As he sank to the floor, James Duckworth punched the air a few times. He greeted his vanquished opponent Jay Clarke, walked to the other side of the court and fell to the deck again, pressing his forehead against the blue centre court at the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune. Later he buried his face in his towel, sobbing uncontrollably.
This was to celebrate the singles title of the USD 54,160 KPIT Pune Challenger, an 80 ranking point event which is the lowest rung on the ATP tour. Duckworth’s celebration may have been akin to those of tennis’ top stars when they conquer another big title. But for the Australian, a journeyman on the tour, any and all wins make a big difference. And this one in Pune will now take him to the top 100— considered the break-even point in the sport.
“I knew that if I won this, I’d break into the top 100 and get direct entry into the Australian Open,” says Duckworth after beating Clarke 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. “I knew there was a lot on the line. And I’ve struggled a lot to get this far.”
The 27-year-old was once a top 100 player, reaching as high as 82, but then came a series of injuries that required five surgeries. But once he got back, his ranking had dropped and he lost all sponsors. “I met some people who gave me a few shirts and shorts for the US Open, that’s about it,” he says. “I don’t have a racquet sponsor either. Today I won USD 7200, which is nice. But there have been times where I lose the first round and get just USD 500.”
Travelling is the essence of the tour, as players require to move around the world and compete in tournaments for ATP points. The Grand Slams are the pinnacle of glory but the lower you step on the tennis rung, the more obscure and uncertain your world gets – that’s where about 80 percent of the players dwell.
Japanese veteran Toshihide Matsui remembers starting out in the sport by driving around Japan in a car and staying in a tent he’d carry along with him. It was a time when the 41-year-old had returned home after finishing college in the United States. By the time he did start to earn a living, the main goal for all tennis players – getting good results in the Grand Slams – became a distant dream.
“I’d travel around in Japan for prize money tournaments (national events that do not offer ATP ranking points), and set up my tent outside the courts,” says Matsui, who paired up with India’s Vishnu Vardhan and reached the semi-final of the Pune Challenger. “That phase ended when I was 25, but by then I had to think about making a living which is why I had to play those money events. I could have tried to travel for the ATP tour, but I didn’t have the money for it.”
Travelling on the circuit has been a problem faced by players from all countries. And the players, particularly those who do not have the resources to move at will, have the extra pressure of winning matches. At some point there’s just no scope left for them to get far.
“I see millions of these stories (of players living in a car or tent). I feel bad but I have almost become immune to them now,” says Purav Raja. “We have at least 100 players in India who will fizzle out in the next two years just because they don’t have the finances..”
But for those who do manage to get on tour, live through the grind, somehow, and continue to stay on the circuit, the measure of success always varies. 0“For some players it is winning Grand Slams. But for me it’s trying to make a living,” Matsui says. “Yes I want to say that I will play Grand Slams so that I can also get sponsorship. But the bottom line is that I need to be making a living to be able to do this. I’m still dreaming, yes, but at the same time I’m watching out for myself.”
Winning a tournament makes some difference, and that prize money, even in least lucrative tour event, will glitter more than a pot of gold for those struggling players. But with this title in Pune, Duckworth has unlocked a ticket to the season’s first Slam – with a first round prize money of over USD 50,000. The Sydney-native will be just one of the 128 players in the men’s singles draw who will make the cut. The remaining 2000-plus ranked players will have to figure out some other way to earn their bread.
Raja and Ramkumar win doubles title
Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan beat the Saketh Myneni and Arjun Kadhe to win the doubles title at the Pune Challenger 7-6, 6-3. This was the second week in a row that they won a Challenger, having won in Kobe before.