No Frills, No Crowds, No Money: The Lonely Road to Tennis Glory

Less than a half-hour after a crushing defeat in front of two spectators, Aleksandra Wozniak paced the hallways of the municipal tennis center in Dothan, Ala., pleading on the phone with an airline representative.

Wozniak, a former top-25 player, had hoped to stay longer at the small tournament, but the loss forced her to immediately arrange a cheap 6 a.m. connection back home to Montreal. Once there, she would prepare anew for the next small tournament a week later in Charlottesville, Va., another lonely stop on a punishing minor league tennis tour.

In Dothan and Charlottesville, Wozniak, 29, competed alongside a special stratum of players struggling to claw their way out of tennis’s underappreciated lower rungs. Among those players is Fanny Stollar, a statuesque, 18-year-old Hungarian with hopes of joining the sport’s elite.

Stollar and Wozniak are at distinct stages in their careers. One is a rising prospect, the other a veteran making a comeback. But their goal — to play regularly on the WTA Tour — is the same, and for now they share a platform on the International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit, the junior varsity of professional tennis, where purses are too small to earn a living.
“This is not where I want to be,” Stollar said in late April in the small lounge area of the Boar’s Head Sports Club in Charlottesville. “But I have goals. This is where I have to be right now to reach them.”

Players on the Pro Circuit compete at remote stops like Dothan; Charlottesville; Andijan, Uzbekistan; and Yuxi, China. At any given time, 70 such tournaments may be taking place around the globe, with more than 2,000 players competing desperately for their hotel money, or less. Tennis distributes about $280 million in prize money each year, but 60 percent of that goes to the top 1 percent of the men on the ATP Tour and women on the WTA Tour, according to the International Tennis Federation.

On the Pro Circuit, there are usually only a few spectators standing courtside, or sitting on folding chairs. There may be a couple of line judges but no ball kids — the players pick up their own balls and towels, and no one will hold an umbrella over them.
The travel costs for the players can be staggering and the logistical arrangements often self-made, adding layers of work and worry to an already demanding profession.

“I went to Australia in January and played three tournaments,” Wozniak said. “I spent 15 grand.”

Wozniak took in roughly $6,500 in prize money before taxes at those events, including a first-round loss in the Australian Open qualifying draw. (Serena Williams, the champion, won roughly $2.8 million.) Wozniak’s trip was a net loss. Same in Alabama, where she received $189 before taxes — minus the $40 entrance fee, of course.

This is a player who once beat Williams and was ranked No. 21 in the world in the summer of 2009. Today, after a series of injuries, Wozniak has tumbled to No. 317, but refuses to give up.

Read more at The New York Times.