How good does a tennis pro have to be to make a living?

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Sept. 8 2009 6:45 PM

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How good does a tennis pro have to be to make a living?

Melanie Oudin. Click image to expand.
Melanie Oudin

During Andy Roddick's match against Marc Gicquel at the U.S. Open Thursday night, commentator John McEnroe quipped on ESPN that Gicquel, now ranked No. 81, might have to start looking for another job. How good does a tennis player have to be to make a living?

In the top 200 or so, depending on what you consider a comfortable wage. Say we draw the line at $100,000 a year—before expenses (more on that below). In 2008, slightly more than 200 men made at least $100,000 in prize money. For women, the numbers were slightly lower: In 2008, 143 women players made at least $100,000 or more in prize money, while 200 of them made at least $50,000 in prize money.

Tennis pros typically make money through sponsorships, appearance fees, and, of course, by doing well at tournaments. The amount of prize money a pro earns depends on how many tournaments he plays and which ones. The four Grand Slams—the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Australian Open—all pay the most. The winner of the U.S. Open, for example, gets $1.6 million. The runner-up gets $800,000, and the semi-finalists take $350,000. But even if you don't win a single match, you still get $19,000. (The main draws of the U.S. Open feature 128 men and 128 women.) On the men's circuit, the second-most-lucrative tournaments are the nine Masters 1000. Top-ranked players end up making millions in prize money alone. Roger Federer, for example, has raked in $50 million over his career. The 100th ranked player, Kevin Kim, has made $1.3 million in prize money since 1997.

Sponsorships, meanwhile, go to the very top-ranked players. Federer has a 10-year contract with Nike, which earns him $10 million every year, plus other deals totaling nearly $28 million. Maria Sharapova earned an estimated $22 million from sponsorships in 2008. (That is out of a total of roughly $580 million in tennis sponsorship spending this year.) Players ranked between No. 25 and No. 100 might get minor sponsorship deals, too, but they tend to be less lucrative.

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Another source of income is so-called "appearance fees." To attract media attention, certain minor tournaments offer highly ranked players money just to show up, regardless of how they play. Players outside the top 10 might make between $50,000 and $150,000 per appearance, while the most elite athletes can make high six-figures. The Dubai Tennis Championships, for instance, offered Rafael Nadal nearly $1 million to play in 2009. (He declined.) Technically, appearance fees are illegal in women's tennis, but the rule is often circumvented.

Of course, a tennis player's income is offset by expenses. The biggest cost is travel. In 2009 alone, the 50th-ranked player on the men's circuit played tournaments in Connecticut, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Montreal, Switzerland, Germany, France, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia. * Tournaments give players a daily allowance to cover hotel and food, but they don't cover travel costs. Airfare therefore comes out of a player's earnings. The next biggest cost is paying a coach or trainer. Coaches for players ranked below No. 150 might make $500 a week. If the player is in the top 100, his coach might get between $1,000 and $2,500 a week, plus 10 percent of the player's prize money, plus bonuses. If a player jumps in ranking, for example, the coach often takes an end-of-year bonus. Coaches for elite players, like the players themselves, make millions. Other costs include fees for practice space, and, for some, interns.

Not all earnings are created equal. Male tennis players typically make more than females, although the gap is closing. The top 10 tournaments, for example, all offer equal prize money to men and women. Singles players, meanwhile, rake in more than doubles. The prize money for doubles winners is smaller than for singles—$420,000 in the U.S. Open, for example, as opposed to $1.6 million. Plus, the doubles teams split the cash.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Nicola Arzani of ATP World Tour, Kristen Clonan of USTA, Tomaz Mencinger of Tennis Mind Game, and Andrew Walker of the WTA Tour. Thanks also to reader Solace Kirkland Southwick for asking the question.

Correction, Sept. 11, 2009: Because of an editing error, this article originally referred to the 50th-ranked player as the 50th seed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)