Playing with Tennis' Stars, but Barely Scraping By

The U.S. Open makes similar arrangements for its competitors in New York. It even sponsors a qualifying tournament that offers $1,000,000 in prize money, the most generous event of its kind in the world. The United States Tennis Association budgets $1,011,000 for per diem payments to players, which number more than 300, including qualifiers.

Even so, Martina Navratilova, who has earned more than $20 million in prize money, suggests tournament promoters need to consider paying players more money. Equal prize money for women and more prize money for all, she suggested, would help avert financial disaster for players ranked below 100.

"Those are the people that it affects the most," she told ABC News. "It's for three quarters of the field, they lose first and second round, and they really count on this money. It could be the Grand Slams [Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. opens] are well over half of the prize money that they earn for the year. You know, that's the bottom line."

Occasionally, taking the financial risk of financial ruin pays off. In January, a 19-year-old Bulgarian teenager flew to Australia to compete in two major tournaments. Like many young women her age, Tsvetana Pironkova had a serious reason to watch her pennies; in this case, her career depended on virtually every cent.

Nearly six feet tall and shy, she already worries about taxes as much as touch volleys.

"Everyone thinks we earn so much," she told ABC News. "but in the end, it's not like that."

Short of funds and traveling with her brother, Encho, who helps with arrangements and practice sessions, Pironkova couldn't afford to stay in a hotel catering to players. She asked an airport clerk for suggestions and wound up at the Magnolia Court, a converted house on a side street in Melbourne.

Ranked 94th in the world after four and a half years as a professional, Pironkova had won barely enough to meet expenses. Airline tickets, food, accommodations and taxes devoured her income. Taxes can take away as much as 30 to 40 percent of purses, she said.

"I won $6,000 at a tournament in Zagreb," she said, "but it was only $4,000 after taxes."

Then, she earned a much bigger sum in Australia and got a glimpse of the possibility of better paydays. There, the unknown Pironkova beat Venus Williams, the defending Wimbledon champion, in the first round of the Australian Open, collecting $18,300 for the day's work. (She lost in the second round).

Four months later, at the French Open in Paris, she reached the second round again, earning $26,280. Yet, her expenses remained high and her income was barely matching it.

By late June, Pironkova had earned $83,461 for six months of effort, but spent much of it, traveling to 11 tournaments in 10 cities in 7 countries. In a blur of flights and modest hotels, she racked up a series of wins and losses -- but taxes and travel punched serious holes in her pocketbook.

Then came Wimbledon. There, she scored a first-round upset of Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany, the 13th seeded player. The investment was beginning to pay off. Even after losing in the second round, she collected $23,366 [12,840 British pounds].

Here at the U.S. Open, she was guaranteed $21,500 as a first-round loser in singles ($16,500), where she was beaten by an American Jamea Jackson, and doubles ($5,000), where she also lost.

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