For players struggling to join tennis' elite, life on tour is more grit than glamour
By Ethan J. Skolnick
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted March 20 2006
Even the closest acquaintances can be clueless.
"People think it's super-glamorous," Jamea Jackson said.
Her life has to be, right? She is the 90th-ranked women's tennis player in the world. And it is, as are the lives of most other participants in the Nasdaq-100 Open, if that's how you characterize jet lag, late arrivals, long absences from family, language barriers, laying out thousands weekly for coaching, and losing.
Lots of losing.
With less reward than you'd guess.
Justin Gimelstob, who is entered in Nasdaq qualifying, has earned more than $2.2 million while popping in and out of the ATP Tour's top 100 for nine years. But that's before taxes and expenses. No wonder he's already working on a second career as a broadcaster and writer.
"You make enough to sustain yourself and a coach, but not enough to be frivolous," Jackson said. "Your friends don't really understand that."
"My friends all say, `You've got it made, I'm coming to live with you in a couple of years,'" said Bobby Reynolds, 23 and ranked No. 114 in ATP. "Yeah, right."
Roger Federer? Justine Henin-Hardenne? Andre Agassi? Maria Sharapova? Those in the top 50 of the ATP and Sony Ericsson WTA tours? Those expected to advance deep into the Nasdaq-100 that officially begins Wednesday, two days after qualifying does?
For those players, perks truly are plentiful.
"If you are doing well, it is an incredible lifestyle," said Lisa Raymond, a longtime doubles star ranked No. 68 in singles.
What about the great majority of players, however, those who find themselves represented as agate type on the right, rather than left, side of "def." notations early in tournaments?
They find themselves hoping for the sort of wild-card entry Jackson received to Nasdaq, toiling through qualifiers or dropping to less lucrative satellite events.
They often find themselves skimping on coaching, even at the risk of continuing the losing cycle.
They invariably find themselves fighting to maintain confidence.
Raymond, 32, recalled "a rude awakening" after turning pro, having been No. 1 in juniors and college.
Paul Goldstein has reached his career-high ranking of No. 63 at age 29. He has a career record of 66-86.
"In college, my worst year, I was 26-4," Goldstein said. "Handling the losses on tour is a major transition."
He has seen it "chew up and spit out" many talented newcomers, who must come to grips with more than rackets. Young players such as Jackson and Amer Delic, who is 5-13 after winning an NCAA singles crown for undefeated Illinois, are still learning how to cope.
Veterans learn to take a rational approach.
"You are shooting for a few great weeks rather than counting on winning every week," said Gimelstob, who has a record of 95-145, was ranked as high as No. 63 in 1999 and is now No. 98.
Goldstein and Gimelstob pack bags and book flights based on losing relatively early.
"If you have to push [flights] back, that's a good thing," Goldstein said. "It might cost you a little in a change fee, but you're only doing it because you're winning prize money."
Yes, players pay for flights. Goldstein is a bargain-seeking Orbitz regular, even after earning more than $1.3 million on tour. Goldstein, whose wife accompanies him only a couple of times per year, was outearning his Stanford peers shortly after graduation. Not anymore.
"If you compare how I'm doing to the 63rd golfer or the 63rd-best baseball player, it's far behind," Goldstein said.
Even so, Gimelstob will remember his tour time fondly: "We get to work out for a living, and travel, and compete."
The traveling can be exhausting, however, the sightseeing time scarce.
Between Dec. 27 and Feb. 25, Delic spent two days home in Jacksonville, for his mother's birthday.
"People say, `You were in France, how was that?'" said Jackson, 20. "You see the hotel, you see the courts. You don't have much time to do anything else. I try to see one play in New York every year, around my birthday."
Furthermore, financial realities force decisions detrimental to competing at the highest level. Coaches are expensive, when including fees, travel and food. Delic, 23, and Reynolds have been part of the USTA's High Performance program, which provides a shared coach for selected players for a couple of years. Delic recently got his own, at a cost he estimates at $100,000 this year. Players put the total weekly cost at $500 to $5,000, with some coaches getting extra for good results.
"There's a different pressure when you're paying for a coach," Delic said.
A first-round loss could lead to losing money for the week. Thus, Jackson went without one for a while, even while supplementing income with sponsorships.
After losing his High Performance spot, Alex Bogomolov used a coach in 2005 only for the U.S. Open. The Miami native, 22, was still waiting Sunday to find out whether he qualified for qualifying
at Nasdaq, where wife Ashley Harkleroad, 20, has a wild card. The couple lives in a three-bedroom house in Chattanooga, Tenn., but not on easy street. Not with No. 168 and No. 78 rankings, respectively.
Asked for his net earnings, Bogomolov said: "Tax season is around the corner, so I know that for the past three years, basically zero."
Harkleroad was injured for nine months, while Bogomolov was losing Challenger tournaments, so he sold his Toyota Celica GT for $10,000. Things are looking up. His wife is playing again; in dual tournaments, they can share a room. She got an adidas contract, and they may play World Team Tennis.
Already a five-year veteran, Harkleroad makes no secret of frustrations with her tour, in part "because girls with girls can be bratty with each other." Why did she return, after considering retirement?
"Had to pay some bills," she said. "No, just kidding. I kind of missed the competition."
Plus, she said, there's always hope "you might have one or two good weeks, and that gets you out of qualies for a year."
There is a huge difference between top 60, top 100 and lower. A better ranking not only generates more reward; it lessens the grind. Qualifying requires matches day after day before a tournament starts, while making a mess of planning.
"If I were in the top 50, I could book flights for the rest of the year," said Delic, who won two qualifiers at Indian Wells, lost to a fresh Marat Safin in the first round, then paid an $800 change fee, and drove from Palm Springs to Los Angeles to take a red eye to start over again in South Florida's BMW Championship.
So Goldstein considers it critical to remain in the top 100, for certain entry into the main draw of all four Grand Slams.
Reynolds sees hope in Goldstein having his best year at 29.
"It's reassuring," Reynolds said. "You don't think, `I'm 23, I need to do well in the next two years or that's it.'"
Still, Goldstein said, "I'm not content just maintaining."
Not when the really good life may just be one great week away.