By JOHN MARTIN
MELBOURNE, Australia — Marius Copil, 24, is lean, crew-cut, bearded, and sometimes mildly sunburned, a professional tennis player from Arad, a small town in western Romania. In late December, he boarded a plane in Bucharest and flew with his coach to Istanbul, Dubai, Singapore, and onward to Brisbane, Australia, a journey of more than 10,000 miles. Their roundtrip tickets cost him $3,863.
In Melbourne on January 22nd, Copil, a qualifier ranked 194th in the world, fought toe-to-toe for more than two hours with the Australian Open defending men’s champion, Stanislaus Wawrinka, ranked 4th, exactly 190 places higher in the world.
Several of Copil’s 17 service aces blistered the court at more than 145 miles an hour. He finally yielded, 7-6, 7-6, 6-3, after winning cheers and applause from delighted spectators.
Asked what he would remember best about the match, Copil said it was “my attitude on the court. I’m really happy at the way I was playing mentally.”
Copil is one of several hundred men and women who work to maintain their composure on court while struggling, sometimes frantically, to support themselves off court.
In late January, the Grand Slam Committee, composed of representatives from the four major international championships, met at Melbourne Park to discuss policies — but not player compensation, according to committee director Bill Babcock. “Each slam has to make its own decision,” he said, to avoid what he called questions of anti-trust activity and price fixing.
According to a new research survey, which tracked more than 2,000 players who made prize money of any amount in 2013, only about 150 women and 160 men made enough to cover their expenses.
Funded partly by the International Tennis Federation and Tennis Australia, the study found that the average professional tennis player needs to make $160,000 per year to break even, once coaching, travel, housing, and meal costs are factored in.
Copil was not among the fortunate 160 men. He earned $96,223 in 2013 and $142,534 last year.
Based on data from several thousand player reports, the study’s authors, Dr. Michael Bane and Daniela Gescheit, concluded: “Some thought does need to be given to the viability of a tour where almost all the prize-money goes to a handful of people, who in some cases don’t rely on prize-money to sustain their career anyway.”
The conclusion reflected a situation where some top players earn more money from corporate sponsors or product endorsements than winnings on court, while many lower ranked players resort to borrowing from family or friends to pay expenses.
“You play tennis for a living,” Copil said. “It’s my job, and I love what I’m doing. Of course we need to earn some money to keep on going.”
By reaching the third round here, he earned the equivalent of $48,108 in prize money, more than a third of all the money he made last year, but still barely enough to cover the 30 per cent he said he paid in taxes in 2014.
The study reported that worldwide, tournaments pay a total of $280 million in prize money. “What makes it so difficult for developing athletes,” the authors said in a commentary, “is the way that money is distributed.” The payout is lopsided. Among men, the top one per cent of players received 62 per cent of the money in 2014. Among women, the top one per cent of players received 51 per cent of the money.
For a third consecutive year, however, financially stressed players have found a champion in Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director.
“We can’t be an attractive sport for young kids to get into unless there’s a really good compensation pool and not just for the top 10,” he said in an interview.
“It’s great for the top 10, they’re some of the highest earners in the world, but I’m talking about the players who rank 100, 150, 200.”
Tiley, who holds degrees in economics and business, suggested that the four major international championships should lead the tennis establishment into compensating lower-ranked players at a higher level. Tiley knows the tennis circuits first hand. As a young Australian player in the 1980s, he based himself in Europe, he said, winning enough prize money to pay his expenses moving from tournament to tournament.
“At the end of three years,” he had paid his bills, he said, but “I didn’t have a cent.”
Three years ago, at Tiley’s initiative, Tennis Australia began increasing compensation for players, adding travel grants and raising per diem expenses for all players, wealthy and impoverished, who make the journey. This year, the travel grants total about $1,088,000 in U.S. dollars, with $1,979 going to each player, including qualifiers.
“We said to the players, by the time we hit 2016, we’re going to take all your costs away,” Tiley said. This year, each receives $300 per night for a hotel and $60 per day for meals.
To save player airline booking and flight change fees, Tiley formed a unit to operate an around-the-clock travel service. In most cases, he said, change fees are eliminated by negotiation.
To save players taxes, a special unit advises them on deductible expenses, helps them fill out forms, and issues paychecks promptly with taxes already withheld. Relying on Australian Tax Office accountants sitting beside them, Tiley said, “Most first-round losers don’t pay any taxes.”
These practices have not caught on with the three other major international championships. All four pay roughly comparable per diem expenses for hotels and meals, but none has chosen to match the travel grant.
A French Tennis Federation spokesman ruled out providing grants. “Roland Garros is in a different situation,” said Guillaume Lebastard, “with all players being a one-hour flight, or less, from Paris before the event.”
Many players, of course, must still travel to Europe from elsewhere, including Asia, the Pacific, and the United States.
“One concern we share with the AO, for sure,” said the spokesman, “is the desire to help the lower-ranked players much more than we did in the past.”
In 2015, he said, French Open losers in the first week will receive a 12 per cent increase in prize money and a 20 per cent increase in per diem expenses.
“We are not considering travel stipends at this time,” said Chris Widmaier, the U.S.T.A. managing director for corporate communications.
“I think that Australia is unique in the travel assistance grants,” he said.
A limited review of ATP and WTA records showed dozens of players earning meager sums week after week while traveling even short distances.
In seven weeks preceding last year’s French Open, for example, American Irina Falconi, 24, received payments totaling $444, $444, $760, $1,144, $392, $444, and $392 from professional tournaments in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia. Ranked 111th in the world, her total earnings for the year were $117,092.
“It’s not for everyone,” Falconi said of the sport’s image of players traveling the world in luxury.
Copil agreed. “It’s quite tough to make a living when you’re ranked from 100 to 200 or 200 plus,” he said.
In four weeks following the 2014 U.S.Open, Copil earned pre-tax pay days of $682, $500, $500, and $1,005 as he played Challenger tournaments in Romania, Slovakia, and France.
Justin Gimelstob, a television analyst and former player who joined the ATP player council in 2008, said tournaments at all levels are pledging to raise prize money, which he said was “earned and deserved.”
“There’s a responsibility for those who are making the most for the sport to give back to the most important entity for the sport, which are the players,” he said
Asked if the current distribution of revenues seemed fair, Gimelstob said: “No. No, I believe it’s starting to get better recognized, but no, I think it’s still disproportionate.”
According to its 2014 annual report, Tennis Australia grossed $163.5 million (in U.S. dollars) from the Australian Open. A 2013 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing indicated that the U.S Open grossed $163.2 million from ticket sales and broadcast rights alone. The French Open grossed $180 million in 2014, according to Gilbert Ysern, tournament director. “It’s going up each year,” he said. A figure for gross revenues at Wimbledon was not immediately available.
“It’s all about where the money goes,” said Falconi. “The U.S. Open — they make a ridiculous amount of money. And I think our percentage, that players make, is very small, actually.”
Asked if she would be surprised if the U.S. Open ultimately offered travel grants, Falconi said, “No, I would not be surprised. I’d be very happy. I think a lot of people would be appreciative of that,” she said, “I feel like it should be for every Slam.”
In January, as he prepared to return home to Romania from Melbourne, Copil struck a hopeful note.
“Everybody’s struggling a bit,” he told a reporter. ”I see that the improvements are going to come in the next years. I’m looking forward to it.”