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The life of an aspiring professional: uncertainty, career-changing tournaments, working odd jobs, and hate mail
With a career-high ranking of #91 in doubles on the ATP Tour, Nathaniel Lammons was still in debt. We take a look at the tough road tennis professionals must face for a shot at success on tour.
26 May, 2020
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Tennis’ governing bodies recently announced a $6 million dollar ‘Player Relief Programme’ for players who have been financially affected by the coronavirus lockdown. It’s no secret that life on tour outside the top 100 isn’t glamorous. With prize money being skewed so heavily towards the premier tiers of the tour, it can be a major challenge to make ends meet while competing on its lower rungs—unless a player has sponsorship or the help of a national association. 

With the increased focus on the aspiring professionals of our sport due to the relief fund, I thought now would be a good time to speak to a touring professional who’s just outside the highest levels of our game. Nathaniel Lammons is a doubles specialist with a career-high ATP ranking of #91 in doubles and #591 in singles. While he mostly plays on the Challenger Tour, he has competed at the US Open. Nathaniel graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and has been competing on the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger Tour since 2016. He has won seven ATP Challenger Tour titles. He spoke to Tennis inbox about life on tour, his thoughts on how the governing bodies have handled this crisis, and match-fixing.

The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Malhar Mali (MM): Hi Nathaniel, thanks for speaking to Tennis inbox. Let’s dive straight into it. You’ve been on tour for four years now, can you describe what life is like? You found quite a bit of success before the pandemic halted all play, but can you speak about what things were like right at the start? The travel, the financial stress?

Nathaniel Lammons (NL): My experience is probably similar to that of most players who want to be professionals. Early on you wrap your head around the idea that you will lose money with the hope that you’re going to get good results eventually or quick enough to where you can cover your losses. A lot of guys have sponsors through college or through family. I was fortunate to have a little money saved up because I wasn’t able to find substantial sponsors from school or through friends. But I was able to keep enough money coming in to where the credit card debt was kept down. That kind of became my M.O.—to rack up some credit card debt in the hopes of paying it off later. At first that really affected me. It was a lot of stress. And not something I had to deal with while I was in college. Then you factor in the added stress of traveling to new countries while being in debt and it doesn’t become a fun time.

When I first came out of school, I said I would give myself a year to compete, which made it easier to say: “I can keep racking up debt for a year, and it won’t matter because if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll go to work and pay it all off.” At some point I started doing well here or there and I got to thinking that maybe this deadline of one year isn’t realistic. I eventually figured out that if I did well enough in tournaments and came back and taught for a couple weeks, then life on tour became kind of sustainable.

Lammons and Galloway at the US Open

My debt was the highest before I played in the 2018 US Open (Lammons and his partner, Robert Galloway defeated Kevin King and Reilly Opelka 6–2, 6–2 before falling to Marcel Granollers and Ivan Dodig in the Second Round). But thankfully after that tournament, I was able to bring it back down to zero—which was a huge relief. That result really helped me, maybe subconsciously, to play at a good level because it’s one less thing to worry about when on court.

MM: As you know, the Player Relief Programme was announced recently. What are your thoughts on that and how tennis’ governing bodies have handled the global situation? Do you qualify for financial assistance through the fund?

NL: I know that the fund has been put together, and I saw a draft of Djokovic’s initial suggestion. But as far as how much money is going to whom, I don’t know. My understanding is that it will work in a similar way to the travel grant that the ATP was offering to mostly Challenger Tour players. In theory the top guys who are playing events wouldn’t be getting that. And I would assume it’s a little more than the ATP’s travel grant.

I’ve spoken to one of the Tour Managers who is kind of an intermediary between the players and the people who make the decisions in the ATP. It’s nice because he’s accessible as opposed to some of the players whom I’m not friends with. He just told me to sit and wait because the ATP was going to publish something in the next few days. I do know that prize money will be factored into those calculations. Overall it’s a welcome relief, at least to me. And I would assume that most other guys are in the same boat.

MM: As an aside, have you heard anything through the grapevine about how and when the Challenger Tour could start up again? It seems like all the focus has been on ATP and WTA events without much focus on the ITF Futures or Challenger Tour.

NL: Nothing official. Players all talk to one another and everyone speculates, based on where they are in the world. The reason that the focus has been on the premier WTA and ATP events is because they’re the ones that bring in money. So I understand that—and think that the Challengers and Futures won’t start before the tour events do. Once the bigger tournaments are good to go, they’ll play around with the Challengers. The tour events can go ahead without crowds because they sell TV rights, but Challengers and Futures probably rely a little more on ticket sales.

MM: Have you been able to train during the last few months? Since you can’t compete, have you had to find other work to sustain yourself? For example, there was a story about Kevin Krawietz (ATP #13 Doubles and French Open 2019 winner) working at a grocery store in Germany. Though I’m not sure Kevin’s stint stocking shelves was out of financial necessity.

NL: (Laughs) It might have been a little P.R. thing. I have been able to train two or three times a week. I could train more often, but I’m trying to not dive in because I’m not sure when the tour will resume, and I’d hate to be even the slightest bit burnt out. I have a couple friends who live up in the New York area which has been hit hard so they haven’t been able to train.

As far as work, I’ve driven for Postmates, delivering groceries a few times. Right now I’m working with a tutoring company on the standardized test prep side, which is a safer work environment because I don’t have to expose myself to people all the time. And it’s a little more mentally challenging, too (laughs).

MM: Egyptian player Youssef Hossam was banned for match-fixing at the start of May. Before that we’ve had players like Nicolás Kicker (career-high ATP #78 singles), Joao Souza (career-high ATP #69 singles), and Potito Starace (career-high ATP #27 singles) all receive bans of different lengths for engaging in match-fixing. No excuses for their behavior, but match-fixing rings are probably so successful at enrolling professionals in their schemes because professional tennis is so financially draining at the lower levels. Have you had any experience on this front? Can you explain what the correct procedure is for pros who have been approached by match-fixers?

NL: I’ve never been approached personally, but I’ve definitely heard horror stories. The most common exposure players get to it is in the form of hate mail. That’s probably the most interaction we have with gamblers. If the result was supposed to be the other way in a match we were playing in, we’ll get a string of hate mail. As in when you were ‘expected’ to win and you lose or when you were ‘expected’ to lose and you win. A lot of times it’s not in English, or it’s in very broken English.

(Nb: Nathaniel provided me with a few screenshots of the abusive messages he has received. I’ve redacted identities.)

MM: This is mostly through Instagram or Twitter?

NL: Yes. And if you were to take them seriously they would be worrisome. You might be a little concerned for your safety. A lot of times the players find a little humor in it. I’ve shared it on my Instagram story a few times, but it’s probably not the best thing to joke about. But to be honest, I understand the allure for those players because as you note, the finances aren’t that great especially at the Futures and even Challenger level. I had a club teammate in Germany—a Spanish guy—who went to jail last summer because of match-fixing. He was kind of the guy organizing things. But that’s the closest I’ve gotten to it, thankfully.

The correct procedure is to contact the Tennis Integrity Unit. I’m unsure of the time period, but I believe at least every year we have to do a training module on the Player Zone website which goes through potential scenarios. And there is a proper procedure for reporting when you’ve been approached by gamblers. But I haven’t seen too much of it, which I’m pretty glad for.

MM: Thanks for speaking to Tennis inbox, Nathaniel! Stay safe and we hope to see you on the court soon.

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