Lonely travels to unknown towns: The nomadic life of tennis players
Tennis is not played on the center court in pristine white surrounded by aristocracy. Tennis is a lonely sport, and the player a nomad.
For most sport fans the summer months have been synonymous with tennis. The French Open and Wimbledon, which take place in quick succession, transport the fans into the beautiful world of elegant architecture, classy designer wear, strawberry and cream, beautifully manicured grass and the pleasant European summer. These images are enough to make one believe that tennis is one of the last vestiges of upper-class snobbery and tennis players nothing short of royalty.
This is such a far cry from the everyday realities of tennis and tennis players.
Tennis is not played on the center court in pristine white surrounded by aristocracy. Ask a tennis player and they will tell you that it is played on those lonely train rides covering the length of the country, it is played in tournaments in small unknown towns in countries far, far away, it is played in shared accommodations in cold rooms in Eastern Europe, it is played in the drudgery of endless qualifiers, it is played away from home, away from family and away from friends for 7-8 months every year. Tennis is a lonely sport, and the player a nomad.
“I was travelling about 25-30 weeks a year for 5 years in a row while I was competing professionally from 2004-2009” says Sanaa Bhambri, a former fed cupper and professional tennis player. Currently her brother Yuki travels anywhere between 25-35 weeks in a year.“Life during the junior tour was fun as India usually sent a team with a coach and a couple of top players for junior slams, and other high level Asian and European events. However the professional tour (WTA) was extremely lonely.It was brutal trying to co-ordinate visas, sending entries, booking cheap travel, cheap hotels, food, etc. week in and week out.”
“After a certain level, traveling is a part of player’s life. He/she will have to learn to live out of suitcases” says Sunil Yajaman, Former National Coach and Development officer with All India Tennis Association.“The top 10 Juniors in India (between age 16-18) would be travelling on an average about 25 weeks in a year both within the country and outside. Their parents would end up spending approximately Rs 5-10 Lac. When one turns pro, he/she would be predominantly be traveling for ITF Pro circuit to start with and maybe a few Challengers. They would need to play about 35 weeks of tournaments. Considering there are about 8-10 weeks in India for men (for women, it much less), they would have to travel outside India for another 20-25 weeks which is minimum. At this level a player will end up spending upwards of Rs 15 Lac only for travel. It would surely help if the player travels with a coach/fitness trainer, which would be an additional cost”
Shweta Rana, a 22-year-old international tennis player who represented India in the last Asian games, also mentions finance as the main hurdle that a player needs to cross. “Since age 16 it has been normal for me to travel for at least 20-24 weeks both in India and abroad. But the financial aspect makes it very tough. You have to spend so much money through out and even the prize money earned gets used in the next tournament so the cycle continues. Overseas flights and hotels cost a lot and now the dollar exchange rate is very unfavorable. Like most Indian Tennis players I don't have any sponsor so all money is from my pocket. I travel alone because it's very expensive to travel with a parent or a coach. I try to share a room with other players who travel alone. Organizer don't substitute any cost. We have to pay for everything from food to hotel stay.”
Sanaa also reminisces about how travelling expenses were a major concern. “Financially it wasn't feasible to fly always, budget was a major concern. Around the age of 13, I started to travel alone. I have done a lot of travel in 2nd tier non-ac train compartments. My longest being 52 hours from Delhi - Trivandrum.” With Ankita (Sanaa’s elder sister) and Sanaa becoming financially independent it became easier for her parent’s to focus solely on Yuki. “Yuki was far more talented and attracted a few sponsors which helped him. We've ensured he always has a travel companion when on tours knowing how vast a difference it can make. His travel arrangements are all taken care off by my mum. Yuki has always travelled with my mum or a coach/trainer.”
Off the court too, tennis is just as isolated as it is on the either side of the net. From a young age, players learn to manage a lot more than just their game. While the travel is exciting yet being on your own coupled with the high cost has led to many a tennis players’ burnout.
One such player is Akshay Kohli, a former Top-10 in Indian Juniors who left competitive tennis at the age of 19. “Though I lost out on my schooling life, I made some good friends on court. I might have lost out on ‘theoretical knowledge’ which we get in school but I gained a lot of ‘practical knowledge’ because of my travelling – new cultures, new people, new situations, everything. However, yes a lot of talented players quit. Financially it is tough to sustain such expenses over a long period of time and also the constant travel can be a huge pressure emotionally”
Which is probably why it was not surprising when an International Tennis Federation review (ITF), conducted by Tennis Australia, Victoria University and Kingston University in 2013 mentioned that only one in fifty tennis players could afford to cover the $160,000 (Over Rs 1 Cr) costs a year involved with competing on the circuit while only 1.8% of male tennis players and 3.1% of female tennis players turned a profit in 2013. 95% of players surveyed said they failed to cover their costs even when sponsorship was added to prize money.
To counter this problem Sunil Yajaman feels that it is high time the Tennis tour is restructured. “The 3 bodies in ATP, WTA and ITF need to come together and form one body if they are really interested in helping the sport grow. It’s time for tournaments to be shortened (maybe 3 days) and maybe shorter sets for quicker matches. Right now, the players who are making a good living are the top 20 – 30 ones. The unified body needs to help budding players and players till probably 500 to make a decent living out of tennis. Junior tennis needs to be cut down and should just be made a platform for the young players to get match practice. The number of domestic weeks could be reduced with a focus on quality and talent identification. There are many cases of burnout. In India specifically there are more weeks of Junior tennis compared to professional. This has to reverse if we need to see more Leanders and Sanias emerging.”
Ashutosh Singh a former tennis player and a current coach also chips in “I would halve the number of junior tournaments in India. Less tournaments with bigger sized draws. Besides, it will be great if venues start holding 2 weeks back to back tournaments. That is one way of checking the expenses for players and all the players will be well adapted to the conditions and will have better quality of play.”
But till these changes happen, an army of tennis players will continue to diligently march forward on the lonely road of junior and professional Tennis. Like a tribe of nomads wandering in the desert forever in the search of the “oasis”; those Grand Slams. It is that oasis that a minuscule proportion manages to reach while the rest perish enroute. So celebrate the champions who have reached the pinnacle but more importantly celebrate the thousand others who wake up each week in a different motel ready to step on court and fight for survival.
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