As the top few hundred tennis players in the world prepare to compete in the $71 million Australian Open, thousands of others are playing in small tournaments you’ve never heard of to win enough matches to one day play in a Grand Slam like the one in Melbourne.
MarketWatch spent the past four months following one of these players to find out what it’s like to try to make it on the professional tennis tour.
It can be more difficult to succeed in tennis and other individual sports than in team sports because you don’t earn a salary and have to pay for your own travel. What Abraham Asaba is trying to do is especially difficult. The 22-year-old, who grew up in the West African nation Ghana, didn’t take tennis lessons as a kid.
“When I first got here, I wasn’t really a good tennis player,” Asaba told MarketWatch about when he moved to the U.S. at 16. He said his family couldn’t afford lessons when he was growing up, and he was busy working.
He played a lot of soccer and worked on his fitness on the beach, but when it came to tennis, he mostly served, modeling his motion after Roger Federer’s. After he arrived in the U.S., though, he lived and trained with his cousin Salifu Mohammed, a former touring pro who was teaching tennis in New York, and went on to play Division I tennis for Virginia Tech.
Many top-ranked tennis players are from countries with national programs that support the most promising young athletes with training and coaching. The United States Tennis Association (USTA), for example, has 29 national coaches who work with top juniors and touring pros. Some pros also come from families with enough money to pay for a private coach, or to send their child to a tennis academy. Asaba says he doesn’t feel at a disadvantage for not having grown up in those circumstances.
“I don’t think about unfair. If I grew up here, I might be too relaxed. How I grew up, I had to work hard for everything I got. That attitude has been keeping me going,” he says.
Here’s what it’s like to travel the U.S. playing in tournaments where the pay is paltry, the seats are often empty, and winning is crucial to achieve your goals.
What Asaba is trying to do
“The ultimate goal is to get to play all the Grand Slams and be ranked top 50 in doubles,” Asaba told me the first time we spoke, in September 2019.
Right now he is playing far from the US Open and Wimbledon, in places like East Lansing, Mich., and Harlingen, Texas. His ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) ranking as of Jan. 2, 2020 is 1,755 in singles and 1,048 in doubles. For perspective, there are 1,927 men with an ATP singles ranking, and only 128 make it into a Grand Slam tournament.
“Early on it is challenging. You’re not making a living at futures. You need to make it to challengers and then Grand Slam qualifying to keep the lights on and pursue your dream.”
Asaba and others playing in what are called futures tournaments need to earn enough points to move up in the rankings to be eligible to play in challenger tournaments, the next level up. Asaba says if he wins enough matches to get his ranking up to at least 300, he’ll be eligible to play in most challengers.
Can you make it without a coach?
At a $25K futures tournament at Rice University in Houston, Asaba pointed to three of the other players on the practice courts.
“That guy made it into the US Open qualifying. That guy won Kalamazoo [The Boys’ Junior National Tennis Championship]. He made it into the main draw of the US Open.”
While those achievements may not impress people who follow living legends like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, that level of success is a dream for Asaba. To reach those achievements and more, he would need to travel with a coach, many people MarketWatch spoke with for this article said.
“Absolutely no way Abe can make it without a coach,” Stanford Boster said. Boster, who spent several years coaching for the USTA, was at the Houston tournament as a private coach for two players, who each pay him $250 a day plus his expenses. Boster had watched the 6’5” lithe and athletic Asaba practice and play in matches, and said he is an incredible athlete, but would need a coach to make it out of futures and challengers.
Asaba serving during a match at a $25K futures tournament in Edwardsville, Ill., in August 2019.
Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA player development, added, “If you lose a close match in the first tournament, your coach can go over the match with you and discuss areas you could have executed better, and use that to train you over the course of that week. A coach can make a huge difference.”
But coaches are expensive. As the former No. 1 player in the world Jim Courier told MarketWatch: “While you’re not making a lot of money, you have to be selective. Each individual is running a business.”
Tennis pro Noah Rubin, 23, reached a career high of 125 in the world in 2018, but stopped traveling with a coach in 2019 because he wasn’t making enough money to afford the expense. Rubin says he spent $1,800 to $3,000 a week plus travel for a coach. Unlike Asaba, though, Rubin grew up with a lot of coaching and won the Wimbledon junior boys’ title in 2014.
Asaba hasn’t been able to afford to hire a coach, but he has trained at times with fellow players and their coaches. He worked with one player and coach for a few weeks “on patterns and shot selection,” and he says they talked a lot about the mental part of the game and what to do between points. “It was really helpful,” Asaba says.
Rennae Stubbs, who was the No. 1 doubles player in the world in 2000 and is now a tennis commentator on ESPN, told MarketWatch: “You don’t necessarily need a coach if you’re a heady player. If you have a partner on court that wants the same thing, you can work on those things together. I think the key is to find a doubles partner that has the same intent and desire to succeed as you.”
Asaba might have found such a partner in Errol Smith, who he started playing with in late 2019.
Signage at the $25K futures tournament at Rice University in Houston on Sept. 16, 2019.
It’s a relatively recent trend for lower-ranked players to travel with a coach, says Michael Starke, a teaching pro in Binghamton, N.Y., who ran a challenger tournament there in the 1980s and 1990s. “Back then, players were going out at night. No one had a trainer. Some had coaches, but it was a whole different thing. They had more of a life outside of tennis.”
How much money lower-ranked players earn
If you watched the No. 1,000-ranked tennis player in the world, you probably wouldn’t think he played at a very different level from the No. 50 player in the world. In tennis, more than most sports, that eye-test difference is small, while the earnings difference is huge.
“You get $3.5 million for winning the US Open, but the winner here makes about $2,500,” said Richard Cutler, who runs the $25K tournament in Houston.
Making it into a Grand Slam tournament can be incredibly financially rewarding for players who play in futures and challengers. In recent years, Grand Slam tournaments have increased prize money for every round. Players who lose in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, for example, will make $90,000. And if they make it to the second round, they’re guaranteed $128,000.
But Asaba wouldn’t be able to break even if he won all the futures tournaments he entered this year, when you factor in travel costs.
“Early on it is challenging. You’re not making a living at futures. You need to make it to challengers and then Grand Slam qualifying to keep the lights on and pursue your dream,” Courier, the former No. 1 in the world, said. “It takes time. He must be smart about managing his finances,” Courier added.
Since graduating from Virginia Tech in 2019, Asaba has worked at a New York-based hedge fund. The entry-level job in investor relations provides him just enough money to be able to pay for his travel to tournaments, and his employer is flexible about his vacation days to enable him to compete on the tour.
Asaba shared his expenses for one week at a tournament in Harlingen, Texas, between Sept. 21-28, 2019. He says it’s typical of what it costs to go to a tournament, though sometimes he gets free lodging.
- Flight: $700
- Food: $239
- Accommodations: $429
- Total: $1,368
Even if you’re in the top 200, as Noah Rubin has been, it can be tough to make a lot of money. He is currently ranked No. 212 and earned $158,548 in 2019. But he says that after expenses and taxes he made about $60,000. That’s one of the reasons he decided to stop traveling with a coach. It’s also one of the reasons he considered quitting the tour during 2019. He says that starting Behind the Racquet, which gives pro tennis players a platform to share their stories — has helped keep him excited about the sport both on and off the court.
If you’re ranked a little higher than that, though, you can make a good living. Michael Russell, an American player who retired in 2015 — and played most of his career without a coach — made it to No. 60 in the world and was in the top 100 for 10 years before retiring in 2015. He made $2.48 million over his 17-year career by being in the top 100 for more than half of those years. He says he netted about $200,000 a year and invested money early in his career and has passive income coming in now.
And of course if you make it into the top 10, you can make millions a year. The top-earning man in 2019 was Rafael Nadal, who made over $16 million, and the top-earning woman was Ash Barty, who made over $11 million.
What’s being done to help players on the way up
According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which runs and operates futures tournaments, the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup and tennis at the Olympics, among other events, 336 men and 251 women break even in professional tennis each year. The ITF conducted a study in 2014-15 that looked at prize money between 2001 and 2013 for all pro players — 9,000 men and 5,000 women who played at least one pro tournament. The results didn’t factor in the cost of a coach.
“It was a real call to action for us to make the pro tennis world as accessible as possible and as rewarding as possible,” Andrew Moss, the head of ITF World Tennis Tour, told MarketWatch.
As a result, the ITF is trying to help lower-ranked players by adding more tournaments and trying to reduce players’ travel costs. Moss says the ITF receives development funding from the Grand Slams and is using some of it in nations where players otherwise wouldn’t have many opportunities. In fact, for the first time in 10 years, the ITF will hold a tournament in Ghana, where Asaba is from, Moss says.
“You get $3.5 million for winning the US Open, but the winner here makes about $2,500.”
Courier, now 49 and a commentator on the Tennis Channel, won 23 titles during his career, including the Australian Open and the French Open twice. Before he turned pro in 1988, he played what were called satellite tournaments, the equivalent of today’s futures. “Back then it was easier. So few people were ranked compared to today. There were 500 ranked players in 1987. I finished third in the circuit and that got me 27 ATP points and into the top 400. You can’t do that so quickly these days,” he says.
To help today’s up-and-coming American players, the company Oracle ORCL, -0.56% will sponsor 35 futures and challenger tournaments in 2020. The first seven have been announced, and they’ll offer prize money ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. Oracle has long been a supporter of young American tennis players, and it pays all the prize money for its Pro Series and Challenger Series events. It recently started working with Courier’s company Inside Out Sports and Entertainment, which will run all of the Oracle-sponsored tournaments in 2020.
One of the reasons Oracle is such a big tennis supporter is that it was a passion of CEO Mark Hurd, who passed away in October 2019. “Mark played college tennis and understood the challenges players face to make it on tour,” Courier says. And while Oracle’s vision is primarily to help up-and-coming American players, “Abe will benefit from Oracle’s vision,” Courier says.
Since playing in 13 pro tournaments in 2019, Asaba says, “I’m seeing so much improvement and narrowed focus. Now I’m getting the mental stamina and toughness. I’m more confident than ever.” He adds: “I’m excited about 2020. Can’t wait.”
When he reflects on the fact that he’s getting a chance to pursue his dream, he says he’s been lucky and a lot of people have helped him get to where he is today. “At every stage, I’ve been so blessed to have people willing to help me,” he says.
In addition to competing at tournaments in 2020, he will play on the Davis Cup team for Ghana. By the middle of 2020, his goal is to be ranked at least No. 700 in doubles. But he’s not just focusing on that number. “You can’t control the end results of every match. It’s more about how you play. I’m focusing on my game plan and how I play,” he says. And he doesn’t plan to stop reaching for his tennis goals any time soon. “I can’t just quit. I’d let down others who didn’t get the opportunity,” he says.
“I don’t think about unfair. If I grew up here, I might be too relaxed. How I grew up, I had to work hard for everything I got.”
After tennis, he plans to be an entrepreneur. He studied finance and international business at Virginia Tech and would like to create jobs in Ghana and Africa as a whole — to help build up economies in Africa and Third World countries.
And he wants to help people like him, who often don’t get many opportunities to succeed, by starting a foundation in Africa. “I want to help underprivileged kids get to the next level in an academy setting. Like what IMG has, but beyond sports — to also include things like engineering and science. Help build kids up while they’re young and connect them with top U.S. colleges,” he says, adding, “I already have a plan for it, and with the connections I’m making now, I can get advice. It’s really in my heart.”
During the four months I followed Asaba, he never mentioned money as a motivating factor to succeed. He never mentioned money at all, in fact, unless asked about it.
“I want to give back after getting so many opportunities. If people hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t be in this position today. I have to pay it forward.”