Sofia Shapatava earned $2,900 in the first three months of the year. Now there is no money coming in. She used to travel the world. But now she is stuck in her home city, living with her parents and wondering whether she will ever play tennis professionally again.
There isn’t much of a vista for Shapatava to enjoy during lockdown from her mum and dad’s four-bedroom house in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. There is no garden or yard to calm the soul, just a parking spot.
“All you can do is stick your head out of a window,” she told CNN Sport via Skype.
The longer the 31-year-old is confined, the more her perspective changes. Time passes at snail’s pace for a tennis player who cannot play. Slow-moving days allow for questions to swirl around a restless mind, the anxiety and doubts increasing with intensity each passing day.
Coronavirus has already significantly affected the world No. 375 and with professional tennis not expected to resume until at least June 7, her financial situation will only worsen.
A family member has died after being infected by the virus which has put the world on pause. Her sister, meanwhile, lives in New York, America’s epicenter for a pandemic which has killed thousands and caused the city’s morgues to overflow.
“My mom’s cousin got infected and he passed away so that was very bad news for us,” she said. “It’s very depressing because I knew him since I was a kid. I know many Italian players who are at home for longer than me and I think it’s getting hard for them too. It’s just sad and it’s very weird, it’s like science fiction book. We are all pretty depressed.”
It is the severity of her plight, and of other lower-ranked players, that has driven Shapatava to start an online petition asking for financial help from the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for players struggling to pay the bills. At the time of writing, nearly 2,000 people had signed the petition.
“It’s very hard and very scary,” said Shapatava who, like every professional player, does not earn a fixed wage.
Tennis players are not employees of any organization or governing body. Shapatava gets paid when she plays. Her clothes and racquet strings are sponsored, but there are no monetary rewards. While it is usual for a player to support his or her coaching staff, for Shapatava it’s the opposite. Her German coach helps her financially.
“I’ve talked to so many players and I’ve a couple of friends who don’t know how to pay the rent this month. A petition is a way to be heard. I don’t demand, I’m just basically trying to get attention so the ITF – and who if not them – can support us.
“We pay fines for everything, if we do something on court or withdraw from a tournament late, so I think, in a way, we belong to them.”
Shapatava began thinking about a petition when professional tennis was suspended last month, just as she was preparing to walk onto the court during a tournament in Olimpia, Brazil. The sport’s governing bodies did not speak to the players, she says, and did not offer to reimburse those already struggling to meet the astronomical cost of participating in a global sport.
“Many people expensed a lot of money to get there and we didn’t get paid,” she said. “We cannot work. We cannot play club matches, which is the biggest income for lower-income tennis players outside of playing tennis and coaching.”
The ITF, which describes itself as a non-profit organization, directed CNN to an online statement which said that as of April 9 it was implementing a series of measures to safeguard jobs, which included a job protection scheme for employees and the “utilization of funds” from ITF reserves. It was also looking into various options to support nations and players, it said, and would “provide more information when we have completed that process.”
The low prize money on offer at smaller events and traveling costs mean players outside the top 100 often live hand to mouth. According to some, a player would have to earn around $200,000 a year to make a living wage. Shapatava has earned $354,725 in prize money in her career.
She mainly competes in the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour, which offers 500 entry-level and mid-level professional tournaments at five prize money levels: $15,000, $25,000, $60,000, $80,000 and $100,000. This year alone she has played in Las Vegas, California, Kentucky, Michigan and France. The most she has won at an event is $926.
In ordinary times she would supplement her income by playing in club matches in Germany and France.
“That’s actually the biggest income for players ranked lower than 250,” she explained. “It usually pays more than you get in six months of competing.”
But her fight is not solely for money, it is for the future of her sport. “That’s why I’m trying so hard to be heard,” she said.
The financial disparities between the sport’s high performers and the rest has always been stark. It has long been argued that not enough money trickles down to those lower in the rankings. Coronavirus has simply accentuated this.
Last year, Roger Federer said he would work to ensure lower-ranked players and qualifying-grade players would get a larger share of any prize money increases the ATP Player Council negotiates in the coming years.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, posted on Twitter on Wednesday saying that this “challenging period” was “emphasizing how dysfunctional” the sport is.
A number of organizations, each having differing responsibilities, revenues and stakeholders, are responsible for the running of tennis. On the women’s side alone there is the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour and the WTA Tour, which consists of 53 tournaments and four grand slams and is where the most elite players compete.
In a statement to CNN, Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive officer of the WTA, said: “We wish there was a way everyone, especially those in need the most, could be compensated at the level they were expecting but the needs are so great and the WTA unfortunately is not in a financial position to do that.”
He added that extending the current 44-week season so that more tournaments could take place this year was under consideration.
That it is also a sport of individuals competing against each other for supremacy perhaps also explains why Shapatava feels tennis lacks community spirit.
“It’s a problem that existed, exists and probably will [continue to] exist,” she said. “I’m really scared about what the next two to three months will bring.
“The difference between the lower ranked and the higher ranked is huge. It’s something that’s in the system and you know what you get yourself into but right now the situation is not about the sport, it’s about life.
“Top 50 players in both the men’s and women’s rankings are 100 people … but there are 3,000 players, men and women combined, in the ranking.
“If 50% of tennis players quit [because] of this I don’t think tennis will survive. I understand many tickets are sold on big tournaments, but there are also smaller tournaments which also sell a lot of data; we have live streams, live scores, there are also umpires and linesmen and women making their way up and people organizing the tournaments. That is also raising money for the federations and organizations.
“While these top players are great for the promotion of the sport, there are still 96.5% of players that also build it up. It’s also very important. It’s something that has to exist to support the sport.”
Shapatava, a classically trained pianist, has continued to play on the tour for over 15 years for little financial reward because, simply, she loves the sport.
She could have been a surgeon but left medical colleague to pursue her sporting dream. Tennis forces her to better herself each year, she said, and tests her physically and mentally. But when the tour resumes, will she be competing?
“My parents are not the youngest, I have bills to pay, people to support, my coach is not a billionaire, he cannot support me forever, my ranking is pretty low already to make an income in tennis and if I don’t play at all or don’t coach at all I’m not going to be able to go in July and travel to tournament and spend money on that,” she said.
“I have to first of all find a way to gain money and then if I find a way to do that maybe I’ll play again maybe later in the fall. No one can fly straight out to a tournament. They have to first work their way into a financial situation where they can afford that.”
And then there is the mental toll to consider.
“The other question is, if someone would be willing to continue to do that because after this break you start to evaluate things differently mentally and maybe you’re not ready to compete in tournaments where you know you’re not going to gain money,” she said. “I’m not sure many will be mentally ready for that. I’m not sure I will be able to play, nor financially, nor mentally, because it takes a lot [out of you].”
“It would be pretty hard to come back to playing. I don’t think many have it in them to come back and play like they used to, especially those who were already struggling with injury, those who already struggled financially.”
Through the uncertainty, Shapatava will strive to be heard. It is not only her future that depends on it.
UPDATE: This article has been updated as the WTA provided inaccurate information in its original statement.