Wimbledon 2015: Below top 10, a life of budget dwellings and last-minute deals

CNN  — 

Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sits in the lobby of an enormous Holiday Inn in central London wearing a gray track suit after a long day of rain-disrupted practice.

Tall and lean, Garcia-Lopez carries himself like a tanned Spanish movie star, yet something is clearly bothering him.

“I woke up and felt a really bad pain in my neck. I don’t know if it’s because of the pillow or whatever,” Garcia-Lopez tells CNN ahead of June’s Aegon Championships, a key Wimbledon warmup event held at Queen’s Club in west London.

“That’s the problem, because every week you are sleeping in a different bed with different pillows.”

Garcia is the 32nd best player in the world, according to the ATP rankings. He has accumulated more than $5.5 million in earnings over a career that would be considered wildly successful by nearly anyone who has picked up a racket dreaming of Centre Court.

At the moment, though, Garcia-Lopez is struggling just to get to get some rest.

“Sometimes you have a lot of noises in your room, and you can’t sleep. But what can you do? It’s our life,” he adds.

Tennis is almost certainly the most individual of all professional sports. Matches can drag on for hours, with no coaching allowed in between breaks. When you win as a singles player, the credit is all yours, and when you lose, you can’t blame it on teammates.

Off the court, the sport is just as individual as it is in between the baselines. Players are responsible for booking their own flights, accommodation and transfers (not to mention those of their support staff), without overwhelming their budgets.

For the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – who frequently hop on private planes out of convenience – handlers and personal assistants are the norm, offering a huge advantage over nearly everyone else on the tour.

Could the disparity in lifestyles partly explain why top players maintain their foothold on single digit rankings year in and year out?

Since July 2008, the aforementioned three plus current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic have held their positions in the top 10. Spaniard David Ferrer joined them in October 2010 and has been a fixture ever since.

Meanwhile, outside of the dozen or so household names on the men’s and women’s circuits, tennis pros are often scrambling on short notice to lock in the best deals for their 30 to 40 weeks on the road each year. Most travel with their coaches, while some bring along friends and partners too. More rooms, more flights and more meals equal more costs.

“I know some soccer players and basketball players, for them it’s very easy,” says Garcia-Lopez. “They give you your boarding pass and the key to your room and it’s very easy. But like this, it’s a really, really serious problem that you have to organize everything.”

That’s why Garcia-Lopez’s opponent the next day, fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar, chose to pocket the daily $260 expense provided by the tournament and stay at a friend’s place in Earl’s Court, just one mile from Queen’s.

The modest two-bedroom apartment is set atop five flights of stairs with no elevator. A mattress is laid out on the floor of the living room for his coach Albert Portas, while Andujar uses the spare bedroom. He will move to an apartment just before Wimbledon starts.

The 29-year-old Andujar, a native of Valencia who “lives” in Namur, Belgium for the 20 weeks he’s not on the road, is currently ranked 36 in the world, with nearly $4 million in accumulated prize money.

Does he feel rich?

“It looks like a lot,” he says, explaining that about half of his earnings evaporate between expenses and taxes. “I don’t feel rich in a matter of money, but I feel rich in a matter of doing what I like. Enjoying the game and feeling something that only a few people can feel on the court; that for me is being rich.”

Andujar has played in five of the past six Wimbledon singles tournaments, getting bounced out of the first round each time. This year the All-England Club has raised its prize money to £29,000 for first round exits (before deducting 20% in taxes).

In the event that Andujar loses again, he says attending Wimbledon is still financially worthwhile – at the very least, to pad his budget for further travel.

“I think even if you have to pay your coach, your physio, their flights, their food, their hotels, etc., you probably still keep half of it,” he says. “In other countries, it’s quite a lot, and this is just for one match.”

Both Garcia-Lopez and Andujar have reaped the benefits of being born into Spain’s golden generation of players, when the sport took off in the 1980s and training facilities mushroomed around the country.

The downside, however, is that for all their talent and success they are currently ranked sixth and seventh in their homeland, losing out on any shot of lucrative sponsorship money.

Had either of them been from countries that haven’t produce clumps of players in the top 50, it would be a different story, according to Diego Dinomo, who coaches Garcia-Lopez.

“You could be 20 in the world, but maybe (in your country) you have somebody ahead of you like Nadal, so you’re no one,” he says. “Because if I’m a (sponsor), I want to invest in Nadal, not you.”

Nadal reaped $28 million in endorsement money alone last year, according to Forbes. Along with lucrative deals from Kia and Nike, the 14-time grand slam winner is paid to play with a watch specially designed for him by Richard Mille that carries a price tag of $775,000.

Like nearly every player in the top 100, Garcia-Lopez has his clothing and rackets sponsored (he’s signed with Lacoste and Head), but gets little out of it other than free gear.

“I don’t have a sponsor outside of tennis who can help me,” he explains, saying his manager is looking to make inroads in his native town of Albacete in southeastern Spain, where he is the only tennis pro to make it big.

“But it’s not easy. The sponsors want the players who don’t need (the money),” he explains. “Nadal, Federer, Murray, those kinds of players. They are always on TV. We are also, sometimes, but not all the time, and the big companies want (the exposure).”

The same, evidently, is true in the women’s game.

“If you are top 10 you can pretty much get whatever the hell you want,” laughs American player Irina Falconi, who recently cracked the top 100 with her third round performance at the French Open, before crashing out of Wimbledon in the first round on Monday.

“For the rest of us, even if you are 50 in the world, you still don’t get everything,” adds Ecuador-born Falconi, who has seen fellow players miss airport transfers due to bad planning.

In the world of megastar Maria Sharapova – the world’s highest paid female athlete who cleared nearly $30 million in 2014 – there is no bad planning.

“Chances are her agent would have been on top of it,” says Falconi, referring to Max Eisenbud of IMG who is famous for his micromanagement.

“She’s sponsored by Porsche, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d have a Porsche waiting for her,” she adds.

Falconi, who has an incentive-based deal with the Japanese athletics brand Asics, applauds Sharapova for doing “an amazing job” at maintaining a high ranking (touching No. 1 or 2 every year since 2011) and establishing her brand.

“They got to that position for a reason; it’s what we’re all striving for,” she says of the top earners, before quickly asserting that no matter how much money she stands to make on tour (and thus far, it’s $810,000 over five years) she’ll still be the one booking flights and hotels.

“I’m a control freak. I need to know that if someone messes up, it’s on me,” she says, stressing that inputting passport numbers, dates of birth and names onto online booking forms are particularly worrisome when your livelihood depends on getting to a tournament on time.

Falconi credits reaching the third round at the French Open this year – her best Grand Slam effort so far – with staying just a 10 minute walk away from Roland Garros.

The fact that she found the apartment on Airbnb garnered her just enough publicity for the online booking site to supply her and fellow American Shelby Rogers with four-bedroom lodging for Wimbledon, saving even more money.

The 25-year-old admits she has had one bad experience through online booking, although it’s a testament to her lifestyle that she can’t remember where it happened.

“I ended up staying at a creepy house, and they just didn’t have enough room for me,” she says. “I was in the basement and I ended up getting sick because there was so much dust in the air.”

Falconi travels with boyfriend, professional boxer Travis Hartman, who “is the facilitator” in her life, she says. He will often take care of errands while she works on finishing her college degree online (she attended two years at Georgia Tech before going pro).

As well as fretting over her next flight, Falconi is also thinking of what happens when she finally has to put her racket down for good.

Her French Open showing earned her $100,000 – 80% of which goes to her sister Stephanie, an investment adviser at Ameriprise Financial.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Falconi says. “I’m not going to spend it if I don’t see it.”

Because she has played mostly outside of the top 100, Falconi has had to fight through qualifying rounds to get into the grand slams. It’s a calculated risk: getting knocked out of a qualifier means a sunken cost for trip expenses.

When his ranking tumbled due to injury in 2013, Latvian player Ernests Gulbis skipped Australia entirely, not chancing it on losing before the main draw.

“To go to Australia to play qualifying, you spend more money on air tickets than you earn in the tournament, so it’s completely useless,” he said in an interview on Dutch television.

Perhaps tellingly, Gulbis is one of the few players on the tour not dependent on his tennis income. His investment-banking father is said to be one of the richest men in Latvia.

Falconi shakes off the self-defeating attitude. “I’m not going to (skip) a grand slam for the fear of not playing well, that’s just not in my mindset,” she says. “Hopefully you have saved enough throughout the year to go there.”

Falconi, who lives in the tennis haven of West Palm Beach, Florida, adds that she’ll often pay a few hundred dollars more for a flight to Australia to bump herself up from economy.

“It really makes a difference to sleep on a flight, especially when it’s 15 hours,” she says. “If you can sleep eight of those hours, you’re doing pretty good.”

Garcia-Lopez shudders when he recalls economy flights to Australia from early in his career. “It’s like one day of traveling, and you arrive there totally dead. Totally dead,” he says, although any way you slice it, it’s still an inconvenience.

“Also, when you travel in business you arrive dead, but it’s different,” he adds.

For former Wimbledon doubles champion Frederik Nielsen, flying economy to Australia – and everywhere else – is a no-brainer. “I don’t really have much of an option because if I was flying business, my funding for my career would not last a long time,” he says.

The 31-year-old Dane turned pro 13 years ago and peaked at No. 17 on the doubles circuit, without breaking into the top 180 as a singles player. His career earnings have totaled a modest $820,000.

“I’m pretty confident that I am able to find the cheapest options available at any given moment,” he says, pointing out a $750 flight he bagged to take him from Copenhagen to Taiwan and then to Korea and back, with excess luggage and low change fees (a must for tennis pros with unpredictable tournament runs, as nearly all fly out the moment they lose).

“There are a few challenges, but I’m trying to make it into a sport,” he says. “When I finally get a good ticket I get really excited…It’s all part of the game.”

Winning the doubles tournament with Jonathan Marray on Centre Court in 2012 – they were the first men’s wildcard entry to lift the trophy – was Nielsen’s greatest experience as a pro by far. He recalls getting goose bumps during changeovers. “It was obviously the best tennis court I’ve ever played on in my life,” he says.

The £130,000 ($200,000) in prize money wasn’t bad either, giving him the biggest budgeting cushion of his career. It hardly proved to be a windfall, though.

“A lot of people think that there is a lot of money in tennis, and that after Wimbledon … that all of a sudden I have bucketloads of money, but it’s just not the case,” he says.

For Wimbledon, Nielsen stays with his uncle in Kensington, west London. Any little saving he picks up on his travels allows him to occasionally bring his coach on tour.

This includes stringing his own rackets – an expense which normally runs to $3,000 or more per year. For Nielsen buying a portable stringing machine made perfect sense.

“If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t do it, but it is really a minor hassle to me,” he says. “I’m just chilling at the hotel room anyway.”

Doubles champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands – who convincingly won her Wimbledon first round singles match against Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck 6-3 6-2 on Monday – says that in the past, injuries which sidelined her forced her to travel without her coach.

“It’s an expense that I wasn’t in a position to take on until I could go win some matches and make some money,” says the 30-year-old resident of Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s budgeting, so you’ve got to decide what you can do and what you can’t and go from there.”

Now healthy and back in form – winning the 2015 Australian Open doubles, along with the French Open doubles and mixed doubles titles – Mattek-Sands travels with her entire team.

They include her husband and manager Justin Sands, a former college football player who runs his own property insurance company, her coach Adam Altschuler and his girlfriend Brenda who also weighs in by helping with travel arrangements.

This means finding lodging for the four of them at each pit stop, which halfway through 2015 has entailed Australia, Brazil, Mexico, continental Europe, the U.S. and now London.

“It’s a long season for us,” says Mattek-Sands, who has only spent two weeks at home since the start of the year.

When he is not dealing with client emails, Sands is hunting down travel deals. Getting to London was tricky. Flights were listed at $2,200 going one way on economy. In the end he booked the seats through a combination of accumulated airline miles and cash.

“The hardest part is that all of our stuff is last minute,” says Mattek-Sands, who takes a sleeper seat in business class during long flights, while the rest of the team hope for empty rows in economy.

“It’s a traveling circus,” Justin says of the tour. “You are literally going town to town, city to city, and setting up shop again every week to perform.”

Within North America, another member joins the Mattek-Sands entourage – their Boerboel Mastiff, Ruger Magnum.

“If (players) can kind of take a little bit of home with them, it helps with the mind,” Bethanie says, reflecting on her affection for the 140-pound canine.

“Before, a lot of players would stop because they were mentally tired, not even because their bodies gave out. They were just sick of it,” she notes.

It’s a valid point. In 1983 five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg shocked the tennis world when he retired at 26, seemingly at his peak and injury free. By 2003, Martina Hingis had won seven grand slams before fizzling out due to injury and fatigue at the tender age of 22.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the five tennis pros interviewed for this article have children. All of them were taken aback by the prospect of raising kids given their peripatetic lifestyles.

One wonders, then, how Federer – statistically the greatest tennis player of the modern era with a record 17 grand slams under his belt – can maintain such a high standard on the court.

Still world No. 2 at age 33, the Swiss national is a husband and father of two sets of twins.

His Wimbledon routine involves renting out two houses – one for his family and the other for his entourage, better known as “Team Federer.”

He holds investments in a myriad of business interests that accompany reaping over $90 million in career prize money and many multiples of that from endorsements. Two years ago Federer set up the Team8 sports agency with longtime representative Tony Godsick.

“I think he has a lot of (business advisers) around him that manage everything,” says Garcia-Lopez. “He’s not thinking about that; he is thinking about tennis and that is it.

And the parenting?

“He’s got a wife (former tennis pro Mirka Federer) that I’m sure handles a lot of it,” says Falconi. “Honestly, at the end of the day, if you can just play tennis that’s really ideal.”

Mattek-Sands couldn’t agree more.

“If it was just all about the training? That’s the easy part,” she says with a chuckle, estimating that the luxury of having all her logistics outsourced “would reduce stress by 87%.”

In the meantime, Nielsen will carry on stringing his own rackets, sleeping upright in economy, and combing the internet for cheap flights – all for one more shot at a title on Centre Court.

“The best players have it easier, they just do,” he says.

Who will win Wimbledon? Have your say on CNN Sport’s Facebook page