You’ll never believe this, but there’s classism present in professional tennis. Who could have ever guessed? It appears some players look longingly at Major League Baseball, and aim to bus-toss those players outside the very highest echelon of the sport for their own good. And as it always seems to be, those at the top who don’t want to help those below, and place the blame on those below for not being at the top. Pull yourself up by your wristbands, as bootstraps wouldn’t make a lot of sense in tennis.
This came into clear relief when Ines Ibbou released this on YouTube, an open video letter to Dominic Thiem. Some background: Ibbou, who is from Algeria, is ranked around 600 on the WTA tour. Dominic Thiem is ranked third on the ATP tour, and has already taken home $1.7M in prize money this year.
The impetus for all this was Novak Djokovic, current world No. 1 and president of the ATP player council, putting out a letter calling for top-ranked players to chip into a relief fund for lower-ranked players. It was a sliding scale, calling for the top-100 to help those ranks 250-700. The total would have been $4M. Djokovic might have some truly galaxy-brained and even dangerous thoughts about health and training, but certainly is aware of the struggles of those in the lower parts of the pro game. Perhaps some of this is attributed to his more modest upbringing than most tennis players in war-torn Serbia helping him with perspective.
The ATP, WTA, ITF, and the four grand slams eventually came together to provide a $6M relief fund for players at the bottom of the rankings. But that hasn’t been met with universal approval from those within the game. Matteo Berrettini voiced his hesitance. Guido Pella, ranked No. 35, followed a similar track.
Both were following Thiem, who has been the most outspoken against contributing to the fund. Some of Thiem’s and the others’ points are hard to argue against, that being there are more important things than tennis with which the sport’s huge wealth could assist. It’s when Thiem gets into side-swiping lower-ranked players that it becomes unseemly, and what Ibbou seeks to highlight with her video and letter.
“None of the players are starving. [The top players] all had to fight our way up the rankings,” said Thiem in German during the online conversation. “I’ve seen players on the ITF Tour who don’t 100 percent commit to the sport. Many are quite unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money.’’
There’s always been a stratification problem in the game, with those at the top able to afford the trainers, coaches, nutritionists, and however larger a team needed to keep them there. While even being in the top-100 can be a pretty nice living for a year, the costs of playing are very high. Others have pointed this out, such as Dustin Brown telling the story of living in his van in his first days as a pro.
Players pay for their own travel, accommodation, coaching, food, and whatever else, and that can easily get up into the six figures. Those down lower on the chain can’t look forward to sponsors paying for everything. All they have is the prize money they make. Being outside the top-100 and breaking even can be challenging. The 100th ranked player on the WTA tour last year, Harriet Dart, took home $92K. With rough estimates of expenses, Dart wasn’t taking home that much, if any at all. While there’s more money on the ATP Tour (Men’s), being below the top-100 would provide the same challenges. Especially as you get deep into the hundreds, which is the group Djokovic is aiming to help.
The prize money in tournaments in some way exacerbates this. The past Aussie Open saw those who lost in the semifinals make double what those who lost in the quarterfinals made, and that kind of disparity spread down the whole field through every round. It was basically the same at Indian Wells, a non-major but ATP 1000 event, which was cancelled due to the Coronavirus shutdown. No less than Roger Federer has called for a better apportioning of the financial pie.
While Thiem and Berrettini certainly are not out of bounds for suggesting that there are more important causes, what Ibbou is pointing out is that lots of tennis players are struggling to just pay bills, like every other industry in the world. And sometimes it’s not about simply “wanting” it more or being better. The availability of resources for every player to improve is simply not there. While Thiem was able to grow up as the son of a coach and had access to just about the best academy in Austria, Ibbou had to essentially make her own way. This is clearly an issue that keeps tennis from being available to a wider swath of people.
Still, given that Thiem has already banked over $1M in a season that only lasted just north of two months, along with all of his sponsorships — which include Adidas, Babolat, Kia, and Rolex — and has earned $18M in just prize money in his career, $30K to keep some players paying their bills doesn’t seem like too much to ask.