Amrita Mukherjee is a former professional tennis player who has had a career high WTA Singles Ranking of #1071. She has represented India in the Junior Fed Cup, been ranked #2 in the AITA U16 Rankings, and also won the Women’s Doubles Grasscourt Nationals in 2017 partnering Sai Samhitha Chamarthi
In this column, she attempts to give us a deeper insight into the life of an athlete plying their trade on the ITF Futures circuit.
“The lush green, perfectly manicured lawns of Wimbledon- the holy grail of our sport- is a far cry from the harrowing reality of life at the margins of the International tennis circuit”
The year is 2016. The day is scorching and the air is laden with muggy humidity infusing a heavy lethargy into the muscles. The heat seems to bounce off the synthetic tennis courts, burning through the soles of our shoes. Through the haze of the searing summer day can be heard the constant, steady ‘thwak’ of tennis balls being hit with force. The six greenish-blue hard courts are full of women absorbed in their respective practice sessions, all eager to capitalize on the meager practice slots made available before the matches start. I pause to wipe the sweat off my face, I can feel its saltiness on my lips, my vision blurs as it stings my eyes. My t-shirt sticks to my skin- wet and soggy with sweat- which means that before leaving the venue I have no option but to hazard a reluctant trip into the dingy, dark space that has been converted into a makeshift ‘Change Room’ for the players. There the toilets are dank, the taps leak, and a stench of waste lingers in the air. After I finish my hit and complete my cool down exercises, I will take an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel (a seedy, ramshackle place infested with cockroaches and ambitiously named ‘The Royal Taj’) while my mother (who accompanied me for most tournaments) will explore the neighborhood in search of bananas, canned juice, bread, butter and biscuits- this will serve as my breakfast the following day since I have an early match, and we need to be at the tournament venue before the hotel starts serving breakfast. The courts are excellent though, the surface has been newly laid and the gallery has been renovated, with ample space for the parents and coaches to watch the matches. This is a welcome change from the last tournament- there the clay courts appeared to have been haphazardly put up on a car park feebly masquerading as tennis courts. All around me the air feels electric, charged with sultry heat and with a single-minded sense of purpose emanating from the athletic, sunburned figures around me.
It is peak Indian summer and I am at Bidar, a semi-urban town in Karnataka. To get here I had to first take a flight to Bangalore, then board an overnight bus to this middle of nowhere town. The tennis players practicing on the courts around me belong roughly to the 400-1000 bracket of the WTA ranking and come from various countries. On my court, for instance, excluding me there is a Serbian, a Chinese, and a Russian (which sounds like the start of some joke- ‘a Serbian, a Chinese and a Russian walk onto a tennis court…’) About 80 women, majority of them Indians, others from nations scattered across the globe have assembled in Bidar, Karnataka, for a 10K USD ITF Women’s Pro Circuit Tournament- the lowest rung of the professional tennis tour. Over the next 6 days all of us will brave opponents and the blistering heat as we attempt to shape the course of our destinies.
It is through places like Bidar and a myriad of other such modest, non-descript locations that the road to tennis glory is paved. The lush green, perfectly manicured lawns of Wimbledon- the holy grail of our sport- is a far cry from the harrowing reality of life at the margins of the International tennis circuit. I can close my eyes and imagine it- the different, sacred world of highest level tennis- the hallowed silence amidst large crowds, the beautiful red clay in Parisian summer, the diligently trained ball-kids holding up umbrellas during the changeovers to protect the distinguished players from the heat, the neatly stacked mini-fridges containing chilled water and Gatorade, oh! and the locker rooms! I’m positive the locker rooms must be marvelous…I could go on, but I digress. For the vast majority of players, tennis is not played in pristine white nestled among genteel aristocracy, or under the glorious flood lights of Arthur Ashe stadium in front of a raucous New York crowd. Instead, it is played in an endless drudgery of travel to unknown towns, it is played in numerous qualifiers with no umpires and on uneven, half broken courts, in the balancing of astute financial juggleries, in living out of a suitcase in cramped, shared hotel rooms and in stifling loneliness away from friends and family in countries far from home. At the ITF pro circuit tournaments, players cannot afford an entourage of coaches, physical trainers and therapists. What one can see instead are harried parents or solitary coaches milling about, undertaking expeditions looking for fresh water, fruits, transportation, haggling for best price of accommodation, etc., and a lot of the time this has to often be accomplished in alien countries, where the language and culture is different, which usually leads to a lot of wild gesticulating, desperate attempts at sign language and increasing exasperation. Moreover, a number of players travel completely alone, bunking with another player and splitting costs to make life on the tennis tour more economical. Especially for those who are compelled to travel alone, it is brutally tough to balance the stresses of high-level competition that professional sport demands with what is essentially the entrepreneurial dimension of maintaining a single person business venture. For the vast majority of tennis players, the sport demands a frugal, nomadic existence, shifting camp from one base to another in pursuit of the ‘oasis’- the mythical promise of the glamour and glory of top tier tennis, of the grand slams.
The ever-widening chasm in tennis between the miniscule, creamy top layer and the rest of the field has been documented by several major media outlets. An article in the New York Times describes the lowest levels of professional tennis as follows: “Where thousands toil in relative obscurity with little hope of ever reaching the sports elite.” The article further articulates the sharp disparity between the top level and the smaller tournaments- “According to a recent I.T.F. study, there were 14,000 professional tennis players entering tournaments around the globe in 2013. But 6,000 of them, including many juniors, did not earn even $1. Given the costs of travel, coaching, conditioning, medical care and equipment, only 336 men and 253 women broke even; forget making a profit.” An article by Forbes magazine highlights the dichotomy between the handful of players at the top of the ranking list and the hundreds of players ranked below- “At most tournaments, players must adopt a bootstrapper’s mentality: finding the best hotel deals, sharing an on-site masseuse with other players, working frequent flyer miles and other perks, and so on.” The ridiculous inequity in terms of distribution of wealth is made even clearer by referencing other sports like football, basketball, and golf which offers a far better quality of life to the players at the medium to bottom steps of the ranking pyramid. An insightful article by Paul Watcher laments that, “Of all major professional sports, tennis is the cruelest to its non-stars,” pointing out how “American golfer Chad Collins, ranked 330th in the world, earned more than $190,000 for two weeks’ work,” a feat which is unthinkable in the flatlining economy of ITF pro-circuit level tennis.
Professional sport is inherently capitalistic in nature, the quintessential essence of sport is based on free and fair competition, on a ruthless race towards perfection and excellence. I am not contesting the fact that the excitement of sport comes from this emphasis on unbridled competition and from a distinct demarcation between the winner and the loser. However, if competition is the driving force behind what keeps the sport industry ticking, then isn’t there all the more reason to allocate greater funds for the lesser ranking tournaments? Wouldn’t it be beneficial for the sport as a whole to develop and sustain a robust, financially secure, upwardly mobile segment of players? Currently, the purse for the Australian Open 2020 is a record 49.2 million USD, while on the other end of the spectrum the total prize money for a starter level professional tournament is 15 K USD divided among 32 Singles players and 16 doubles pairs. Is there any other profession with such morbidly disparate distribution of wealth among the world’s best and the world’s 500th best? The tennis governing authorities need to understand that this bizarrely asymmetrical treatment accorded to players at the lower rungs of the hierarchy will only continue to breed despair, stagnation, and corruption. The decision makers need to re-acquaint themselves with the ground realities of the sport they control, they need to realise that whereas the grand slams may constitute the glitzy, seductive exterior of tennis (the money maker), the lifeblood of the sport flows through the thousands of player traipsing the world, from one unknown court to another. The beating heart of tennis can be found not in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, but in places like Bidar, where the only spectator is the blazing sun, where players are fighting desperately to survive another day in the tattered margins of tennis society, where dreams crash and burn or take flight- renewed with fresh hope.
The year 2020 has not been kind to the world, with sport being one of the many casualties of the Coronavirus pandemic. Tennis academies across the world have closed doors, and there seems to be no clear, positive path to recovery that can be formulated as of yet. From the highest level down to the lowest, tournaments have been cancelled and tennis players find themselves confined indoors. However, as expected, the repercussions of this temporary paralysis of the global tennis circuit are not equally distributed across the ranking list. As is the way of the world, the masses bear the brunt of the blow of any disaster and for many of the lower ranked players this means a complete freeze of their incomes- not only in terms of prize money from professional tournaments but also the money that trickles in from club matches and part time coaching, which are activities that a lot of them do to cushion their financial security. I feel this is the time for those who wield power in the sport to introspect and understand the necessity for extending a greater share of the resources to tennis at the lower levels. It is time to acknowledge the contribution made by the players, positioned at the lower rungs of the tennis hierarchy, towards the sustenance of the sport as a whole. For instance, over the course of my tennis journey I’ve observed that it is from the wide base of the tennis pyramid that we get some of our most enthusiastic champions of the sport, and I don’t mean grand slam winning prodigies here. These are people who go on to become brilliant coaches, many run their own tennis academies, some educate themselves further in the science of the sport and help in the development of new talents. They are ambassadors of tennis at the local, grassroots level. I’m sure anyone who has ever been involved with tennis in any way can identify a number of such people- infusing the sport with much needed vitality and passion from the ground up.
It’s an unsavoury yet undeniable truth that for the majority of us who ever pick up a tennis racquet, the goal of Wimbledon glory will transform from an oasis we are trekking towards to a mirage- unattainable, fantastical, unreal. What I’m asking for here is not pity or sympathy for these legions of weary journeymen and women of tennis. Traveling the world playing tennis, albeit on a shoestring budget and with high stakes is an exciting life to say the least, an enviable life. Instead I’m simply demanding what all these players deserve and what has been overlooked and ignored for far too long, respect and recognition.