“Should there really only be 100 players who are able to make a living? Everything else outside of the top 100, you’re pretty much breaking even”
Last year, Vasek Pospisil couldn’t even sit down. Now he’s standing up for the rest of his fellow tennis pros.
A cracked vertebrae and herniated disc ended his 2018 season prematurely, the debilitating and electric sciatica pain forcing him to avoid sitting as much as he could. But a microdiscectomy surgery in January put Pospisil back on track to regaining his form as a player, starting with Wimbledon in July.
It was at the hallowed London tournament where the 29-year-old Vancouver product was elected to the ATP Player Council, adding players advocacy to his job description. The perception of tennis as a lucrative sporting pursuit isn’t backed up by the numbers.
While Spain’s Rafael Nadal tops the ATP money list so far this year with US $11.92 million, there are far more players like Maciej Ziomber, an 18-year-old Polish athlete with a grand total of $54 in winnings — for his career.
Pospisil has spearheaded a project to increase the amount of revenue sharing the Grand Slams split with players. Currently he says it’s 14 per cent — split equally between the male and female players — a huge disparity considering most pro sports hover around the 50 per cent mark.
ATP No. 2 money lister (at US $9.48 million) Novak Djokovic’s is one of 80 signatures Pospisil has collected from the top-ranked players in support for his project, and Djokovic has also come on board as a partner in a leadership capacity. The women’s tour has joined Pospisil’s fight for fair treatment, and he has enlisted the help of a global law firm to represent players in negotiations.
“I felt passionate because I felt there was a lot of … unfairness, that we didn’t have any representation looking out for the players’ best interests,” Pospisil said, adding that of any increases in the revenue sharing, a percentage would be put towards players on the lower-tier Challenger Tour.
“There’s only 100 players who can make a living, which is incredible, because it’s such a global business. Everybody knows how tough it is on the lower tours. The goal is to grow the sport, and to make it from 100 guys who can make a living, to 300 guys. And also to get a fair revenue sharing, whatever that ends up being. It’s just a monopoly right now.”
Pospisil has been banging the drum since Wimbledon, trying to raise support for his cause. He wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail in August that sparked a surge in coverage from media across the globe. After beating ninth-seed Karen Khachanov in a marathon at the U.S. Open — just his fifth victory over a top-10 ranked player, and the first time in his career he’d beaten a top-20 player at a Grand Slam tournament — most everyone wanted to talk about his campaign, not his win.
The Vernon-born Pospisil was happy to oblige. While the salary numbers of those outside the top 50 still seem impressive, averaging around US $500,000 for those ranked between 50-100, it’s far less so once all the out-of-pocket expenses are paid. There’s travel, physiotherapy and coaches — along with paying for both their expenses and meals — and accommodation during a 35-week season.
While outsiders may see a player pick up a US $50,000 cheque for a first-round loss at a Grand Slam, they don’t see the 45 matches he had to play in the previous 12 months just to get his ranking high enough to play there. And during that time, he’s not making any real money.
He said he even had to fight the ATP to partly pay for his US $55,000 surgery, despite being hurt during a game.
“Should there really only be 100 players who are able to make a living?” Pospisil said. “Everything else outside of the top 100, you’re pretty much breaking even. You have to ask ‘is that right?’ How is that possible when tennis makes billions of dollars every year? Theres’s an issue there, clearly. It’s crazy.”
Pospisil remembered what it was like when he was first starting out on the Futures Tour a decade ago. Traveling through poverty-stricken areas in Central America, Mexico and South Africa by bus, the scene on a transport straight out of the movies with chickens and livestock among the passengers.
“Pretty much,” he said, laughing.
In Mexico, the eschewed the official tournament hotel — which they would have had to pay for, regardless — for something more affordable.
“We always went and found a cheaper hotel,” he said of the trip with his dad, Miloš.
“I remember it was so hot, there was no A/C, the window was busted to we had all these mosquitoes coming in, and then there were these gunshots in the middle of the night. We were maybe not … in the best of areas.
“In Nicaragua, it might have even been the same trip, there was a revolution or something happening. The rioters were dropping these things on the road that were making huge potholes; not grenades, but some kind of bombs. So we were driving out and getting freaked out by it. The whole tournament was halted and we all piled into vans and drove back to the hotel.
“(One time in Johannesburg), I was picked up in the middle of the night at the airport, and the driver got lost. We were driving through the back alleys of Soweto, and I remember being kind of scared, because he was pulling over asking for directions. I’m just in the back of the car, freaking out. The guys are there, looking in the car at this rich Westerner …
“Just another day on the tennis tour.”
Now he’s right back in the lower ranks. When Pospisil was injured last year, he was ranked 70th. He’s now 176th, with earnings of US $206,235. It’s a long road back to the top.
Lower rankings mean smaller events, less money. Although injured players have up to nine events where rank-protection rules come in, allowing them to compete under their previous ranking, it still requires a chess-like strategy to maximize it.
After 10 days of training and visiting family in Vancouver, Pospisil is jetting off to China for three Asian events, where he says he historically performs well. Depending on his results, he’ll either head to Europe or to Challenger Tour events in the U.S. to build up his ranking points.
He’ll be going through the same process as the hundreds of other players trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
“It’s probably harder to make the climb, than to stay on top,” he said. “You’re not making the main draw of the Masters events, you have to schedule and be smart.
“(Tennis) is very cutthroat. If you take your foot of the gas a little bit, you’re done. There are hundreds of guys behind you that are eager to take your spot.
“If you get injured in tennis, you don’t get paid, you lose your ranking, and you’re losing your opportunity to make money, for the most part, for the next 12 months. You lose your income, you’re paying more expenses, and when you’re back, it takes 12 months to get (your rankings) back. And you get no compensation whatsoever. You get nothing from the tour.”
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.