Any athlete participating in an individual sport faces advantages and disadvantages when it comes to earning potential. The biggest advantage is that a player is effectively their brand, and therefore they can influence just how much money they end up taking home.
The bad news is that if a player does not perform well, or goes through an injury, they do not have a guaranteed salary like most teams for participants.
All this leads to questions surrounding the finances of tennis players. Is it a lucrative sport to play professionally?
How much do tennis players make? The top tennis players in the world, male and female, rank among the highest sports earners in the world. They can easily bring in millions of dollars per year not only from winning tournaments but with sponsorships opportunities as well. However, outside of the top 100 on the ATP and WTA tour, money opportunities can shrink considerably, producing a huge wage gap.
Prize money in tennis is readily available for just about every tournament on the ATP and WTA tours. The biggest prize money opportunities are at the four majors, but there is still plenty of money to earn in the different levels of tournaments out there each year.
The top players in the world can end up winning right around $3 million if they take home the US Open title. This is the most lucrative tennis tournament for men and women each year. This could be life-changing money for any player, but even an underdog making a deep run at a Grand Slam can live off their prize money for a long time. The way the prize money distribution works, just qualifying for a Grand Slam can be a great payday for some players.
Here is a breakdown of how much players earn from each round at the US Open:
|Singles (2020)||Prize Money|
Every player who made it to the first round of the US Open in 2020 earned $61,000. That can be the difference between a struggling player staying on tour instead of feeling forced to quit professional tennis to get a different job. That is why there are so many players who fight through the qualifying rounds to get the chance to compete in one of the Grand Slams.
Prize money increases significantly with each win, capping at right around $3 million for a singles championship. This is the extreme as far as prize money is concerned, but the US Open follows a similar pay structure to other tournaments. Essentially, a player roughly doubles their money with each round they reach.
Comparing the top 10 ranked players yearly prize money earnings
|Player||Prize Money Earnings (2019)|
|1. Rafael Nadal||$16,349,586|
|2. Novak Djokovic||$13,372,355|
|3. Roger Federer||$8,716,975|
|4. Dominic Thiem||$8,000,223|
|5. Daniil Medvedev||$7,902,912|
|6. Stefanos Tsitsipas||$7,488,927|
|7. Alexander Zverev||$4,280,635|
|8. Matteo Berrettini||$3,439,783|
|9. Gael Monfils||$2,916,587|
|10. Roberto Bautista-Agut||$2,911,522|
The disparity in tennis prize money at the end of the year is pretty massive. Even when looking at the top 10 players, there is a huge range in what the #1 player makes, compared to the #9 and #10. For example, in 2019, Rafael Nadal led the tour with over $16 million in prize money. That is a huge number compared to the guy who finished 10th on the list, Roberto Bautista-Agut. He finished with $2.9 million, which is still a great year, but it shows how quickly money drops off.
Here is the full list for all the top 100 players prize money earnings
If we go even further down into the 100-200 range, players are making less than six figures in prize money. That is before accounting for all the other expenses that go into playing tennis and staying at the top of the game. This is why players will go to different tournaments looking for paychecks, hopefully gearing up for the largest non-majors and the four Grand Slams.
If it feels like tennis players are a walking billboard at times, that is because they need to make money in creative ways. There are plenty of brands who love the idea of getting their name out there during a match, and they work directly with players to land sponsorship deals.
Clothing & Shoes Sponsors
The most common sponsorship involves clothing, as just about every touring professional has some deal with a tennis manufacturer. That can be something as basic as getting free clothing and shoes thrown their way for tournaments, all the way to multi-million dollar deals.
The most important factor to land a big sponsor deal is obviously to perform on the tennis court, but some players that are lower ranked can earn more just because they are more marketable. A t-shirt on a player like John Isner (very tall and skinny) won’t look as good as it would on a player like Grigor Dimitrov or Roger Federer.
But, how much do tennis players earn from these sponsorships?
Nike and Adidas dominate the industry, and there is a reason why nearly all the recent Grand Slam winners wear one of these two companies. They start developing relationships with promising youth players in hopes of a few of them paying off later in life.
There are some smaller companies (at least from a tennis perspective) involved in the sport as well, but they usually only have the budget for one or two big guys. Examples include Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori with Uniqlo, and Stan Wawrinka with Yonex.
Not every player utilizes their sleeves for additional sponsorship revenue, but this is another way to make money. These deals are not always extremely lucrative, but they will buy a small space on a player’s sleeve that will be prominently seen during matches. To pull this off, the player’s clothing sponsor must be fine with the move as well.
Racquets also are a great opportunity for players to make some extra money. This is a pretty expensive piece of equipment that casual players will invest in if they see their favorite player using something they like. Even though a lot of professional tennis racquets are customized for that particular player, it still makes an impact on people watching the game to go out and buy that model.
Racquet sponsorship deals may or may not include strings, which is a major expense for tennis players on tour. Not only are players restringing all the time, but they often have at least a handful of racquets in the current rotation. A player forced to pay for their own string and stringing jobs could easily spend over $100 a day on that alone.
If a player does not have a deal with a racquet company, some are just fine buying what they want off the rack. There will be players who do not want to give a company free publicity, so they will get the racquets blacked out. Players will do this particularly if they are in-between contracts and shopping around.
Sponsorship deals go behind the court, especially for the best players out there. They will have opportunities to work with companies trying to appeal to those not even watching the sport of tennis. The big names like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova all have deals with anything from car companies to watch brands.
A lot of sponsorship deals will come with some incentives to reward a player if they exceed expectations. These incentives can be related to rankings or results in majors. There is also the opportunity for sponsorship deals to have reductions in them, which is something nobody wants to deal with if they are injured or not performing well.
Since tennis is not the most popular worldwide sport, sponsorship opportunities do tend to dry up pretty quickly. Tennis players do benefit from having recognizable faces as a sport without helmets and facemasks, but it can still be tough for a non-top 10 player to land a huge sponsorship deal.
One of the biggest disadvantages to playing an individual sport is that a player needs to pay for their expenses more often than not. When playing for a team in a team sport (ex. NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.), they cover everything from coaching and facilities to travel. When it comes to an individual sport, a player is mostly responsible for taking care of everything themselves.
That is not that much of a problem for the top earners, but it cuts in the prize money significantly for those players who are just getting by on tour. They usually have to find ways to cut back in one way or another, and it can be anything from getting the cheapest flights possible to not traveling to specific tournaments with a coach.
This builds a bigger gap between the best of the best, and those trying to make a decent living playing a sport they love. A top player can show up with multiple coaches, a physio, a group of friends and family, and more, and they do not have to worry about finances at all. They are at a distinct advantage over a player who had to take an uncomfortable flight to a tournament and get ready for a match without any coaching.
A simple way to break down expenses is to once again look at any of the Grand Slams. For example, going to the U.S. Open means that players need to find a way to New York City, a place to stay, and a way to pay their entire team for the days they are there. The more successful the player, the higher the expenses. For top players, they do benefit from their sponsors picking up the bill for some of the expenses.
Expenses for attending US Open in New York (Approximate Numbers)
|Travel (Player & Coaches)||$1500|
$4500 for just attending the tournament, which is not much if you take in consideration that you get $61,000 for losing the first round. However, if we take the same expenses for a 200-300 ranked player that is attending a challenger tournament, there is a high risk that they won’t break even.
Prize money in a challenger tournament (players ranked 150-400 are usually playing here)
|Sparkasse Challenger||Prize Money|
If we continue with the same example with $4500 in expenses, a player will lose money even if they reach the semi-final.
Even sponsorship money is cut into many different ways. Most players will hand those responsibilities over to a business team. Whether that is an official business team working with a management agency, or help from the family, they still need to provide them with a proper cut.
Finally, taxes are very complicated for players earning money in different countries all around the world. Sometimes, a player will need to pay taxes in each individual country they win prize money in. Players are flying around to different parts of the world, easily earning paychecks in 20 or more countries every year. It makes taxes complicated, and pretty costly.
Every athlete must pay taxes, and salaries reported never take out that portion of the money. The good news for tennis players is they have more freedom as far as where they establish residency. Most of them will buy a home in a part of the world that has reasonable taxes. That is why a lot of tennis players will have residencies in Monte Carlo, The Bahamas, or states in the United States with no state income tax. This move alone can save some of the top players millions of dollars over their careers.
The Real Salaries Of Tennis
The top players are living it up in the tennis world, but those players need lower-ranked players to beat in all these tournaments. Tennis players winning Grand Slams make headlines for huge paydays, but even the 50th player of the world makes quite a bit less than the 50th best player in the world in a team sport.
Any sport that pays out based almost entirely on results will have this problem. It is a format that tennis has stuck to for a long time, and while it might not always seem entirely fair, there might not be a better alternative. That leaves the rich getting richer, and the poor struggling to make as much take-home pay as they would working as a teaching pro at a nice club back home.