In the first of a three-part series on the realities of professional tennis, Telegraph Sport learns the effects of high travel costs and pitiful prize money.
It was Christmas Day 2016, and Jay Clarke was desperately trying to find somewhere – anywhere – in Hong Kong to make a video call to his family.
“Eventually I found a McDonald’s – it was the only place that was open,” explains Clarke, with a rueful smile. “It was pretty depressing.”
For Clarke, the young British tennis player who recently broke into the world’s top 220, it was a reminder that the life of a professional tennis player is far from luxurious.
While the glitterati at the top of the game enjoy first-class travel, five-star hotels and million-pound pay cheques, for around 14,000 professionals not ranked in the world’s top 100, tennis means scrambling for enough cash to afford a flight to the farthest-flung corners of the planet, hours spent alone in cheap hotel rooms and competing for paltry prize money in front of handfuls of spectators at venues that would make many amateur club players blanch.
As Clarke explains: “People say you’re lucky to travel the world but, in reality, you never see anything. It’s great to do because I love the sport but it’s not as luxurious as people think. Put it this way, I don’t play it for the lifestyle.”
The situation is at its most extreme on the Futures circuit, tennis’ lowest professional tier, and where financial constraints are felt most keenly. Players are faced with crippling bills, having to cover the costs of travel, hotels and equipment, and those of their support team. One player, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed that, despite having once been ranked No 110 in the world, she could not afford to hire a coach. Players may receive sponsorship or funding from their country’s federation, but the prize money at Futures events is pitifully small. The winner of the most low-profile events receives around 0.07 per cent of the £2.2 million Roger Federer made by winning Wimbledon in July.
It is not uncommon for most players at Futures events to make a loss by the end of the week, even if they go far into the tournament.
“In Futures, you’re always down like $200 (£148),” Clarke says. “Events at Challengers level [one above Futures] are better, but you pay £130 a night for a hotel and, if you lose in the first round, your costs are barely covered. Without my sponsor I wouldn’t play at all.”
The effort to save a few precious pounds inevitably comes at a cost in terms of preparations. Everyone has their own horror story: Naomi Cavaday, the former British No 3 who retired in 2015, tells a story of a hair-raising two-hour journey by speedboat to a tournament located deep in the Indonesian jungle, which was then plagued by constant power cuts that kept stopping play; while Horia Tecau, a Romanian doubles specialist, remembers one particularly disastrous trip to a Challenger competition in Uzbekistan.
“I had been in Montreal so took a flight on Monday afternoon to get there on Wednesday morning to sign in for qualifiers on Friday,” he recalls. “But I missed the connection and, after five days of travelling, I didn’t get to Uzbekistan until the Friday morning, at which point I had to make a seven-hour car journey to the tennis centre because I missed the connecting flight from Tashkent. I was praying I would make it as, otherwise, I would be fined. I got there but my bags didn’t. So I was sitting in Bukhara with no bags, no rackets, no money, nothing.
“I went to the local market in the town looking for shoes. I found a pair of Converse shoes but they were fake and Adidas-branded, with the Ilie Nastase name on them. I’m Romanian, so I was like ‘no way, I’m buying this’. They weren’t even the right size.”
Even if you get to the tournament, players are faced with a whole new problem when it comes to finding somewhere to stay. Many decide to stay with strangers who live locally, adding an additional layer of stress when all they want is somewhere they can relax and feel comfortable. Others opt for cheaper shared rooms in hotels, which carries certain occupational hazards.
“I was once in a room with someone who had a restless dog, and was on the phone arguing all night,” Cavaday recalls. “It wasn’t ideal preparation for a match.”
There is a farcical edge to many of the tales to emerge from the Futures tour, but the consequences can be deeply serious. Players who must book well ahead to secure the cheapest flights often, according to Cavaday, go to extreme measures to avoid the expense of switching flights.
“Players are always throwing matches because they’ve got a flight to catch and need to get to the next tournament, and the prize money they’ll make from winning won’t cover the cost of changing their flight,” she says.
“In doubles you would say to someone, ‘I’m around but if I lose in the singles I’m getting a flight on Thursday so I’m not going to be winning beyond then’.
“I’ve been at tournaments where people couldn’t fly home. They had no money and couldn’t afford it. I remember a group of Estonian players desperately asking people to help.”
Futures tournaments are also bedevilled by accusations of cheating. The lack of security around the court leads to greater opportunities for corrupt behaviour – reports in 2016 claimed umpires at Futures events were colluding with betting syndicates to cheat odds for personal gain – while players are also regularly asked to make their own line calls due to the lack of independent judges.
“I hear from my coaches that guys are cheating all the time,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, the Canadian teenager now competing on the Challengers circuit. “It’s another world, it’s pro tennis but it’s not, it’s just not the same game.”
Inadequate facilities offer players little privacy – a current female player once ranked in the world’s top 70 told The Daily Telegraph she was forced to share a locker room with members of the club where the event was being held. “It just sucks,” she says. “I remember coming into the locker room off a tough loss, and that’s meant to be your safe space, and someone said to me: ‘Oooh, really tough match today. How did you play?’ I was just like, ‘f--- off’.”
More seriously, the absence of security and officials has led many players to fear for their physical safety. Two years ago, footage of the Iranian tennis player Majid Abedini furiously chasing after the court supervisor at the Antalya Futures tournament went viral, while at a Futures event in Prague, a doubles match was held up for several minutes while two players almost came to blows.
They are far from isolated incidents. “A lot of the guys I play in Futures are in their late 20s and they always try to intimidate you,” Clarke, 19, reveals. “Some dodgy stuff in Spain happened to me. This guy I was playing – an idiot, a horrible person – was shoulder barging me and then sat on the floor when I was near him. It was all very aggressive.
“He was like 33, and I was 16. You meet a lot of people like that, but when you get to the Challengers, everyone is good so there’s less of that stuff going on.”
Auger-Aliassime can empathise. “I played a guy in Peru who was trying to scare me at the warm-up. I was practising my volleys and the guy started slamming balls at me, trying to hit me. I was like ‘what?’
“These things shouldn’t be allowed, and you don’t see it at the Challengers or main tour. But you see it really often at Futures. It should have no place in our sport.”
Tennis authorities are, at last, addressing these concerns. The total pot for the smallest men’s Futures tournaments belatedly increased last year, having remained unchanged since 1998, while prize money at the next level of events up was increased from £11,089 to £18,482. At women’s events there have been similar increases, with the lowest tier of events up to £11,089 from £7,388.
More significantly, after a comprehensive review of professional tennis, the International Tennis Federation board have approved the introduction of a ‘Transition Tour’ from 2019, replacing the lowest rung of the Futures circuit in an effort to reduce the number of professional players from 14,000 to around 750 men and 750 women, ensuring prize money is less thinly spread. It will also take place within a more localised tournament structure to try to reduce the costs of travel.
They hint at a more positive future, but the sums are still a pittance compared to the gilded world of the grand slams, and life will remain a struggle for many who remain outside of it.
But is there at least some glory to make up for the lack of cash?
“When I won my first Futures title in Birmingham, Alabama in 2016, I didn’t get a trophy,” says Auger-Aliassime. “Everyone kind of left and I was like ‘what’s going on, do I get a medal or something – anything? A gift?’ They said, ‘No – the cheque is trophy’.”
The cheque was for £1,063.
Britain's Willis - who reached the second round at Wimbledon in 2016 and faced Federer - has spent the best part of his 11-year career on the Futures circuit, and is currently ranked No 598 in the world.
The lack of money and lack of decent facilities make it very tough playing at the lower levels. I have stopped playing a couple of times and taken up coaching.
I remember going to a tournament in Turkey and putting a deposit down to get some practice balls. I got them back and I could not even see the logo on them. A dog would have turned them down.
At the same event I gave the stringer my rackets to string, and he was just pulling the string as hard as he could because he had no proper equipment to tension the racket with.
It’s very tough trying to be professional when everything about you is not and you are losing money.
Also I know that the chair umpires do their best, but some of them seem to have no qualifications. You are trusting them when it’s 5-5 in a tie-break and you know you have hit an ace. It is very frustrating. Sometimes you are the better player and you lose (or vice versa) because of bad line calls or whatever else.
One time I was having a junior match in Belgium and a dog ran on the court and started eating all the balls, and running off with them. I was up in the rally, off a second serve, and this dog just ran on. Thankfully I ended up winning the match.
Part two of the series follows on Wednesday and focuses on tennis's silent mental health crisis.