation. There are several levels of Pro Circuit tournaments, ranging from $15,000 to $100,000.

Travel costs for the players can be enormous and the logistical arrangements often self-made. “I went to Australia in January and played three tournaments,” Wozniak said. “I spent 15 grand.” The trip was a net loss since she took in roughly $6,500 in prize money before taxes.

At Charlottesville’s tournament, Stollar stayed at a hotel room with a friend and a fellow player, splitting the bill to reduce costs. Stollar is a daughter of two athletes who coached her and directed her career at the beginning. She had zoomed up 86 places in the rankings to a career-high No. 201 after her family hired Rodriguez, a highly respected coach. Their partnership however ended in June 2016, when Stollar hired Adam Altschuler to help her prepare for Wimbledon’s qualifying event.

Stollar has all the things Wozniak does not, because of her promise and age – a travelling coach, a full-time agent, endorsements from Nike and Babolat, and a token financial contribution from the Hungarian tennis federation.

Still, Stollar’s mother estimated that it costs $100,000 per year to get her daughter from tournament to tournament and if you have to pay for a travelling coach, the cost doubles. Fanny earned $24,844 in prize money last year, and with additional money from endorsements and the Hungarian tennis federation, they did not nearly cover her expenses.

“I have no idea how long we can do this,” her mother said in Paris last year during the French Open, where Stollar lost in the first round of the qualifying draw. “We have to survive this period and hope it is short.” They are however willing to contribute what they could until she could turn a profit on the WTA Tour, which usually means getting inside the top 100.

A first-round loser in leafy Charlottesville takes home only $533, which is barely enough to cover a plane ticket. Like Stollar, Wozniak travels by plane, but she does it all alone, which means there is no one to share a burden with and support her. She also had no significant endorsements, and she no longer receives money from Tennis Canada, since her rankings caved.

Each tournament provides a stringer but stringing costs $20 per racket. Wozniak said she took six rackets and 30 reels of polyester string to each tournament. Until last year, when she signed a sponsorship with Yonex, she was spending $90 per package for gut strings and stringing three to six rackets per match.

Years before, Wozniak made good money on the WTA Tour and in Grand Slam events, where even a first-round exit can be worth $30,000. She built up some equity with more than $2 million in career prize money, but her current quest to return to the elite level of tennis is staidly stripping off her accounts. “This is the third time in my career I’ve had to start from zero,” she said.

Wozniak estimated she had spent $2,500 on the trip at Charlottesville, where she lost in the first round. “It’s a grind, for sure,” Wozniak said. “People don’t understand what we go through. It’s lonely out here. But this is my passion. I’m doing what I have to do to play tennis.”

There are numerous athletes out there facing the same problems as Wozniak and Stollar, and who knows how many young talents quit their careers before even going through this because of severe money restrictions. But by allowing them to collect funds on the SportyCo platform, we can change this significantly.  

Source: The New York Times

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