For today’s top tennis pros, it’s nothing but net income.
The male and female winners of this year’s US Open, which officially begins Monday, will each walk away with $3.7 million.
After their tournament matches, big-name players are whisked away in hired SUVs to luxury Manhattan hotels. Last Thursday, No. 3-ranked Roger Federer, who is worth a reported $450 million, was spotted leaving the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side — where there’s a $2,700-a-night suite named for him.
But not every pro has the same experience. Some 2,000 male athletes are on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour, while more than 1,200 females take part in the Women’s Tennis Association tour (both include the US Open), and most of them are not raking in Federer money. In fact, they have to hustle just to be able to afford to play.
Which is why player Jacqueline Cako and a few friends are paying about $60 each per night to crash at an Airbnb rental in Sunnyside, schlepping half a mile to the nearest 7 train stop. “A $20 Uber isn’t something you can think about” on her tour earnings, said the 25-year-old, who lives in Arizona.
Ranked at No. 220 on the WTA tour, Cako failed to get past the qualifying rounds this past week. Luckily, her plane ticket to the US Open cost just five bucks, as she and boyfriend/coach Joel Kielbowicz have figured out how to work credit card airline miles to their advantage.
This year so far, Cako has earned around $37,000 playing tennis. Last year, she made about $40,000.
A top sports agent who declined to be named describes the frustration of players on the cusp of breaking into the Grand Slam tour: “They’re scraping by. It’s a catch-22 — they need trainers and coaches to take it to the next level, but they can’t afford it.”
At other tour stops, Cako has crashed with local families — at least 15 in 2016, she said. On a good day, she’d land with hosts who prepared health-conscious meals. In Asia, where she toured for three months, staying in modest hotels, Cako stuck to inexpensive ramen noodles.
Like other athletes hustling to make it, she’s turned to GoFundMe-style fund-raising: Her Web site details various tiers of support, including a $2,000 “platinum” level that allows sponsors to place ads on her clothing, bag and visor; she’s had a couple of takers so far.
Tennis has also strained Cako’s relationship with her engineer parents, who don’t see tennis as a viable career for the biology major and once-aspiring doctor.
For a single qualifying match last week, Cako won $8,000. If Cako had advanced to first-round play but lost, she still could have seen a windfall of $50,000.
“There’s a lot on the line here. This money goes to at least six months’ worth of expenses,” said Ben Sturner, founder of the sports marketing agency Leverage.
But the US Open is an elite event that pays more than many of the other stops on the tour. The lower a player ranks, the more tournaments he or she has to play in order to earn enough points to have a chance to qualify for a Grand Slam event.
“You can go to Nigeria or Uzbekistan, and no one watches you,” said Sturner. “It’s [empty] bleachers.”
Raymond Sarmiento, a 25-year-old Los Angeles native, has found a different way to cover his expenses. Since graduating from the University of Southern California in 2014 with a degree in sociology, he has had a private benefactor — a wealthy tennis buff who ponies up for the love of the game — pay his tour expenses.
“It funded my year,” he said of the estimated $90,000 he received for the 10-month season.
The young player, who did not pass the qualifying round for the US Open, noted the wildly stratified income levels that are determined by rankings: Top 100 players earn “some sort” of money, Top 200 players break even after travel and expenses, but 300 or below, “you lose money, definitely.
“If you’re 300 in the world in basketball or golf, you’re making millions,” said the pro, who stayed during the qualifying rounds at a Midtown DoubleTree. He budgets about $50 per day for expenses, and tries to cook while on tour.
Still, Cako said that until she makes it big, she has no complaints. It’s worth scraping by if she gets to play at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I live for this — I love playing for a big crowd.”
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