16-Year-Old Tennis Pro Belinda Bencic Has 11 Sponsors But She's No Millionaire
Tennis is getting older, but no one gave Belinda Bencic the heads up.
Last month’s Australian Open served as the 16-year-old’s coming out party. After winning three qualifying rounds, the Swiss prodigy beat Kimiko Date-Krumm (who at 43 is still playing top 100 tennis) in the first round only to face eventual champ Li Na.
Though Bencic lost to Li, she showed uncommon poise and displayed a big-swinging game that belies her age. Li praised her young opponent afterwards, saying she played “exactly like Martina Hingis.” “When someone like Li Na compliments you, it gives you confidence that you are on the right path,” Bencic told FORBES.
It’s not the first time the Hingis comparison has been thrown around. Both players hail from Switzerland and have roots in Slovakia. Their forehands look alike too; they both like to take that shot early, robbing their opponents of time. Melanie Molitor, Martina Hingis’ mother and former coach, now works with Bencic as well.
But at 16 Hingis had already won three Slams. Bencic has won just three tour-level matches (five counting Fed Cup). It’s been a decade since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17. The youngest player in the top 100 is Madison Keys, a great talent at 19 but still too unpolished to truly contend at Slams. The combination of rally-prolonging racquet technology, slower courts and stiffer competition at all levels of the game means we may never see another 16 year old triumph at tennis’ biggest tournaments.
That’s why a young talent like Belinda Bencic makes heads turn. She’s only 16 but has already faced Slam champs Venus Williams, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Li Na. While she’s yet to claim a major scalp, she almost singlehandedly won a Fed Cup away tie in France for Switzerland earlier this month.
Bencic’s uncanny progress on an aging tour masks a larger trend—fledgling pros are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living on the tour. “For these young players, juniors [tennis is] so expensive. It makes sense for them to get deals,” said Nigel Currie, Director of Sports Marketing at brandRapport.
It’s not uncommon for top tennis prospects who travel internationally for tournaments to run up $100,000 in yearly costs. Right now Bencic is the hottest 16-year-old tennis player in the world, but she only took home $2,300 in her last two tournaments. This helps put the sponsorships in context.
At first glance, those 11 deals appear to be a money grab, but it’s fairer to say they’re a calculated investment in the future on the brands’ part, and a good way for Bencic to subsidize the costs of playing on the WTA before the wins really start coming. The amount a sponsorship for a rising star pays out can run as little as $10,000, all the way to $100,000. Compared to the multimillion-dollar deals Sharapova, Serena and Li take home, it’s a pittance. If Bencic continues her climb, making the top 100 and reaching the second week at Slams for example, the brands involved at this early stage will get a first pass at offering her sweeter deals, Currie said.
For now, what money there is gives Bencic the opportunity to play against top competition. This dovetails neatly with her current philosophy: “At this point in my career, I always try and learn from the big champions.” And she doesn’t have to rely on the good graces of an individual investor or the charity of the Swiss tennis federation, which lacks the war chest that its counterparts in the U.S. and U.K. boast.
To hear it from Bencic, the relative security these partnerships promise is freeing. “None of the sponsors put pressure on me. I put pressure on myself but I think this is normal when you want to become a champion.”
It’s a long march to championship tennis though, and the road to tennis stardom is littered with the stories of wunderkinds like Nicole Vaidisova, Donald Young and Jelena Dokic, who either burned out or never quite fulfilled the promise of youth thanks to injuries, unrealistic expectations, lack of motivation and countless other setbacks that befall athletes trying to break through on the tour.
Bencic’s rapid improvement and her competitive mettle have allayed these fears, for the moment at least. In the last year, she’s climbed over 400 ranking spots. At 146 in the world, she’s knocking on the top 100 at an age when she’s still restricted from playing a full season.
Said Currie, “It’s pretty clear she’s a huge talent. People believe she’s destined for the top.” The team that surrounds Bencic believes it as well. Her manager, former ice hockey player Marcel Niederer, has been instrumental in securing the funding she needs to play on tour. And Molitor’s training complements the coaching Bencic receives from her low-key but committed father.
Bencic’s agent, Alastair Garland, summed up the expectant, determined mood in Bencic’s camp for FORBES, “No more juniors at this point. She’s earned the right to take the next step.”