Sofia Shapatava. Picture: CEM OKSUZ/GETTY IMAGES
Sofia Shapatava. Picture: CEM OKSUZ/GETTY IMAGES

Paris — With careers spent scratching around dusty outposts, sometimes with “just $100” in their pockets, tennis’s unheralded army of foot soldiers say they are struggling to afford food after being made unemployed overnight by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now Georgian player Sofia Shapatava is pleading with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to dig deep and help out the hundreds of players who lost their livelihoods when the men’s and women’s tours went into a three-month lockdown.

“Players lower ranked than 250 will not be able to buy food in two-three weeks’ time,” warned Shapatava, who is not optimistic the ITF will look favourably on her plea.

“I honestly don’t think so,” she said. “They replied that their plate is full and they will come back to me as soon as they can. But after that e-mail they did not reply with anything.”

Shapatava, the world No 371, is a 16-year veteran of the tour. But she plays mostly secondary ITF events, a world away from the gilded grand slam world inhabited by multimillionaires Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Shapatava has banked $354,000 in career prize money from almost 1,500 singles and doubles matches. Barely $3,000 has come her way since the turn of the year after events in Andrezieux-Bouthion in France, Midland in Michigan, Nicholasville in Kentucky and the Californian venue of Rancho Santa Fe.

However, compared with many, the 31-year-old is well off. There are comfortably more than 1,000 players in the WTA rankings. The men’s ATP Tour has just as many.

Among a batch of women  locked in the lowest rank of 1,283 is 27-year-old Ksenia Kolesnikova of Russia. In 2020 she officially made only $68.

Many players outside the lucrative top 100 traditionally supplement their meagre incomes by coaching or playing in European club leagues.

However, those reliable revenue streams dried up after governments worldwide banned large gatherings to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“I started the petition to help tennis players to be heard by ITF, after I talked to many of the people I know and about their plans for the next three months and I realised that some people won’t even be able to have food,” said Shapatava in her online blog.

“My problem is that my sport will die as it is, it will die, because players who are ranked lower then 150 in the world will not be able to play.”

Coronavirus has brought all tennis to a standstill until June 8 at the earliest. The entire clay court season has been wiped out with the French Open shifted to September-October instead of its traditional May-June slot.

Wimbledon could follow suit this week when organisers may postpone or even cancel completely the grass court grand slam event scheduled to start on June 29.

Britain’s Tara Moore, the world No 233, made only $2,500 this year but her career earnings stand at $473,500, boosted by lucrative wild cards into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 2016, she made the second round at the All England Club and pocketed a welcome $62,000.

“There are more important things like life and death, but a lot of players from smaller countries, [are] unable to earn any income, unable to say benefits as they are considered self-employed,” wrote the 27-year-old Hong Kong-born Moore in support of Shapatava’s petition.

“It will be tough for many players to survive the next couple of months.”

Former world No 15 Alla Kudryavtseva sympathised with the plight of the current crop. The 32-year-old Russian, who famously dumped Maria Sharapova out of Wimbledon in 2008, made more than $3m in her career, accrued mostly from success on the doubles court.

“I have savings, I’m not worried. What about those juniors that chose tennis as their career and are making the transition to pros? Who didn’t have a chance to save anything yet? Who potentially invested money in themselves?

“They are not student loans.”

The ITF did not respond to requests for comment.

AFP