Like plenty of people from all walks of life, 26-year-old Mitchell Krueger wants to sign up for unemployment benefits to make up for income lost because of the coronavirus pandemic.
No luck, so far: Over the past two weeks, the Dallas resident has spent hours hitting refresh on his iPad while reaching “Page unavailable” dead ends or hearing busy signals when calling the Texas Workforce Commission.
Unlike most folks hoping for an assist, Krueger is a professional athlete, a tennis player good enough to be ranked 195th in the world. And unlike pros in the NBA or NHL, two leagues interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak whose players are getting most or all of their regular-season paychecks, Krueger is an independent contractor. He doesn’t receive a salary.
Instead, he and hundreds of men and women like him – and their coaches – need tournaments to happen so they can earn money, but the tennis tours are suspended at least until mid-July. Roger Federer, Serena Williams and others who’ve accumulated champion’s checks and millions more in endorsement deals are fine, of course. Krueger, though, is among those feeling the financial hit – and worrying about the long-term effects on tennis.
“You’re going to have a lot of players who feel they can’t survive, not making any money. After a while, they might get into something else, for what they think will be the meantime. Then maybe they realize, `Hey, this is actually better.’ If this goes on for the next nine months, who’s to say that they’re even going to bother trying to come back and play again?” said Krueger, who earned $39,264 in prize money in 2020 before expenses were subtracted – and before competition came to a halt. “I would be lying if I said this whole situation hasn’t made me give a little bit of consideration to what I would do.”
Tennis is as much of a worldwide enterprise, and as fractured, a sport as any, controlled by a mix of the International Tennis Federation, the ATP and WTA tours and the four Grand Slam tournaments. David Haggerty, the ITF president, told The Associated Press in an email Tuesday that those seven groups are “collaborating on a tennis solidarity fund that will assist some lower-ranked players. Details are being worked out, to be announced later this week.”
The men’s and women’s tours also declined to offer specifics, other than to say they would administer the fund, which is expected to top $6 million. Separately, WTA CEO Steve Simon said his tour “delivered over $3 million in benefits since the suspension of play began,” without saying exactly where that money came from or where it went.
Novak Djokovic, the 17-time major champion from Serbia who leads the ATP player council, has talked about using donations from other players to help those ranked outside the top 200 or 250.
That might not go far enough.
The 125th-ranked woman, Katarzyna Kawa of Poland, has earned $22,944 in prize money in 2020; the 175th-ranked man, Carlos Taberner of Spain, $34,114.
When the ATP Tour’s Twitter account asked people to reply with their favorite thing about tennis, one player, Ellen Perez – a 24-year-old from Australia ranked 41st in doubles and 247th in singles – responded, “When you get paid.”
Her prize money for the year is $42,210, and no one knows when that’ll change.
“We are such a global sport, with people traveling all over from everywhere and to everywhere, so I don’t see how it’s going to be easy for us to resume,” said 111th-ranked Denis Kudla, a 27-year-old based in Arlington, Virginia, with about $45,000 in 2020 earnings. “I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.”
Coaches often are paid per week when traveling on tour, getting bonuses based on players’ success.
“There’s a trickle-down effect, right? So agents are feeling it. Coaches are feeling it,” said Sam Duvall, whose Topnotch Management represents Kudla and more than a dozen other tennis pros, including 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist John Isner and former top-10 player Caroline Garcia.
“The biggest challenge is just not knowing what’s on the horizon,” Duvall said. “If we knew that, `Hey, Sept. 1, we’re going to be good’ … then I think people could plan, make the sacrifices that are needed and get the help that is needed.”
Kudla’s conversations with other pros are sobering.
“Guys are panicking,” Kudla said. “They’re already worrying about how to pay rent next month.”
One silver lining: Players aren’t accumulating their usual credit card charges.
“You can run through $10,000 or $20,000 very quickly with the full staff you need. … You’re paying for yourself, significant others, a coach, a physio. Separate hotel rooms. Airfare,” Kudla said. “The bill runs pretty high.”
Kudla’s coach, Carlos Benatzky, who also works with No. 183 Thai Kwiatkowski, said he’d love to replace lost wages by giving private lessons.
But that’s not an option, with courts shuttered during the lockdown.
“The vast majority of (coaches) are experiencing struggles, like other people in other professions who are not able to go to work and might have their pay cut – or are not getting paid at all,” Benatzky said. “We’re all facing quite a significant amount of uncertainty.”