The other color green that makes the sport so exciting

When tennis aces , women’s #1 Serena Williams and men’s #2 Novak Djokovic, won their respective year-end championships recently to cap spectacular seasons, they pocketed handy winner’s checks of around USD2 million each. Djokovic ended the regular season with just over USD11 million in prize money and Williams shattered the previous female single-season prize money record by more than USD4 million, finishing the year with USD12.4 million. Despite her #1 status, Williams fell short of Maria Sharapova as the highest paid female athlete of 2013, who pulled in USD29 million (of which only USD6 million was actual prize money) who is dwarfed still by the monstrous earning power of Roger Federer who raked in USD71.5 million last year.

Tennis can indeed be a lucrative business. In fact, it’s the reason why many go into the sport. Richard Williams, father to Serena and Venus Williams, famously went on record in a 1992 interview to say he decided to steer his daughters into tennis when he saw a female player being handed a USD40,000 check for winning a tournament. “I figured since I work for USD52,000 all year and this girl made USD40,000 in four days, I was in the wrong business,” said Mr. Williams.

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However, for every Serena, Roger, Novak and Maria, there are thousands of tennis hopefuls bouncing around the globe in an effort to break into tennis’ elite, or more realistically, to simply break even. For Asian players, who often lack funding, facilities and the physical characteristics so necessary to the modern game, it’s an even more uphill battle.

“I earn about 30 percent of my expenses,” says Jui-Chen Hung, a 23-year-old from Taiwan, struggling to make it on the professional circuit. “There’s no tennis association in Taiwan, so my father sponsors me. I travel alone to keep costs down. My dad loves tennis, so he’s happy. My mom didn’t want to help me play tennis, but finally my dad talked to her and she agreed to give me two years to play. If I can play very well and get a good ranking, she’ll let me continue.”

One year on, Jui-Chen is currently ranked around #800 in the world which means he must play pre-tournament qualifying rounds just to make it into the main draw. More often than not, though, Jui-Chen is playing in Futures or Challengers, the two rungs beneath the main tournaments, in places like Israel, India, Thailand and Vietnam.

This week, we’re at the Thailand Open, a small but exciting tournament which boasts four top 15 players in the draw. Past players have included Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick. The winner receives USD102,450 in prize money and just more than one-tenth the points of Grand Slam winners, tennis’ biggest tournaments.

Jui-Chen lost in the second round of qualifying but it’s been a good tournament for him, his first professional ATP-level one. For his troubles, he picked up a check for USD450. “If you win a main draw match, you get your hotel provided,” he says wistfully of the ritzy InterContinental where the higher-ranked players are accommodated. Jui-Chen instead has opted to stay in a guesthouse near the tournament site and hang around the practice courts in hopes of practicing with one of the top players, a rare learning experience. This morning, he practiced against world #6, Tomas Berdych.

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“I can keep the ball in play against those guys, but the main difference is their balls are faster, the trajectory lower. Berdych can put the ball wherever he wants and can change the direction from ball to ball. They’re all very good,” he says a bit reverentially.

Of course, Asians breaking into tennis’ elite is not all together new. The late 80s saw Chinese-American Michael Chang winning the French Open. In the early 2000s, it was 6’1” Paradorn Srichapan from Thailand rising to world #9 and currently, Kei Nishikori (Japanese men’s world #17) and Li Na (Chinese women’s world #3) are leading the Asian charge. (By contrast, Vietnam’s highest ranked player ever, Do Minh Quan, reached #1,002 in the ATP rankings.)

Standing Tall
With a combined population of 4.3 billion, what will it take for more than one Asian player per decade to make the big leagues?

Alison Lee, Executive Vice President of ATP International says: “Asia needs to increase the number of ATP Challenger events it has, to really improve its chances of creating top-ranked players. These events are organized by local promoters or tennis federations. Now, there are only 17 of these ATP Challenger events in Asia [although none in Vietnam] – which is an improvement from a few years ago, but still not enough. Futures events [the lowest tier tournaments, of which Vietnam hosted three in 2013] are great for players starting out, but Asia needs to develop many more Challenger events – the next level up – for its rising stars to play against international players and test their skills. In Asia, it is very difficult for players as they have to travel much further usually to get to a Challenger event. Once we have a strong platform of tournaments, we will be able to see more players like Japan’s Kei Nishikori emerge.”

Other than funding and facilities, Asian players must also contend with opponents increasingly more physically imposing than themselves. Compared to 20 years ago, the average height of the top 16 men has risen by two inches to 6’2” and players of today are on average 3.5 inches taller than in 1980.

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However, other players see a bright future for Asian tennis. Tomas Berdych, hailing from a long line of Czech champions, joked that although the Czech Republic was “like half the size of Bangkok,” the tennis culture there is well established. On the prospects for Asia, he said: “It probably needs time. People need to see others as idols, like I had Lendl and Navratilova, but it needs to start one day and I hope for all Asian guys and girls it’s going to be soon.”

Serbian player, world #556 Laslo Djere, who partnered Thailand’s #1 junior in doubles and practiced with a few Asian players during the week, commented that what Asians lack in height they can make up for in other ways. “They are really fast on their feet. They run really well. [Size] doesn’t matter so much. 1.80m [5’9”] is enough for tennis. Look at Ferrer [who despite being only 5’9” is world #3]. He’s less than that but he’s so fast, so prepared physically.”

Tournament eighth seed Lukas Rosol, best known for his win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2012 and beaten by Chinese player Yen-Hsun Lu (ranked #52) at this week’s Thailand Open, said of Asian players: “They’re fast. I know they’re working hard also. They’re not coming – they’re already here.”

Images provided by Thailand Open Tennis Tournament