Playing with Tennis' Stars, but Barely Scraping By

Two months ago, shortly before Bethanie Mattek stepped onto Centre Court at Wimbledon to play Venus Williams, her business agent was on the telephone clinching a last-minute deal to earn her extra money.

For $1,000 apiece, Mattek, 21, of Miami, allowed a seamstress to sew two patches across the front of her tank top. One bore the name of a chocolate company, the other an Internet travel service.

Seen only fleetingly on television, the words were barely visible to courtside spectators at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, but they made a strong impression on Mattek's bank account.

"Any little bit helps," she told ABC News.

The uncomfortable fact is that Mattek and hundreds of players on the lower rungs of the men's and women's top professional tennis tours scrape for extra dollars every day to survive financially.

To be sure, they are not as endangered financially as the players who inhabit the challengers and futures events, which are the tennis equivalent of the Nike Golf Tour. There, apprentices and veterans slug it out week after week for the right to do little more than share discount hotel rooms and worn-out cars as they travel from tournament to tournament.

From the outside, of course, professional tennis players -- even on the fringes of the sport -- seem to lead a glamorous and prosperous life: They jet from continent to continent. They often employ a coach, sometimes a trainer, and occasionally a business agent. They usually ride to and from the tournament grounds in chauffeured luxury automobiles (Lexus and Mercedes sponsor major tournaments).

But there is a dark side. First, consider -- and then disregard -- this most extreme example: In May, Katerina Bohmova, a 19-year-old Czech player, reportedly pleaded no contest to shoplifting $450 in clothes and jewelry from a Jacksonville, Fla., department store. In her sixth year as a touring pro, Bohmova has averaged barely $21,000 per year in prize money, according to Women's Tennis Association records.

Few of tennis' fringe competitors make the police blotter (we found only one). But many ride a financial rollercoaster that saps their energy and enthusiasm. Their love of tennis and desire to excel is often their only sustaining motivation.

Most are strapped for the money to pay ballooning airfares to take them to three continents and to buy the food, clothing and hotel shelter they need.

"For me, it's very tough," America's Mattek said. "Every once in awhile you get to play in a big stadium like this [Wimbledon's Centre Court]. It's wow, and cool. I mean, [to play] the rest of the tournaments, it's a struggle."

In the first six months of competition this year, Mattek won $62,002 in prize money. Her Wimbledon paycheck, for losing in the first round of singles, was $14,304, about $3,500 less than a men's player.

Would equal prize money for women make a significant difference?

"It definitely would help," she said. "It's really an expensive sport, especially for someone ranked around my ranking [103rd in the world]. You're paying for coaches, paying for your own [airline] flights, and meals and everything."

Mattek is the first to point out that Wimbledon treats its players better than most, extending generous per diem benefits for meals and free transportation within London.

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.

But even now, her gross income in five years as a pro barely tops $200,000, which sounds substantial, except that it averages out to an extremely modest $40,000 a year -- before expenses.

Nevertheless, for players from the former Eastern Bloc, earning $40,000 per year is the equivalent of extremely good pay.

"They can live like millionaires," said Josef Brabenek, a Czech émigré who has coached and directed tennis development programs on the international level. The government often helps with tax subsidies.

"In the Czech Republic," Brabenek said, "$40,000 is a lot of money."

Less so in the United States. Mattek's average yearly income of $58,000 is nearly double the official poverty line. Yet even though Mattek is having one of her better years, she still doesn't have much net income to show for it.

At Wimbledon, she earned $6,620 for reaching the second round in women's doubles and $2,380 for reaching the second round of mixed doubles.

At Flushing Meadows, she earned $16,500 losing in the first round, and was guaranteed $5,000 more for competing in the women's doubles.

That raised her gross income for the year to about $125,000 (including $2,000 for wearing those two patches). Stacked against airline, hotel, food, and tax bills, the gamble remains on shaky ground.

Mattek takes it one day at a time.