Turning pro in tennis is unlike any other sport. There are no contracts for having potential. No farm system in which to develop. No Arena League if things don’t work out. When tennis players go pro, they do it on their own dime. If a tennis player doesn’t win, they don’t make money. Even the most successful players, who shoot up the rankings, suffer months -- sometimes years -- of financial loss, even while winning.
The lowest thousand spots aren’t thinking profit, they want out of the doghouse, even with maximum cost cutting (four to a hotel room, no team, cheap food, etc.). In a 2013 ITF survey, the ITF calculated the breakeven ranking as #330 for men in North America (i.e., where cost equals prize money, excluding coaching) and the top 50 (top 1%) of ranked players earned 60% of the total $162 million men’s prize pool[i]. Up to, and slightly past this point, the main sources of income are side jobs, independent funding, and any creative source players can come up with.
“the ITF calculated the breakeven ranking as #330 for men in North America (i.e., where cost equals prize money, excluding coaching) and the top 50 (top 1%) of ranked players earned 60% of the total $162 million men’s prize pool”
FiveThirtyEight put this into context perfectly, saying “if you’re the 350th best man in the world at baseball, basketball, American football, ice hockey or soccer, you’re earning more than $500,000 each year, expenses paid. If you’re the 350th best man in tennis, you’re probably either falling into debt or getting help from a sponsor or parent.”[ii] The prize money and expenses are likely better today than they were in 2013 for players (prize money has increased for all players at ATP and Grand Slam events), but probably not substantially and the various governing organizations in the sport of tennis (there are many) still have quite a bit of improvement to make before tennis becomes less of a gamble and more of a real career option for young athletes considering what sport to play. Based on the ITF’s 2013 estimate of annual expenses of $39k (global for men of any ranking point excluding team cost), the breakeven is likely only above #400 today.
Estimated Income Excluding Endorsements[iii]
That said, tennis players don’t have to answer to anyone. They don’t need an agent, don’t need a contract, all they need is their own ambition and skill. Most tennis fans know nothing about tennis’ minor league scene (ITF what?) and the path to success. So, what goes into a player’s journey from unranked hopeful to grand slam trophy kisser? How long does it take? And how do they make a living?
Cost to play professionally
Playing pro tennis costs a lot of money – travel, team, equipment, etc. – any can vary greatly. Players ranked #17 and #1,017 have much different expenses. Noah Rubin, in 2019 and ranked 212 at the time, estimated his costs around $90-100k for the year[iv]. Mike Russell, ranked 92 at the time, estimated his at around $75k in 2012[v]. Livemint concluded in a 2018 article that top 50 players costs range from $175k to $2 million (with up to $1.5 million in coaching costs at the high end of that range), with most between $200k to $500k[vi]. It’s safe to say lower-ranked players are cutting as much as possible and managing to get below those marks.
Estimated Tour Costs
Imagine the last vacation you planned, but doing that twice a month, while figuring out how your body will perform at a world class level, and monitoring Priceline for last second deals. Everything in a tennis player’s planning and budget is directly related to travel expenses (there is no “team” like in other sports). When players aren’t traveling, most live at home or split a small apartment so they don’t have the added living expense when they are rarely there.
Travel is often the largest expense for new and/or lower ranked players. In a 2015 article, the winner of Winston-Salem’s annual Futures event, Matija Pecotic, reported his expenses for the week as $1,430, comprising of 7 nights at a hotel, food, 15 racket stringings and transportation[vii]. Similarly, then world #1,700 Abraham Asaba listed his travel expenses as $1,368 for one week at a 2019 tournament in Harlingen, Texas[viii] and in 2013, 92nd ranked Mike Russell estimated his at $35k for the full year[ix]. For the top 50, Livemint estimated travel expenses to range between $50k and $150k per year[x].
The team often includes multiple people, such as coaches, trainers, therapists, hitting partners and managers, depending on ranking level. To stay competitive, team costs go up the higher up the rankings ladder you move with coaches making up the largest portion.
Coaches are often a mentor, teacher, hitting partner, scout, manager, and more. Lower ranked players split coaching costs among a group, skip it entirely, or leave their coach at home. Top players may have multiple coaches, including a mental coach, or a secondary one for different locations. We’re not talking a $100 lesson twice a week. Noah Rubin reported in 2019 that he stopped paying for a coach because it ran him $1,800-$3,000 per week. For higher ranked players, this can be up to 10-15% of a player’s earnings (potentially up to $1.5 million) according to Livemint.
The rest of the team, the physios, trainers, massage therapists and hitting partners, are necessary to prepare, maintain and rehab the body. Tennis takes a toll and many top players travel with their physio(s) while lower ranked players wish they could. Hitting partners are also a big plus for higher ranked players, improving the quality of practice time and often contributing to coaching and scouting, while lower ranked players will hit with peers for free to save costs.
Pros constantly go through grips, strings, shoes, balls, clothes, even rackets. Holes burn in shoes; rackets break or go dead. Daily equipment purchases - wrist bands, led-tape wears off, sudden need for gauze or a knee brace - rack up quickly. Mike Russell, then ranked #92, estimated he spent $9,000 on racket stringing alone. Sportscasting.com estimated equipment related costs at $50,000 per year[xi].
How do players make money?
For most players below 100, prize money is the primary source of income and can be highly volatile. Once players get to a certain level, sponsorships and endorsements make up substantially more of their income. Many players (even those just outside the top 200) rely on independent financing (family money, club funding) and side jobs like coaching to supplement any prize money they may get.
“For most players, sponsorship takes a much smaller role in their income – such as free equipment and/or clothing and performance bonuses.”
Prize money is the most important - win matches, make money. Move up to bigger tournaments, make more money. Lose and get nothing. At Futures tournaments, first round losers receive $156 to $260 while the winner only gets up to $3,600. That’s $3,600 for some ten days of work, minus the $1,500 or so per week in estimated expenses. When players “level up” to the next tournament tier (e.g., Challengers), their prize money and other potential sources of income increase significantly. At around ranking 500, players are mostly playing Challengers as opposed to Futures and, around the top 100, players can generally bank on getting into ATP tournaments year-round. In Challengers, prize money can range from under $1,000 for first round losers to $22,000 for the winner. And qualifying for just one of the four grand slams can pay for your entire year (a first round loss at the 2021 US Open paid out $75k).
Prize Money by Men’s Tournament Level[xii]
Most players are making less than $100k a year in prize money. There are approximately 1,500 ATP players that made more than $1,000 in prize money during 2021 on the ATP tour and less than 300 (282 as of October 25) made more than $100k, meaning very few are covering their costs with prize money alone.
Prize Money vs. ATP Ranking Point Distribution – #200-500 as of October 25, 2021
Endorsements, Sponsorships and Appearance Fees
Brands want to sponsor players with visibility. Outside of the top 50 or 100, it’s tough to get sponsors. When you get to that level, you are doing well. Sponsorships vary based on name, personal brand, country and more, but, for all the players in the chart below, sponsorship is in the millions and far outweighs prize money. For most players, sponsorship takes a much smaller role in their income – such as free equipment and/or clothing and performance bonuses.
Estimated 2019 Sponsorship Earnings of Top Players ($mm)[xiii]
In addition to brand sponsorships, smaller ATP tournaments or events will also pay big name players to play (which can sometimes be more than $1 million[xiv]). Similarly, players with recognizable names can often get paid to play a one-off match or tournament (such as charity, fundraising or just a community event).
Side Jobs (e.g., Coaching)
An ATP world ranking lends clout to a coaching resume. Players can, and do, leverage that. Coaching draws from training time but, especially for rookies, is a guaranteed way to bring in cash. Most pros coach at some point. Some players also have other part-time jobs, or work part of the year and train and play the other part of the year.
If you’re lucky enough, some players know people willing to put up money to support their pro journey. Some start Kickstarter campaigns. Some grew up at a tennis club that is willing to stake them. Some families are rich.
While not necessarily income, Uncle Sam takes a portion of your earnings. Taxes need to be considered based on your personal tax situation and reduce the amount of earnings shown here. Depending on your situation, you may be able to write off expenses related to tennis (travel, coaching, etc.), which minimizes taxes for most.
Get out and play
It takes most players time to see progress financially – most do not have the early success that Carlos Alcaraz, Jenson Brooksby or Brandon Nakashima have had recently. Abraham Asaba, ranked #1,755 said he could win all the Futures tournaments he played during 2019 and still lose money mainly due to travel (and this is without coaching). But after a year or two collecting wins and rankings that hard work will pay off with bigger tournaments and more opportunity. It often takes most players 3-5 years from their first pro tournaments to get to the point of making a profit – crucial hard work gaining experience and skill that you do in any career.
“In 2021, players with creativity and ingenuity have more avenues than ever to make their dreams a reality, whether through social media branding, or interconnectivity with peers and followers.”
In 2021, players with creativity and ingenuity have more avenues than ever to make their dreams a reality, whether through social media branding, or interconnectivity with peers and followers. In part 2 of this series, we will cover more creative ideas to cover costs and move up the pro tour ladder. So, if you love the game and are motivated, no one can tell you not to. Get involved, live the lifestyle, treat yourself like a pro, enjoy it, and that’s all you can control. The rest, only time will tell.
[i] (ITF Pro Circuit Review Stage One: Data Analysis, 2014)
[ii] (Tennis Has an Income Inequality Problem, 2014)
[iii] ATP prize money and rankings from selected on American college grads, cost estimates
[iv] (We followed the No. 1,700-ranked tennis player in the world to get an inside look at tennis' minor leagues, 2020)
[v] (How the 92nd-ranked Tennis Player in the World Earns a Comfortable Living, 2013)
[vi] (Business of tennis: The expensive journey to Grand Slam parenthood, 2018)
[vii] (ITF Pro Circuit / USTA Pro Circuit Collegiate Series Winston-Salem Futures, 2016)
[viii] (We followed the No. 1,700-ranked tennis player in the world to get an inside look at tennis' minor leagues, 2020)
[ix] (How the 92nd-ranked Tennis Player in the World Earns a Comfortable Living, 2013)
[x] (Business of tennis: The expensive journey to Grand Slam parenthood, 2018)
[xi] (A Breakdown of What It Costs to Play Pro Tennis, 2020)
[xii] Perfect-Tennis.com, MyTennisHQ, ITF
[xiv] (How Tennis Players Earn Money, n.d.)