The Brutal Costs of Raising the World’s 631st-Best Tennis Player
The $24.99 Wilson junior racket that Eric and Melanie Rubin bought before their second child was born, in 1996, was a tiny down payment on the hundreds of thousands they would spend to produce a pro tennis player.
Eric lost three jobs as a commercial lender as he skipped work to train his son, Noah Rubin, at sunrise. He borrowed money to pay for $130-an-hour lessons. Melanie worked for nothing at a tennis club to get free court time for her child.
The costs skyrocketed over the years as Noah, the 2014 junior Wimbledon champion and 2015 NCAA singles finalist, traveled the world for tournaments and wore through $100 outfits and a constant supply of hard-court and clay-court sneakers.
“He went through hundreds of rackets. We’d buy five to six rackets at a time at $250 per racket,” Eric says. “There were times I was unemployed, so it was a problem. I borrowed from my parents a ton.”
Noah entered competitions from Costa Rica to France, always accompanied by a parent or a coach, and racked up hefty plane, hotel, and restaurant bills. Entry fees that had started at $50 per tournament soon rose into the hundreds.
Each parent had a routine. When Melanie went, she and Noah would eat hibachi dinners and watch movies in the hotel. When Eric traveled, which was most of the time, he and Noah would search for souvenir shot glasses.
The total cost for attending tournaments reached about $40,000 a year.
“That’s after-tax money,” says Eric, who now works as the Long Island representative for Connecticut-based Webster Bank. “That means the first $80,000 of my income goes to that.”
And when Eric and Melanie divorced in 2010, much of the roughly $225,000 in combined legal costs went to lawyers writing mind-numbingly detailed rules determining which parent would direct Noah’s burgeoning tennis career:
Now it’s Noah’s turn. After going 26-4 this year as a freshman at Wake Forest University, the 19-year-old turned pro in June and will try to start recouping some of his parents’ investment. He was granted a wild-card entry into the qualifying tournament for the US Open, and he won his first match to earn $10,000. Noah lost in the second round, however, so he won’t get a shot when the main event starts on Monday. Still, the prize for his first-round win more than doubles his career professional earnings, which previously totaled $8,833, won in places like Lexington, Ky., on the ATP Challenger Tour, the minor league of tennis.
“What were they spending on me? Absurd numbers, and I was still young and they didn’t know what potential I had. It’s putting down a lot of money for something that may never be,” Noah says of his parents. “They’ve put a lot of money into it, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that’s why tennis is one of the toughest sports to get into. I mean, if you want to be good there’s no happy medium. Money will be spent.”
The British Lawn Tennis Association estimates it costs about £250,000 ($385,000) to develop a player from age 5 to 18. Staying pro doesn’t come cheap, either. The U.S. Tennis Association estimated in 2010 that the annual average cost to be a “highly competitive” professional tennis player was $143,000—including $70,000 for coaching and $60,000 for travel—and that only the 164 highest-ranked players on the men’s tour would have broken even with such costs.
The potential rewards for top players are enormous. The men’s and women’s champions of this year’s US Open each will receive $3.3 million. Roger Federer, the men’s No. 2 seed, has more than $93 million in career earnings, and the 34-year-old Swiss player was the most marketable athlete in the world in 2014, with an estimated $58 million from endorsements.
But Noah is ranked No. 631 on the men’s ATP tour, about as far away from tennis wealth as a professional can be. He still has to win qualifying matches just to play in minor-league events. He won a wild-card spot in last year’s US Open but lost in the first round.
Noah’s extraordinarily expensive upbringing is unusual among his elite tennis peers. Many left home at a young age for the USTA development system or private tennis academies that provided training and covered their travel and other costs.
“He could have gone to the USTA. They would have housed him in Boca Raton, they would have pretty much covered all his living and training expenses,” says Lawrence Kleger, director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, who’s been Noah’s coach for the past eight years. “Noah could have probably gotten a scholarship to seven different academies.”
Some of Noah’s travel has been covered by the USTA since he was 11, and training since his early teens has been provided free by Sportime, a group of New York-area clubs that house the McEnroe Academy. When Noah turned 15, Sportime also started paying most of his travel and tournament costs.
But almost all of his early expenses came from the pockets of his parents, who still must pay their way to his tournaments. When Eric and his girlfriend spent a week with Noah in May at the NCAA tournament in Waco, Texas, it cost them $5,000.
“Every decision that they made, my tennis was behind it. My dad was like, ‘Should I take this job if I have to be a little farther away?’” Noah recalls. “If I negatively affected them early, I hope to make up for it. I make fun of him. I say, ‘Dad, you only had me so you could have a retirement fund.’”
By the time he was a toddler, Noah was swinging at a tennis ball hanging on an elastic band from the family’s living room archway in Merrick, N.Y. In his bio on the International Tennis Federation website, it lists: “Age Started Tennis — 1.”
“We had our kids on the court from the time they were in diapers,” Melanie says.
Laminated mock-ups turned the dinner table into a mini court for discussing strategy. Even his bar mitzvah had a “Noah’s Grand Slam” theme.
The intense focus on tennis didn’t do much for Eric’s banking career. He bounced from NatWest to North Fork Bank to a six-month stint with Citibank. “I left NatWest on Wall Street for no other reason than to be with my kids, to teach them tennis in the morning before work,” Eric says. “I got in late every morning [at North Fork] because I was out teaching Noah at 5 a.m.”
As for Citibank: “They’re a business, I don’t blame them for it. They expect people to be at their desk, and I had other priorities.”
At 7, Noah was beating kids almost twice his age in tournaments, so the Rubins turned to Kleger—who was then executive director of tennis for Sportime—for support. Eric and Noah still scraped ice off courts in Newbridge Road Park on wintry Long Island mornings to play before school.
After Noah won a regional tourney as a 10-year-old, other parents crowded around him asking what he ate before matches and how he warmed up. He was a 2010 finalist at the prestigious Les Petits As 14-and-under tournament in Tarbes, France, whose past winners have included Rafael Nadal and Michael Chang.
By then, Noah was receiving free rackets from Head and clothing and shoes from Adidas. Sportime and the McEnroe Academy started covering the cost of his tennis lessons, as well as online classes that ran about $7,000 a year, after he left high school before 10th grade. The Rubins paid about $10,000 for tutors in the 18 months leading up to college, using part of Eric’s buyout from North Fork.
Although tennis didn’t cause the breakup of the Rubins’ marriage, it led to constant tension over Noah’s future and how much he should focus on the sport. Melanie says the divorce cost her about $100,000, plus as much as $25,000 in post-divorce court proceedings in which “tennis was always the driving factor.” Eric says his costs for the divorce and subsequent legal actions were in the six-figure range.
“It didn’t make it any easier, the amount of money that was spent on lawyers and going to trial,” Noah says. “Financially, you combine those two things [tennis and divorce], you didn’t have any extra money, you really didn’t.”
At 5 feet 10 inches and 155 pounds, Noah is significantly smaller than most pro players he’ll face. He tries to compensate with speed, hustle, and precision, a combination that has kept 5-foot-9, 160-pound David Ferrer of Spain in the world top 10 since 2010.
Noah hopes a long pro career will allow him to pay back his parents for all their financial and personal sacrifices. The junior Wimbledon title was a first installment.
“Both parents, but especially my dad, hid a lot of the negative effects of what my tennis was doing to him,” Noah says. “When I won Wimbledon, my feeling of happiness was more for him than anything else.”