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Dreams come at a price: the financial struggle of Ireland's top tennis player

Irish number one James McGee on life as tennis pro and the battle he faces just to make ends meet.

JAMES MCGEE IS Ireland’s number one tennis player and currently ranked 269th in the world. Last month he made his first appearance in the Wimbledon qualifiers where he was beaten in the first round.

Here he writes about the financial struggle he faces just to cover his expenses and make ends meet since turning professional five years ago.

For many years, my biggest concern about playing on the tour wasn’t so much about my will or ability, it was more about having the money to actually do it. I was extremely fortunate to have some private sponsors help me out for a short time when I first started on the Futures Tour (July 2008) but the money didn’t last long due to the economic downturn. I ended up being in a position in early 2009 where I had no sponsorship and very little personal money. Major challenge.

I was ranked in the 400s in 2009 after a good start on the tour from July-December 2008. It was a time where I needed funding to really push on and not get stuck but unfortunately, I did get stuck. My lack of funding lead to major changes in my schedule, my game, my mentality, my ranking and consequently my results. It was a difficult time and it lasted well over 2 years until mid-2011. Not surprisingly, my results were not outstanding during that period and I really felt I was struggling due to minimal funds.

I played primarily on the Futures Tour during 2009/2010 as my ranking was not high enough to get into the main draw of Challenger Tournaments. I was limited to a European schedule as cross-continental flight costs (America/Asia etc) were too expensive and I stayed in the cheapest accommodation I could find at tournaments, including residential dorms and hostels.

The fact that I had so little money meant that I couldn’t afford a coach so I traveled to over 90% of tournaments alone. At first, it was exciting to have such freedom and to be “chasing my dream” but after some time reality kicked in. I was both alone and stressed and wasn’t sure exactly how things would pan out. Loneliness and high performance don’t mix well and it’s just not surprising that I wasn’t reaching my full potential during that period.

‘This certainly saved me some extra cash but it didn’t save my shoulder’

I took strong measures to cut costs as it was the only option I had. To cut flight costs, I started travelling with Ryanair as they had the “cheapest” flights and flew into a few cities that were close to some of the Futures tournaments. Everyone knows how Ryanair do their best to catch passengers who are one or two kilos overweight in baggage and I learned the hard way. In order for me not to get caught by them, I had to reduce the amount of gear/equipment I usually traveled with, buy a new carry-on bag (which I made sure exactly fitted the shape/size requirements) and hoped they wouldn’t find something else to charge me for. I learned to put my clothes, tennis rackets and a folded tennis bag into one suitcase and I used my carry-on bag for a laptop, some clothes and a few other essential things. I turned it into a game and used to find pleasure when placing my suitcase up on the scales and seeing 15.0 Kilos on the dial. “C’MONNN!!!”

(Pic: James McGee)

I did a few other things too to cut costs like taking the boat a few times to the UK, sleeping next to strangers in hostels and I even made equipment changes to cut down on my restringing costs. I started using a thicker string with a lower gauge which meant it would take longer to snap. This certainly saved me some extra cash but it didn’t save my shoulder — I ended up having to take three months off and get an injection in my shoulder at the end of 2011 because it had taken a serious beating from playing with what felt like a large plank of wood. I won’t be doing that again.

On top of that, I had to find players every week who I could share a room with to cut hotel costs. It wasn’t very enjoyable and I had my fair share of sleepless nights because my French or Italian roommate was snoring the hotel down. On one particular instance, my roommate was snoring so loud that I screamed at the top of my lungs, “SHUT THE #@!* UP!” and threw my two pillows at his head. It was enough to quieten him down for a few hours but still, not ideal. I’ve since purchased some effective noise-reducing ear plugs which I now use when flying, sleeping in noisy hotels etc.

I also clamped down on my laundry expenses by washing all my clothes in the bathtub or sink during tournaments. Laundry can surprisingly be quite expensive depending on what hotel you stay at.

‘No player can continually progress without the help of other people’

The two largest expenses are always flights and accommodation and after that, you have to take care of food, restringing, laundry, transport (taxi, train, bus), physio (massage), equipment (string/clothes etc) and the odd random expense (entry fees, ITF/ATP subscription fees etc).

Expenses can really add up on a weekly basis when you take all these factors into account and you have to remember, all of this is just for myself. If you add a coach to the equation or a physical trainer, you might as well double those costs as you have to pay their flights/hotel/food along with a weekly salary. The costs end up being astronomical.

I don’t care how good a player is or how talented he is, no player can continually progress without the help of other people — be it a coach, a trainer, a physical therapist or a mental coach. You need someone in your corner who can challenge you, support you, develop you and take you to that extra level.

(©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan)

I was simply in a situation back in 2009 where I literally could not afford to have someone continuously helping me so I reached out to a lot of good-hearted people who empathised with my situation and gave me free coaching, free accommodation and free advice.

Just so you know, most players (aside from very top guys) play between 25 and 30 tournaments per year, sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the player. For the other 20 or so weeks where they are not competing, most players use that time to train or rest. Large costs can still be incurred during these weeks if you choose to pay a coach or a trainer.

For the players who can’t afford this, they tend to use this time to train without a coach or physical trainer. In my opinion, these weeks are just as important as the competitive weeks and from my own experience, I always progressed more during the training weeks where I had a coach compared to when I hadn’t.

‘I saw it as an investment in improving my game’

In my non-competitive weeks I spent my time searching for sponsorship and looking for world-class coaching. I traveled to Italy a few times to work with world-renowned coach Bob Brett and his protégée Marin Cilic (currently world number 13). Bob was kind enough to offer me plenty of free coaching and training and I am sincerely grateful for that gesture. It was an awesome experience and I got to know Marin too which is cool.

I also travelled to a few tennis academies and coaches in the U.K. including the LTA Centre at Roehampton and a bunch of training centers in Europe. My old coach Larry (Tennis Canada) used to give coaching clinics in many centres around the UK and I travelled over to gain from his expertise in the 48 hours he was there. I slept on his hotel room floor a few times and used to take notes and record the conversations we had so I could listen to them when I was back on the road competing. I was spending money to travel to the UK but I saw it as an investment in improving my game and keeping me on the right track.

‘A lot of the time the prize money earned will not even cover costs for the week’

The prize money at Futures tournaments is scandalously poor.

I remember making the final of a Futures in Madrid in May 2011 and receiving under €500 in prize money. It was atrocious and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the cheque. It was both discouraging and sad to see my hard work earning me very little money. Up to that point, it was my most successful week of 2011 in terms of ranking points but I still lost more money than I made.

Futures tournaments can be of a high standard with guys ranked as high at 190 in the world playing them. Even with winning the whole tournament, a lot of the time the prize money earned will not even cover costs for the week.

Second-round prize money at a Challenger event (Pic: James McGee)

The whole reason for playing Futures tournaments is to earn enough rankings points so that your ranking can be high enough to start playing some Challenger tournaments but the process of getting into the main draw of Challengers can be very tough, especially if you do it without help. It is possible to do but requires a lot of mental strength and physical ability.

Once you make it to the Challenger Tour, life gets a little bit easier in terms of the organization of the tournament, the general setup and for a lot of Challengers, hospitality can be provided for the week. The standard of competition is obviously that much higher but prize money and ATP ranking points are so much greater than Futures.

In order to break through from the Challenger Tour to the ATP Tour, you need to be able to win consistently at Challenger Tour level and very seldomly do I see a player who is doing this without help. A huge portion of Challenger players have a coach with them for the week as it can give them an advantage with regards to scouting, practice, off-court management and general company.

For the players who win consistently at Challenger Tour Level and travel alone, they are exceptional players and from my observations, they are almost always the older, more experienced players who have been on tour for years. They know what they’re doing.

‘I was basically in a losing race’

I wasn’t receiving positive responses on the sponsorship end of things so to keep myself afloat financially, I started playing club tennis in France and Germany as it was the only viable option to get fast cash. In 2010, I think I played about 11 league matches on 11 consecutive weekends in different parts of France and Germany.

In between each league match I was playing different Future tournaments around many countries in Europe and I was hustling every Saturday to catch one (sometimes two) flights to play my club matches. I would play two club matches on the Sunday (singles+doubles), get paid and hustle to get a flight out late Sunday night to go to the next tournament for a First Round match on the Monday, regularly in another country. Talk about grinding.

To say it was hard is an understatement. It was one of the most physically draining schedules I had and one which led to a lot of stress and injury. It was extremely tough and led me to question a lot of my inner beliefs as to why on earth I was putting myself through this type of lifestyle. It was stressful, physically draining and lacked any real financial reward. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of “what could be” if I manage to keep grinding. I was basically in a losing race. At some point I either had to stop playing altogether or something great would have to happen.

Most league tennis around Europe is played during the summer months but I had to get money for the other nine months. I started playing French money tournaments around different parts of France. Basically, these tournaments were in the middle of nowhere in France with nothing around apart from a large shed/warehouse that had a few tennis courts inside. The tournaments would last three or four days and I would usually be put up in housing. Matches weren’t even all that easy but I did win a couple of tournaments here and there. A nice €600 paycheck to keep myself going for the next week or so.

An indoor clay court in France (Pic: James McGee)

I’m not the only tennis player who has had to live this type of nomadic lifestyle but when I talk to other ATP Tour players about the cost of the tour and how they handle their finances, each one has shared a different story.

Many players I talk to play league tennis across Europe and you will regularly see Top 100, Top 50 and even Top 20 players playing for a variety of clubs. The payment for playing varies but can be from €500 to €10,000 per match depending on ranking. A player ranked in the 500s can earn over €1000 per match. A top 200 player can earn over €2500 per match plus expenses. The club tennis is a big business and many players would not survive on tour without it. I, for one, can vouch for that. Some of the US and international players play World Team Tennis in the US but I’m not familiar with their system.

‘I am extremely honoured to be in a position to play for my country’

Other players I’ve talked to rely on their Davis Cup earnings to take care of a good chunk of their expenses throughout the year. Obviously it depends on which Davis Cup Group your country is in but I’m aware that many Challenger Tour players receive a substantial payment to perform for their country.

Unfortunately for Irish tennis players, this is not the case. When it comes to earnings for Davis Cup, I receive much less than I would for playing one club match in France. Most club matches are played on Sunday afternoons and all are best of three tie-break sets. Davis Cup on the other hand lasts the entire week and the matches from Friday to Sunday are all best out of five sets!

To give you an example: in my last Davis Cup match vs. Finland in April, I received €500 for my efforts in a tight five-set match which I lost to Harri Heliovaara. I also received an extra €320 for team selection. Total of €820. That money didn’t even last me a full week on tour.

Let me be clear, I am extremely honoured to be in a position to play for my country and represent Ireland. I’ve always given 100% in my matches in Davis Cup but I believe the payment for playing for Ireland is grossly unfair. Playing Davis Cup two weeks out of the year results in missing four weeks of professional Challenger and ATP tournaments throughout the year. That’s four weeks of earnings and four weeks of gaining vital ATP rankings points. From my personal experience, Davis Cup is extremely demanding on a physical and emotional level and I have always needed to take a few days off after Davis Cup in order to rest and prepare for the next tournaments. These weeks away from the tour can be crucial in terms of ranking points and earnings.

‘Funding our players will need to become a top priority’

Some players, such as the Spaniards/French receive funding from their National Federations up to a certain age or ranking in order to help them out in their career. It is no surprise to me at all why these countries continue to regularly produce world class players. They have a fantastic system in place, support their players and they have a fantastic tennis culture.

(©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan)

Unfortunately, I have not been awarded any funding from the Irish Sports Council in three years despite being number one in Ireland for the past year and winning the Irish Open in 2011 which is an international event. I very much appreciated the grants I received from them in 2009 and 2010 as I am certain I would not have survived without them.

In my entire junior and senior career, I didn’t receive any funding from Tennis Ireland aside from a small payment in 2010 that would have lasted me less than one week on the tour. If Irish Tennis is to survive or progress at all, funding our players will need to become a top priority.

‘I don’t have any financial deals”

There are many players who have reduced their expenses by receiving clothing/shoes/racket or string sponsorship. I am fortunate enough to receive free rackets from Head and a fantastic discount with the string company Solinco. I do not have a clothing sponsor or a shoe sponsor but I am presently looking for one.

The cost of clothing and shoes have become a large expense for me over the years and on average, I am going through about 12 pairs of hard court shoes per year, 6 pairs of clay court shoes and 2 pairs of grass court shoes. That can cost up to €3,000. To add the cost of clothing to that figure, I’ve come up with a estimate of €5,000 per annum in clothing/shoes expenses.

Some players are paid to use certain rackets or clothing and I believe a lot of them are the ones ranked at the top of the rankings, in seniors or juniors.

In order to have these type of deals, it helps a lot to have a manager/agent negotiating on the player’s behalf. I don’t have any financial deals with commercial companies nor do I have a manager or agent helping me. Any form of sponsorship would be of invaluable assistance to me.

(©INPHO/Cathal Noonan)

‘For me, it was a miracle’

Many players work their way up the rankings ladder on the tour with the mindset of attracting a sponsor who can step in and provide funding to ease the financial strain. Fortunately for me, this was the case at the end of 2011 when I received substantial funding from my home club which has kept me going till now. For me, it was a miracle as I was in desperate need for funding to keep going on the tour. At that particular time, I was over €6,000 in debt due to costs incurred that year and I was not making any headway in my search for sponsorship.

I am forever grateful to my home club for helping me in such a huge way and my results have improved significantly due to their help. It has allowed me to play on the tour without the enormous stress of financial worry and it has allowed me to play a full schedule of tournaments. On top of that, their financial help has led me to use Barcelona as a training base in my weeks off from the tour where I work with some excellent coaches and trainers.

I would also like to acknowledge the financial assistance from The Fitzwilliam Development Fund over the course of my professional career.

As I’ve already explained, I have benefitted and progressed greatly from my home club’s sponsorship.That sponsorship has now expired and I am actively seeking alternative sources of sponsorship in order to take me to the next level. I am confident in my ability to climb further up the rankings which will allow me to play ATP Tour and Grand Slam events. With financial assistance, I know I can do it. I kindly request anyone reading this blog to share it, tweet it or email it to anyone (private/commercial) you believe can be of financial assistance to me.

‘The only way is to be absolutely exceptional at what you do and strive for excellence everyday’

I want to make it abundantly clear that money is not the be all and end all of success in tennis, it just helps. I’ve seen players, teams and federations with all the money in the world yet they haven’t produced the same amount of success as individuals and federations with a limited budget. Sometimes it actually helps to have a limited budget, it gives people that burning desire and hunger that is necessary to achieve great success.

If you don’t have a lot of money but do have a lot of passion, then the only way forward is to beat everyone else you play. When you do that, you will eventually get recognised and hopefully that will lead to some sponsorship and opportunity. I know I’m being blunt here, but it’s true. The only way is to be absolutely exceptional at what you do and strive for excellence everyday.

A version of this post first appeared on James McGee’s website here. You can get in contact with James on Twitter @JamesMcGee01.

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