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Canada's Vasek Pospisil during their Davis Cup semi-final match in Madrid, Spain, Nov. 23, 2019.

Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

Vasek Pospisil knows how this might sound. He recognizes economic and medical crises are mushrooming across the globe: Do people really want to hear about the hardships of professional athletes? “Obviously, it’s tough times for everybody right now,” he said in a phone interview.

But with the glamour that attends the world of professional sports, fans may not realize those tough times extend to athletes such as Pospisil and his fellow Canadian tennis players. Many people who play sports for a living – especially the unionized millionaires in the NHL, NBA and pro soccer – are still getting paycheques. But tennis players are essentially gig workers: With prize money from tournaments as their only source of income, most have seen their earnings drop away to nothing.

“At this moment, it’s a 100-per-cent loss of income,” said Sharon Fichman, one of Canada’s top doubles players, ranked 48th in the world by the WTA. A handful of players do have endorsement contracts, but those deals usually require on-court appearances, which are impossible while the tours are on hold.

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Players have been swapping rumours about the men’s and women’s tours perhaps fronting them some cash, but there’s nothing certain at the moment. “I think that something like that would definitely be really helpful, even if it's just, like, a couple of hundred dollars per week, just to take care of food expenses and living expenses,” said Peter Polansky, who’s currently ranked 192nd on the ATP Tour.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the economic fault lines of tennis: Richer tournaments such as the Grand Slams are expected to ride out the storm, even if they skip a year – and Wimbledon reportedly received more than US$141-million in cancellation insurance, because of savvy management ensuring it was covered for a pandemic – while some smaller events may not even survive. But it has also highlighted the financial precariousness of the athletes themselves, who as independent contractors have struggled for years to gain control over their own fate. Some hope the current moment could spur changes in the landscape.

“The majority of us, we’re on our own,” said Gaby Dabrowski, Canada’s top doubles player, who is currently ranked seventh by the WTA. “And we take care of our own expenses on top of that.”

“If you’re in the top of the game, you’re doing great, you’re making great money,” said Pospisil, who is ranked 93rd on the ATP Tour. “But it’s not easy for the other players. And that’s the key issue.”

Singles players ranked between, say 50 to 100, “make a decent living. You’re not wealthy, you’re not making nearly as much money as most people think tennis players make,” he said. “But then if you’re outside of the top 100, you’re pretty much just barely getting by, not saving any money. It’s a tough situation.”

Simply keeping the enterprise afloat is an expensive proposition. Pospisil said his annual costs – paying for coaches, fitness trainers, physio, flights, hotels, meals, equipment, etc. – are in the neighbourhood of $200,000; a full-time coach can add perhaps another $150,000 to $300,000 to that.

Just getting into the main draw of a Grand Slam can go a long way toward paying back those costs. Losing the first round of last year’s French Open would have meant a paycheque of €46,000 (about $70,000 before taxes). Players who lost in the quarter-finals earned €415,000 ($634,000).

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That kind of money is reserved for singles players, though. Last year, Dabrowski lost in the quarter-finals of the French Open’s women’s doubles draw: That earned her all of US$45,000, reflecting the poor-cousin status of doubles in the tennis world. “A couple of years ago, I made a similar amount of money to somebody ranked about 80th in the world in singles, and I was ranked about 10th,” she said in a phone interview.

She had hoped to work this year on a number of initiatives to help improve the status of doubles tennis, including instructional videos that broadcasters might air during matches and player biographies. Those are all on hold for the moment, as Dabrowski spends her self-isolation time working out at her training base north of Tampa.

But the current crisis may actually help spur other changes. For some years now, Pospisil has been beating the drum for players to form a union, arguing that they do not hold the sort of power that is common in some other sports. In the tennis world, tours “have all the leverage, we’re independent contractors – at least by their definition,” he said.

He and others note that the Grand Slam tournaments give an estimated 14 per cent to 15 per cent of their revenue to players in the form of prize money: a sharply lower number than major-league team sports, in which players receive more in the range of 50 per cent of revenues. Even those numbers are only estimates.

“I would say it has to start with transparency,” Dabrowski said, “because we don’t actually know exactly what the tournaments make and where the funds go. And if we want to have a conversation about the distribution of revenue, we need to know actually how much is there to try to bargain for.”

Pospisil said he believes “there’s definitely an opportunity right now” to raise issues of fairness, such as the need for greater transparency. If players suffer lasting economic hardship because of the current crisis, “that might give us a better case for a union.”

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With tennis on hold, players are biding their time and trying to stay fit. A couple of weeks ago, Fichman tweeted a video of herself using a Tennis Partner machine to practise her ground strokes in her Toronto condo. Still, she says, “No matter what cool contraption you come up with, nothing’s going to mimic competing or practising on an actual tennis court with other players.” When she spoke with The Globe and Mail, she was researching how to apply for CERB, the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit.

Still, if, like many Canadians, tennis players’ income has plummeted, so have their costs. “When I’m playing a full schedule, my expenses are close to $150,000 a year,” said Brayden Schnur, currently ranked 177th on the ATP Tour. “But now, considering I’m not travelling, I’m just kind of in one place and staying with my parents, I don’t really know what my expenses are going to be like, but I’m just expecting for this year to be kind of wiped off the map.”

“It’s hard for me to guess when tennis is going to come back, but I don’t know if I see it coming back in 2020, to be honest,” Schnur said. “I don’t see us playing in the summer. And if we do, there will be, for sure, no crowds. So – what’s it going to be like to play with no fans? That’s going to be a whole other question that’s going to be interesting as well. If it comes to that.”

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