In lockdown, tennis players pursue online business and management courses to aid their careers off court
With the coronavirus outbreak forcing a suspension of tennis tours since March, players have some time on their hands to widen their horizons.
Paolo Lorenzi belongs to a family of doctors. As a child, he would follow his older brother Bruno to tennis courts, and almost followed in his footsteps when he enrolled into the University of Siena to study medicine. But he gave that up for a life of struggle on the tennis court.
“My grandfather was a doctor; dad is a surgeon, (and) my brother too,” he says from his home in Florida. “I started medicine in Italy when I was 18, and took seven exams. But of course, because of tennis, it was difficult to finish.”
Lorenzi, the first member of his family to pursue sports, has given up on his ambition of becoming a sports doctor. However, he hasn’t lost a thirst for knowledge.
Always on the lookout to ‘learn something new’, the 38-year-old Italian was delighted when the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of men’s tennis) tied up with online learning platform, Coursera, in May, to provide players with free access to a wide array of courses from well-known universities.
According to Coursera, the most popular courses with tennis players are Financial Markets (Yale University), International Entertainment and Sports Marketing (Yonsei University), Sports Marketing (Northwestern University), Managing your Money: MBA Insights for Undergraduates (UC Irvine), and Speaking English Professionally: In Person, Online and On the Phone (Georgia Tech).
With tennis players starting their professional career at the age of 18, most of them don’t go through a formal education system. But with the coronavirus outbreak forcing a suspension of tennis tours since March, they have some time on their hands to widen their horizons.
“The difficulty with their lifestyle is the travelling, which can make it challenging to study,” ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said in a statement.
“But this technology helps a lot; it’s all online through your iPad or computer, which makes it very easy to take interactive lessons from wherever you are. It’s all about getting engaged and finding a passion. Even if it’s just dedicating one hour a day, it is great value and can give an edge for players not only post career to integrate into a new career or into business, but also to manage their current assets, because players are young and they make money at an early age.”
For a lot of the fringe players, the lockdown has been brutal. With no tournaments taking place, they suddenly found themselves stranded without a job and paltry savings.
Beyond the Grand Slam arenas, tennis is a life of struggle. The strongest of meritocracies and the biggest rewards are reserved for a top few. Though tennis’ governing bodies have been working at increasing the financial rewards for the lower-ranked players, only a couple of hundred actually make a living out of it. Meanwhile, there are 1,979 ranked players on the ATP charts.
The 2020 Australian Open had a total prize purse of AUD 71 million — which was to be distributed among the players featuring in the singles, qualification, doubles, mixed-doubles and wheelchair events. Of that, AUD 8.24 million — which amounts to more than 10 percent of the total prize sum — went to just the men’s and women’s singles winners.
In 2019, the last full season to be completed, world no. 1 Rafael Nadal made USD 16,349,586 in prize money. Meanwhile, Thomas Fabbiano, who finished the year at no. 100, added USD 627,839 to his prize purse, with world no 200 Bernabe Zapata Miralles earning USD 53,303, and world no 300 Orlando Luz making only USD 27,852. One must take into account the fact that players pay for their flight tickets, a lot of them last minute, as they traipse around the world for tournaments.
The pay-gap has come into sharp focus during the lockdown, as a lot of lower-ranked players are struggling financially. With most tennis players joining the pro-circuit at 18 years of age, they rarely have an educational background to fall back on.
“Not making money and being at home for that long — it's difficult for us, that's for sure,” says Jaume Munar, a star product of the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca.
The 23-year-old Spaniard, who dropped out of university to follow his tennis dream at 18, has signed up for a marketing course from the IESE Business School through the online learning platform.
“It depends on everyone and the way you are thinking and what you think the world is going to be after COVID-19. But, I think it's a good chance to have something (to do) after 10 years. I mean, our career is a short one. Right now, we have the time to put in other things; to keep your brain working. And this is what I'm trying. It doesn’t take a lot, maybe 5-6 hours per week. We absolutely have time for that,” Munar adds.
Former India no 1 Somdev Devvarman, who reached a career high of 62, had taken the scenic route to the pro tour. Having won a scholarship to the University of Virginia, he played the highly-competitive US College circuit before joining tennis full-time.
“Education does a lot of things apart from just a degree,” says Devvarman, who retired in January 2017, at the age of 31.
“For me, education was a really good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone in one sense, and challenge myself, challenge my limits, challenge my way of thinking, my perceptions. When I look back, it was a massive opportunity to learn a bunch of new things at a young age. It’s very important for people to open their mind up and learn different things.”
With the tennis tour coming to a grinding halt in March, it has given players, especially those in their late 30s, a glimpse of what life could be after tennis.
Last year, Lorenzi got a taste of it when he worked with the commentary team for Sky Italia at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals (which features only the top 8 players of the year) in London.
He has signed up for two programmes with Coursera – Managing your money: MBA insight for undergraduates, from the University of California, and International Entertainment and Sports Marketing, from Yonsei University.
“I always wanted to study finance, I like working with numbers,” says the Italian, who reached a career high of 33 in 2017. “For us, it is a great opportunity. You can use this to see if you want to do something different. Maybe you will like it more than tennis.”
Even as the sport is inching back to life, players like Munar and Lorenzi are squeezing in a few hours to study between their training and practice schedules. Instead of trying to beat opponents on the tennis court, they are now looking to score well in the end-of-the-course test.
“Every week, there is a small exam,” says Lorenzi. “If you don’t pass, you can’t go to the next week," — much like in tennis, where any opponent in any round can be a potential stumbling block.
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