The Decline of Professional Tennis

By Jack Brister


Unlike professional athletes in team sports such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball and hockey, professional tennis players earn money based on individual performance—rather than being guaranteed contractual salaries. The world’s most elite tennis players find comfort in knowing that they have can a stable income from sponsorship deals, but the large majority of players within the International Tennis Federation (ITF), Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour must continually win matches, or they risk losing money.


Professional players on the ATP and WTA tours compete in varying levels of tournaments throughout the ten-month season each year. These tournaments can require players to incur more than five thousand dollars in expenses on the front end by paying for coaching, equipment, traveling, lodging and tournament fees, but competitors only see a return on this investment if they win matches. Players that travel to tournaments without winning matches may lose thousands of dollars each weekend, and injured players that are unable to compete are without a source of income until they can return to the court. Many of the sport’s most prominent players have highlighted this struggle for financial stability, noting that,” players must make around two hundred thousand dollars a year to break even.” For many players on the tours, the two hundred thousand dollar a year goal is unattainable.


The financial barriers associated with competing in professional tennis are causing many players to end their careers as professional athletes. The International Tennis Federation recently reduced the size of the tour from 14,000 players to just 1,500. This reduction in size was made in an effort to decrease the number of players competing for the same prize money. The fault in this solution lies in its impact on the Challenger Tours. New tennis players start off playing tournaments on the Challenger Tour, and the best of these players move up to the ATP and WTA Tours which are governed by the International Tennis Federation. By reducing the number of available spots on the ATP and WTA Tours, significantly more players will be competing for the little prize money that is available on the Challenger Tour. Therefore, this plan to reduce size has only replicated the same problem in a different setting.


Additional efforts are being made to increase the amount of prize money awarded at professional tennis tournaments. The ATP Tour has increased total prize money for this year by thirteen percent compared to last year. The Challenger tour has also released plans to increase the size of the tour and the amount of prize money available. While these increases in prize money will ease the financial burden for players that win tournaments every weekend, players that find themselves losing a few weeks in a row will still experience financial difficulties.


There is one solution that is being proposed by Andrea Guandenzi, the Chairman of the ATP Tour. Guandenzi has proposed that tournaments rethink how prize money is distributed among players. Had the season played out as usual this year, the Tour would have awarded nearly one hundred fifty eight million dollars in prize money, but most of this money would have been given to top players. Under Guandenzi’s proposed plan, tournaments would decrease prize money for players that place highly in tournaments while increasing the prize money awarded to players that lose early in competitions. This plan continues to encourage competitiveness because winning players will receive more money, and losing players that may have an off weekend will start to earn liveable wages. As more opportunities arise for players to earn liveable wages, more players may feel it is possible to sustain a career in professional tennis. This will allow the tour to grow in size and popularity.


If officials governing the ITF, ATP and WTA Tours do not institute changes in prize money distribution, players will continue to suffer financially and professional tennis will continue to decline. The tours are planning to begin play again in August, and plans for 2021 should be announced soon after. Players and fans around the world will wait to see if Guandenzi’s plan materializes in the coming year.

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