Baseliners try to escape the breadline

John Roberts looks at the harsh side of tennis, the satellite circuit where players scramble for ATP ranking points and the chance to pursue their dreams
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The Independent Online
Enthusiasts who make believe that they are competing on the world professional circuit while whacking balls on crowded local courts are not so far removed from reality as they imagine.

In contrast to Wimbledon's prestige and pounds 6,025,550 prize money, Billesley Tennis Centre, Birmingham, promises perspiration, frustration and only minor elation, plus an opportunity to win a percentage of pounds 4,000 (pounds 500 going to the victor).

Billesley is currently hosting a satellite tournament, the lowest level of the events on the men's international tour. Satellites are a harsh proving ground for the rank and file in a sport which offers vast wealth for the few who reach the top, such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and a meagre subsistence for the majority below 200 on the computer.

The strata of men's professional tournaments rises from the satellites up through the ATP Tour series, which range from $50,000 (pounds 32,000) Challengers to $2.25m Super 9 events, and is topped by the four Grand Slam championships of Wimbledon, the United States, France and Australia.

What distinguishes the Billesley event at the lower end of the scale is the title, "satellite masters". This is not as grand as it seems, except for the 24 participants who battled for three weeks to get there by competing in the previous segments of the Lawn Tennis Association's pounds 16,000 autumn satellite circuit at Wirral, Telford and Nottingham. The reward for qualifying for a "masters" is the conversion of the small number of ATP Tour world ranking points players have gained in the process. This brings the possibility of entry to the lucrative tournaments nearer and helps keep the dream alive.

But there is no sense of occasion. The only difference between a visit to the Billesley indoor centre today and a week ago is the presence of umpires, line judges, the Wimbledon referee, Alan Mills, and the odd spectator viewing fierce matches from a walkway between the courts.

One of the referee's duties at the end of each satellite is to file a report to the International Tennis Federation, including attendance figures. "On average we get about 300 spectators for the whole week," Mills says, "and it's usually the same people coming back three or four times. The atmosphere is not there, and also conditions are not the greatest. For instance, here I don't like having to play three matches side by side - the balls are flying all over the place - and in the middle court you can't put a service linesman on."

Mills officiates at British satellites four or five weeks per year. His next tournament is a $2.25m ATP Tour event in Essen, which has attracted the top 24 players in the world. The names will be familiar, the standards higher, but Mills does not anticipate keener contests. "The top end of the game comes down to money, to a certain extent," he says, "but at this end of the game it's points so they can improve their ranking. The level of competition is intense, week in, week out, and of all the ones that try, very few make it."

At Wimbledon, Mills had to to deal with the Jeff Tarango affair, one of three disqualifications during the championships. Tempers are also apt to fray on the satellite circuit. "The players are all very close, living together for three or four weeks, which obviously creates frustrations," Mills says. "Consequently you get the odd little bits of niggle going on, usually around about the latter part of the third week, when they know they've got to get wins to get more circuit points to either get into the masters or to be seeded in the masters, which makes a big difference.

"It's a long time to take, that four weeks, which only counts as one tournament, after which you get your few ATP points. So I can understand them getting a bit tired and frustrated. When I come to consider code violations, I take into account the conditions they're playing under. It's all right for one or two who do well, but I think the majority of them slog themselves to death and come out with very little."

Tennis in a vacuum is a challenging experience. Britain's James Baily, it may be remembered, won the Australian Open junior singles title in 1993 but was unable to make a successful transition to the senior game on his return when thrust into a satellite with an audience of media folk at Eastbourne.

Others, such as Sweden's Thomas Johansson, have made encouraging progress. Since winning three of the four weeks of the LTA winter circuit in February, when he was ranked in the 900s, Johansson has gone on to improve his position to No 134. By qualifying for Billesley, Arvind Parmar, a 17-year-old junior from Hertfordshire, can look forward to receiving his first computer point.

Two British semi-finalists, Barry Cowan and Colin Beecher, will gain their highest rankings, around the 300 mark. Cowan plays Robbie Koenig, a 24-year-old South African whose career has been disrupted by injury. Koenig won his first satellite final at Nottingham last Sunday.

"The guy you're playing is your worst enemy," Koenig says, "but off the court most of the guys talk to each other. It's tough, but it's tough in the business world, it's tough if you're an engineer or a doctor. We've got to put our time in at the beginning. This is the grinding time. The rewards are much bigger when you start doing better."

Koenig, who prospered during his first year as a pro, used his prize- money to finance his travelling and supplements his earnings by playing the stock market. He is currently ranked No 549. "I want to get to know all kinds of things," he says. "I want other challenges. You only play tennis until you're 30. I'm not going to end up being a tennis bum."

Britain's Paul Hand is 30, has a BA in business studies, a ranking of No 390 and has spent eight years on the satellite circuit. He no longer competes overseas, and uses the home satellites to keep his ranking reasonably respectable while making most of his income from the domestic Reebok Tour, which offers money but no ranking points.

"Basically I can't afford to travel any more," Hand says. "Flights and hotels are getting too expensive. I went to Asia with Chris Wilkinson last year to play some Challengers for three weeks, and I came back two grand light, so I just thought, 'this is stupid'."

Hand reckons to earn up to pounds 20,000 per year on average. "Expenses have to come out of that, so I probably bank about pounds 10,000, if that. It's a meagre living, but if you keep your overheads low you can do it. I rent a studio flat in Southampton with my girlfriend, and the rent is nominal. I practise with a squad down there and get paid for it a little bit. I can't afford a flash lifestyle, but I don't want that. I'm happy doing what I do."

He hopes to remain fit to continue for three or four years, and may then turn to coaching. "I love the whole scene," Hand says, his only complaint being that foreign players tend to be "spoiled" by free transportation at the LTA's satellites, whereas in most countries visiting competitors have to fend for themselves.

Nick Gould, a 23-year-old from Bath with a ranking of No 411, can vouch for that. "People who make out that it's very glamorous travelling the world don't know the half of it," he says. "Fortunately I haven't had anything drastic happen to me so far, but you don't see your friends a lot, and there are places where you can't get flights home and have to sleep in airports overnight, and there are a lot of nasty hotel rooms with bugs on the wall."

He intends to persevere awhile. "At the moment I feel I can go a lot higher. If I didn't feel I was going to come out of satellites within two years I'd have to think again. You can't make a living just from liking something. You've got to be realistic."