At 15, Joao Sousa was one of the best tennis players in Portugal. With few sponsors and not many training facilities, he saw little chance of making a living from the sport in one of southern Europe’s poorest countries.
“I didn’t have the facilities to become, or at least try to become, a professional tennis player,” Sousa, now 26 and the first Portuguese to rank in the top 35 on the men’s ATP World Tour, said in an interview a few days ago. “My parents asked for a loan and I moved to Barcelona.”
In 2004, Sousa left his family home in Guimaraes, northern Portugal, and traveled to join the Barcelona Total Tennis Academy, whose founder Francis Roig occasionally coaches Rafael Nadal. His parents continued to rack up more debt to pay for his training.
Almost ten years later, the investment began to pay off. In 2013, Sousa won the Proton Malaysian Open, becoming the first Portuguese to win an ATP tournament. He’s reached more than $1.7 million in career winnings.
“Up until a year go, it wasn’t easy to make money because I had to pay for hotels, food and traveling expenses at tournaments where the prize money was so basic,” Sousa said. “Now that I’m playing the ATP tour I win money.”
Sousa, who arrived in Portugal from Spain last week to compete in the Millennium Estoril Open, is one of the few Portuguese players to overcome the skyrocketing price of competing at the elite tennis professional level.
And while the payoff for a singles player who wins a Grand Slam may reach $3 million, for those like Sousa, who’s never gotten past the third round at one of the four majors, the reality is a little different.
Yesterday, Sousa lost in the first round of the Estoril Open to compatriot Rui Machado.
“People think that we win a lot of money but we also spend a lot,” said Sousa, who spends about 200,000 euros ($220,000) a year on training and travel. “It’s a lot of expenses between hotels, coach, travel, food and some things I want to buy for myself.”
Sousa says he didn’t get any financial support from the Portuguese Tennis Federation even though he has been the country’s best player for several years.
Vasco Costa, head of the federation, said April 28 that the organization has had to trim its budget by about 50 percent in the last few years. It has 1 million euros a year to cover all its costs, he said.
“It’s obviously very expensive to be a professional tennis player at the highest level and many players like Joao Sousa spend a lot of their own money before they reach the break-even point,” Costa said.
Sousa said that he relied on his own income and support from his parents to cover his training and traveling costs. His former sponsor, Portuguese lender Banco Espirito Santo, was bailed out last year and Sousa is now sponsored by Banco Comercial Portugues, another lender.
“It was a lot of money and I’m glad they don’t want their money back,” said Sousa, without providing details as to how much his parents invested in his career.