Li Na was traveling the world, zooming up the women’s tennis rankings and going broke.
The Chinese tennis federation had just allowed Li and its other players to keep most of their prize money while paying their own way on the global tours. Until then, the federation had covered their costs, in return for 60 percent of winnings.
“I really didn’t think about how expensive it was to play the sport,” Li, 30, said in an interview last month. “But when I started traveling with my own team in 2009, I felt, ’Wow, this is really expensive,’ because you have to pay your team and you have to pay your coach as well. I used to joke to my husband, if I don’t play well, and after I am retired, maybe in the bank we will have zero.”
Li is defending her French Open title in Paris and has signed endorsement deals worth $42 million since becoming the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles championship a year ago, according to her agent at IMG, Max Eisenbud. Players at the bottom of the tournament draws, still struggling financially, are aided this year by prize-money increases that outrank those for the champions by 4-to-1 and can mean the difference between staying on tour or becoming a club coach.
“‘You can do more, you can bring a coach or trainer and actually better prepare yourself for the tournament,” said Donald Young, an American ranked 51st on the ATP World Tour and a first-round loser in Paris to Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov.
The loss earned Young $22,384 (18,000 euros), a 20 percent jump from last year’s prize money, and pushed the former top-ranked junior player over the financial break-even threshold.
Today, 2009 champion Roger Federer takes on France’s Nicolas Mahut, while top ranked Novak Djokovic, who would hold all four Grand Slam titles should he win at Roland Garros, plays Nicolas Devilder, the 286th ranked Frenchman. Women’s top seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus meets Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak.
The annual cost of playing pro tennis is $143,000, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Tennis Association. Young had made $131,091 this season before Paris.
The French Open and Wimbledon both increased prize money this year for the early rounds of the main draws as well as the qualifying tournament after calls from the men’s ATP World Tour and its players for a better distribution of revenue generated by the four tennis majors.
The U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 27, will release its prize money next month. The Australian Open, which begins in January 2012, publishes its prize money in October.
Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy, a 158th-ranked French player who was granted a wild-card entry into the main draw in Paris, almost doubled his year’s earnings when he lost to former champion Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in the first round.
“It’s going to allow me to finish the year, to reinvest in plane tickets and my coach and practice,” said the 25-year-old de Veigy, who had made $25,696 in prize money this season before Roland Garros. “It’s huge.”
The study by the USTA’s National Collegiate Varsity Committee found that the cost of being on tour includes $60,000 to travel to 20 events a year, $13,000 for mental and physical training, and $70,000 for a coach traveling with the player.
That means the point where players start to make money lies at around No. 163 on the men’s ATP World Tour and No. 125 on the women’s WTA tour, based on 2011 rankings. It takes most players between three to four years to break into the top 100. The average career on tour is seven years.
The French Open increased prize money for reaching the second and third rounds of the qualifying event by 12.5 percent. The French Open singles champions will receive 1.25 million euros, or an increase of 4 percent.
Wimbledon increased its prize money in all three qualifying rounds by 21 percent, while first-round losers in the main draw will get 14,500 pounds ($22,360), or 26 percent more than last year. The Wimbledon singles champion will receive 1.15 million pounds, or 4.5 percent more.
“I am really happy, especially for the players who are lower-ranked,” Djokovic, the game’s No. 1 player, said in an interview at the Rome Masters. “When you travel to Australia, for example, it’s a very expensive ticket, not just for yourself, but for the whole team, your wife, your girlfriend or kids if you have them, to travel there and to stay there for a couple of weeks to prepare for the event and everything. You need to cover those expenses and it’s not easy, obviously.”
Djokovic made a men’s season-record $12.6 million in prize money last year, when he won three of the four majors.
Chanelle Scheepers, a 28-year-old South African, said she made almost nothing in her first year on the circuit in 2000 and that her parents had initially helped her financially.
“I remember sharing hotel rooms with other players to just make it cheaper,” she said in an interview in Rome last month. “It was just a lot of tough ones. South Africa is so far and so expensive to travel that I would have to go on 12-week trips at a time to just make it affordable.”
Scheepers, who broke into the top 40 last season, lost in the second round in Paris. She has made $185,677 this year.
Michael Russell lost in the first round of the men’s doubles with Young in Paris and failed to qualify for the main draw in singles. Ranked 110th in the world in singles, the American, one of the few players on tour with a college degree, said his love of the game makes it all worth it, even with winnings this year of just $94,628 before Paris.
Michael’s brother David went to Harvard Business School and works for the endowment arm of the University of Virginia.
“Had I gone into the business world, I could have made a lot more, particularly when you add up all the expenses and everything,” Russell, who travels with his wife on tour and estimated his annual cost at around $75,000, said in an interview at Roland Garros. “But tennis has been my love since I was a child. It’s fantastic to be able to play here at the French Open and at the Grand Slams.”