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Dmitry Tursunov: Life in the tennis twilight zone

updated 2:45 PM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dmitry Tursunov is ranked 40th in the world
  • Russian reached a career high of 20th in 2006
  • The 30-year-old has won seven career titles but no grand slams
  • Has also enjoyed a successful doubles career with six titles

(CNN) -- Dmitry Tursunov is not a man to play Russian roulette with his career -- but time is running out.

Now 30, he is entering the twilight zone of his time on court with the opportunities to provide for his retirement decreasing every day.

The problem for the World No.39 is that the cost of competing at the highest level is soaring, meaning he must collect $200,000 in prize money each year just to break even.

It's not a problem for those in the top 10 -- but with rising expenses and endless airfares to pay for, those unable to win the grand slams or attract big name sponsors are facing a conundrum.

For Tursunov the choice is clear -- shell out the cash now and hope the investment pays off.

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"I don't have a long career left so I decided to spend whatever is necessary," he told CNN's Open Court.

"I want to get the best results I want to get out of the game knowing I gave it my best and that I didn't try to save up on anything.

"Roughly, I probably spend $100,000 on traveling, plus or minus $10,000, it's kind of hard to say because I think the expenses are going up, the tickets are getting more expensive.

"I think also a lot of the times you have to fly business, not out of luxury, but it's the only time you can get some rest and sleep.

"If you are sitting in a little shrimp position, it's going to take you two days to recover, especially the older you get.

"I didn't believe that but I am starting to believe it. It takes me two or three days to get out of the travel."

I don't have a long career left so I decided to spend whatever is necessary
Dmitry Tursunov

Tursunov travels with his coach and physio, paying for their flights, accommodation and wages. He reckons he spends over $200,000 on his staff each year.

The last of his seven singles titles came in 2011 and while he has bounced around the circuit picking up prize money, the opportunity to earn the big bucks continues to elude him.

According to Forbes Business Magazine, the 10-highest paid tennis players in the world earned a combined $60 million in prize money between June 2012 and June 2013.

Roger Federer, the 17-time grand slam winner, is estimated to have earned $71.5 million in that time from sponsors, endorsements and exhibition matches, not to mention the $6.5 million in prize money.

In the women's game, Maria Sharapova leads the way, earning $29 million a year, making her the highest paid female athlete in the world.

It is a world away from where Tursunov lives -- a man who has earned just shy of $587,000 in prize money so far this year.

"You play against very good players," he said.

"It's hard for people to grasp but you are playing against someone top 100 in his profession in the world which is pretty impressive.

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"If you play a top 100 golfer in the world, doctor or basketball player, all these guys are making ridiculous money.

"But again it's hard to compare the sports but the expenses are a lot higher than even in basketball because we don't have a team who are paying our expenses."

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Tursunov does not travel with a hitting partner as Andy Murray does, nor does the Russian have the backing of lucrative sponsors.

And while he accepts that he has not done badly, earning nearly $5 million during his career, he says the costs of competing on the circuit are constantly spiraling.

"There are certain expenses you can't escape such as airline tickets and so forth but then you have coaches, if you want to compete well, if you want to make it in to the top 50 there's no way you can do that without a coach," he said.

"I've tried. Roger has done it for some time but he's still traveling with a physio, the guy who strings his racquets and those are all expenses you pay yourself.

"You pay a salary to your coach, then you pay his and your travel expenses as well as food. So it adds up. I think to travel with a coach you are probably going to hit $200,000 a year in expenses."

Tursunov was just 12 when he left his native Russia to try his luck in the U.S. after being introduced to a tennis coach through his father.

If you play a top 100 golfer in the world, doctor or basketball player, all these guys are making ridiculous money
Dmitry Tursunov

Following a one-month trial, it was decided that this prodigious young talent had a real talent -- and after that there was no looking back.

"The coach felt like I was someone," remembered Tursunov.

"He saw some potential in me and I decided that I had a one-way ticket to the U.S. and my dad left me after a month."

While he has never managed to prosper at the grand slam tournaments, Tursonov has enjoyed his time in the sun.

Cast your mind back to Wimbledon 2005 and it was the Russian who played the pantomime villain on Centre Court by defeating British favorite Tim Henman.

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Amidst the searing pressure cooker heat of a tense five set match, it was Tursunov who prevailed 8-6 in the fifth to silence the raucous home crowd.

A year later, he played an integral role in Russia's Davis Cup victory over the U.S. by defeating Andy Roddick in dramatic fashion, 17-15 in the fifth.

"After that long fifth set, my dad said 'I'm really sorry I put you in to tennis'.

"I felt he actually meant it -- the match lasted nearly five hours. I think he was pretty exhausted."

Exhaustion is a feeling Tursunov knows all too well.

I think to travel with a coach you are probably going to hit $200,000 a year in expenses
Dmitry Tursunov

He is a keen sleeper, taking advantage of every possible second in his hotel bedroom to catch forty winks.

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In his opinion, it's getting tougher at the top with the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray pulling away from the old master, Federer.

Not since 2006 has Tursunov made it into the top 20 and the prospect of him repeating that feat looks unlikely given the amount of competition.

"I feel like it's getting closer and closer in terms of the top 100 guys," he added.

"You see a lot of these results where Federer and Nadal lost early in tournaments.

"I can't remember a time when Pete Sampras lost that early, or John McEnroe, he didn't lose that early ever in his lifetime. I think it's getting a little bit tougher.

"Obviously there's a lot more money involved and the players in order to compete we have to be a lot more professional and so I think the level of professionalism is getting a little bit higher.

"It's hard for me to say what it was like 20, 30 years ago, but I feel like when I first started there were a couple of matches where you looked at the draw and said 'OK this is a fairly sure win'.

"But I feel like there's almost no easy matches unless you know the guy's injured or he's coming from a different continent. It's getting tougher."

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