McGee’s $35,000 match barely nets costs of pro-tour

First round US Open win could net Irish player James McGee $35,000 but the cost of playing on the pro tour has been put at about $143,000 a year

James McGee during qualifying for the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January thisyear. He will play the 108-ranked Alexander Nedovyesov at Flushing Meadows in New York today. (Photograph:  Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)

James McGee during qualifying for the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January thisyear. He will play the 108-ranked Alexander Nedovyesov at Flushing Meadows in New York today. (Photograph: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)


Win or lose in his appearance at the US Open today, Irish tennis player James McGee is set to jump up the world rankings.

McGee, who qualified for the main draw on Friday on the back of three impressive wins at Flushing Meadows, will meet the 108-ranked Kazakh Alexander Nedovyesov in the third game on Court 13 tomorrow. The Davis Cup player has been ranked as high as 73rd and made it to the second round of the French Open this season, before being knocked out by Thomas Berdych.

But if he does win, McGee will walk away with winnings of $35,754. Should he progress to Round 2 - where he’s likely to meet the French ninth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - a success would see his earnings rise to $60,420, while the winner of the overall men’s tournament will walk away with some €3 million in earnings.

But if the gains to be made in tennis are substantial, the path to winning does not come cheap.

The British Lawn Tennis Association has estimated that it might cost about £250,000 to develop a winning player from age 5 to 18, while the International Tennis Federation said it costs $40,000 for a 17-year-old boy to compete on the junior circuit for 20 weeks a year, up 13 per cent from 2011. With prices like that, junior players are increasingly dependent on help from parents, national federations, sponsors or investors.

“Unless you are a very wealthy high-earner, or you’ve got someone backing your child, it’s almost impossible to afford such expenses,” said Phil Wright, father of 14-year-old British player Marco Daniel Wright.

The Wrights moved to Portugal to help pay for their son’s career. At the national level in the UK, Marco needed to play international junior tournaments to boost his ranking. Instead of attending a West London tennis academy -- where the family was quoted an annual fee of £25,000 -- he now trains at a tennis club in Lisbon for less than one-sixth of that.

“Now that my son has become this good, and he has the opportunity to go to another level, the cost of getting to that level is ridiculously high in England,” said Phil Wright, a former semiprofessional soccer player who runs a technology recruitment agency.

With the cost of playing on the pro tour estimated to be $143,000 a year, according to a 2010 study by the US Tennis Association, there are plenty of players from privileged backgrounds. Eugenie Bouchard, who lost to Kvitova in this year’s Wimbledon final, is the daughter of a Canadian banker. French Open men’s semifinalist Ernests Gulbis is the son of a Latvian millionaire.

However even with the expense, it’s possible to be successful without spending a fortune. Two of the most dominant players of their generation learned to play on dilapidated public courts. Defending US Open champion Serena Williams and her older sister Venus -- who have won a combined 24 major singles titles -- were taught the game in Compton, California, where their father and coach, Richard, kept the courts free of drug dealers. They never played on the junior circuit.

Fernando Soler, managing director of the tennis division of talent agency IMG that represents tennis stars including Kvitova and Maria Sharapova, called on parents to be realistic.

“It’s very difficult to get to the top,” he said. “Only a few of them are going to make it. You’d better make sure that your kids continue to study and have a plan B in place in case things don’t work out as expected.”

At the Clube Escola Tenis Oeiras in Lisbon, Marco Daniel Wright plays four hours a day at a cost of €400 euros a month. He occasionally practices with Federico Gil, a pro once ranked 62nd on the men’s tour, and gets help from the Portuguese federation with wild cards into tournaments.

“I don’t sit here and claim he’s going to be the next world No. 1,” his father said. “He’s got potential to be a successful professional player. The pathway for success is that there has to be some help somewhere, especially if a player is showing potential and the parents aren’t super-rich. The player needs to be given an opportunity. It’s up to them to take it.”

(Additional reporting Bloomberg)