At 16, Petra Kvitova was already one of the best tennis players in her Czech Republic hometown. With other teens competing abroad, she had little opportunity to advance.
“I have two older brothers and my parents didn’t really have money to travel,” Kvitova, now 24 and a two-time Wimbledon champion, said in an interview. “We knew that if I wanted to play better, I had to move somewhere else.”
She left her family home to join the Prostejov Tennis Club 84 kilometers (52 miles) away, whose owner, Miroslav Cernosek, paid for her training and travel in return for a percentage of future earnings and endorsements.
The arrangement worked. Cernosek remains the business manager for Kvitova, who has won $15 million in prize money since turning professional in 2006 and is seeded third at this week’s U.S. Open.
The Czech is one young player who found a way to handle the skyrocketing price of becoming an elite tennis professional. In addition to talent and desire, it might cost about 250,000 pounds ($400,000) to develop a winning player from age 5 to 18, according to the British Lawn Tennis Association.
The payoff is huge: The singles winners at the U.S. Open will collect $3 million each of the total purse of $38 million.
The International Tennis Federation said it costs $40,000 for a 17-year-old boy to compete on the junior circuit for 20 weeks a year, up 13 percent from 2011. With prices like that, junior players are increasingly dependent on help from parents, national federations, sponsors or investors.
“Unless you are a very wealthy high-earner, or you’ve got someone backing your child, it’s almost impossible to afford such expenses,” said Phil Wright, father of 14-year-old British player Marco Daniel Wright.
The Wrights moved to Portugal to help pay for their son’s career. At the national level in the U.K., Marco needed to play international junior tournaments to boost his ranking. Instead of attending a West London tennis academy -- where the family was quoted an annual fee of 25,000 pounds ($42,000) -- he now trains at a tennis club in Lisbon for less than one-sixth of that.
“Now that my son has become this good, and he has the opportunity to go to another level, the cost of getting to that level is ridiculously high in England,” said Phil Wright, a former semiprofessional soccer player who runs a technology recruitment agency.
With the cost of playing on the pro tour estimated to be $143,000 a year, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Tennis Association, there are plenty of players from privileged backgrounds. Eugenie Bouchard, who lost to Kvitova in this year’s Wimbledon final, is the daughter of a Canadian banker. French Open men’s semifinalist Ernests Gulbis is the son of a Latvian millionaire.
Judy Murray, the mother of 2013 Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and Britain’s Fed Cup coach, knows all about spiraling costs. Her elder son, Jamie, also plays pro tennis, and is currently ranked 31st in the world in doubles.
“When you get to the competitive stage in tennis, it does become expensive,” Judy Murray said. “You have to travel quite long distances to get decent competition.”
Getting more kids to play the game may reduce the financial burden for parents, since local competition would cut down on travel, she said.
“We have to build more public facilities to get more people playing,” Murray said. “We need to build a bigger and stronger workforce right across the board, not just at the grassroots level but at performance level as well so that when more kids are starting to come through, we actually know what we’re doing with them.”
Mark Petchey, a former British tennis pro who coached Andy Murray when he was a teenager, agreed.
“It’s got to be local at that age, because it keeps the kids in the game and it keeps parents from becoming completely and utterly dysfunctional about this sport,” Petchey said.
South Africa-based Petchey, whose tennis-playing children are about to begin playing international events, said he’s shocked by the cost even with him helping out with their coaching. His two daughters receive no help from their underfunded national tennis federation.
Still, organizations such as the lawn tennis association -- which has annual revenue of 58 million pounds -- shouldn’t spend too much on young players, while kids who do well should pay some of the money back to be reinvested into grass-roots tennis, Petchey said.
“There is far too much given to too few by a lot of these federations around the world that forces other parents to go search out other ways of trying to make a living,” he said.
Even with the expense, it’s possible to be successful without spending a fortune. Two of the most dominant players of their generation learned to play on dilapidated public courts. Defending U.S. Open champion Serena Williams and her older sister Venus -- who have won a combined 24 major singles titles -- were taught the game in Compton, California, where their father and coach, Richard, kept the courts free of drug dealers. They never played on the junior circuit.
Fernando Soler, managing director of the tennis division of talent agency IMG that represents tennis stars including Kvitova and Maria Sharapova, called on parents to be realistic.
“It’s very difficult to get to the top,” he said. “Only a few of them are going to make it. You’d better make sure that your kids continue to study and have a plan B in place in case things don’t work out as expected.”
At the Clube Escola Tenis Oeiras in Lisbon, Marco Daniel Wright plays four hours a day at a cost of 400 euros ($533) a month. He occasionally practices with Federico Gil, a pro once ranked 62nd on the men’s tour, and gets help from the Portuguese federation with wild cards into tournaments.
“I don’t sit here and claim he’s going to be the next world No. 1,” his father said. “He’s got potential to be a successful professional player. The pathway for success is that there has to be some help somewhere, especially if a player is showing potential and the parents aren’t super-rich. The player needs to be given an opportunity. It’s up to them to take it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh in London at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at firstname.lastname@example.org Sara Marley, Rob Gloster