Conversation with Keith-Patrick Crowley

Soweto Tennis Open: Day 2

Keith-Patrick Crowley is 25 years old. He is a professional tennis player born and raised in South Africa. He currently holds an ATP ranking of 1156 in singles and 520 in doubles, and he may have to leave the tour because he’s running out of money.

Does this sound familiar? For my regular readers, it should. A few months ago I posted an article about James McGee, a young Irish player who is facing similar challenges. I’ve also shared several articles from various websites and magazines discussing this very issue.

Instead of simply complaining, though, Keith has decided to do something to change the prize money inequities in professional tennis. He has created a Facebook page and a Facebook group to garner support for a petition to the ATP and ITF to create a structure in which players ranked outside the top 100 can afford to stay on tour and make a living wage. Keith is also putting together a blog (click here) containing many stories and photos of life on the tour so readers will be able to see what really goes on out there. 

Why should we as tennis parents be concerned about prize money on the professional tour? What does it have to do with us and our kids? Without these lower-ranked players clawing their way up the ladder, professional tennis as we know it will cease to exist – it will become a series of exhibition matches between the top players, same-old-same-old, with little to no opportunity for new faces to emerge. We need these up-and-coming players and experienced veterans to keep playing, to keep fighting the good fight, to keep our sport alive. Without a strong professional side, junior and college tennis will suffer, too.

Here is my Q&A with Keith . . .

  • Briefly describe your history in tennis: How old were you when you started playing? Did you play college tennis? Where? When did you turn pro? What is your highest pro ranking? What is your current ranking? My father, Keith Crowley, was a Professional tennis coach in my home town of Durbanville (Cape Town), South Africa. I started playing tennis as soon as I could pick up a racket. I played my first tournament when I was only 7 years old. I was the number one ranked junior in South Africa and reached the top 200 in the ITF Juniors. I played college tennis for the University of Miami (’07-’11), I graduated with a degree in Business, Finance. I turned pro in January of 2012. My highest ranking in singles has been 758 and 441 in doubles. My singles is currently 1156 (I have not played a tournament since the end of October last year because of an injury and running out of money to continue to travel and play) and doubles is currently 520. 
  • What are your approximate annual expenses related to tennis? When doing my budget last year my biggest expenses were: travel (flights, hotels), living expenses (rent) and coaching, trainers and general maintenance I needed on my body (If you want to compete with the top guys you can’t leave any aspect of the game out, physical, mental or tactical). I base myself in Miami Florida. Last year I spent between 40,000-45,000 USD with the support of parents, sisters and brother in-laws (without them I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play professional tennis). If i wanted to do it with a full time coach, trainer and do everything that is needed I’m looking at 120,000 USD. I coach tennis when I am on a training block in Miami to make extra money. I also model for a Wilhemina Models in Miami (This has helped me stay afloat and earn my own money), making more money in a week of shooting than I did the entire year on the ATP tour. 
  • What is your approximate annual income related to tennis? Since I stared in 2012 I have earned $13,538 according to the ATP website of which 70% of that was in 2013.
  • How many tournaments per year do you play? In how many different countries? I try play 20-25 tournaments a year. Last year I traveled to 5 different countries (USA, Greece, India, South Africa and Mexico).
  • What is the biggest challenge you face as a pro player and why? Traveling around the world trying to improve my ranking with limited finances. Trying to cut costs by staying in very cheap hotels, eating anything that is cheap while trying to perform at the highest level with an extremely tough field of players. When I am at tournaments it helps because there is usually a trainer available and inexpensive massages offered, but when I am in Miami I am not able to pay rent most months, never mind take care of my body in the way that it should be. I haven’t had health insurance since I graduated college, trying to cut costs. Financing myself is the biggest challenge. 
  • Why now in terms of rallying your fellow players to fight for more prize money at the lower level events? After traveling to many different countries and having played in mostly future events but also some challengers and ATP qualifying events, the conversations didn’t change no matter where I was or what level tournament I was playing in. There are 2 main reasons why I am currently fighting for a change in the prize money system. 1. I am doing what I always dreamed of doing but I have reached a point in my life, age 25, that I need to start doing what makes the most sense for my future, not only in tennis. At the start of 2014 I was still paying off debt from my 2013 due to my tennis. I spent all the money I had and my parents and family provided me with everything that I needed. They are still willing to support me but I feel I need to start supporting myself at age 25, and with the current system in tennis it doesn’t look very promising. Not because I don’t believe I can make it to the top 100 in the world but rather because I don’t know when I’ll have enough money to travel to another tournament unless I find a sponsor (I have to be competing to give myself any chance). 2. I posted two articles on players, one that quit when he reached the top 200 because he ran out of money and the other that is currently just outside of the top 200 and still not breaking even. The former CEO of South African tennis read these articles and saw my frustration. He contacted me to offer his help in anyway that he could because he has fought for us for over ten years. I currently have no money to travel; this has been an on going issue and I simply decided that something has to be done about it. I took the initiative and here I am now. I have no idea if this will benefit me because if there is change I feel it will take couple years to implement but I decided that I am willing to put in the time which I have due to my current situation and help the game of tennis for the future. I want to make a difference. Hopefully sooner than later.
  • What do you anticipate will be your biggest obstacle in getting more prize money at the futures/challengers events? The ATP is run like a business. They are only concerned about the players that can generate more income for them. To them the players from 200-2160 mean nothing to the game of tennis but they are actually the ones that keep the game alive. I am currently trying to figure out how to reach the board members of the ATP and the current players in charge of the players board (Federer is currently the President). Getting them on board to support this will be the toughest part. Finding a top 5 ranked player and an ATP employee with the credentials- to stand up and stay something. The word is spreading; we just need to get our foot in the door. If and when we do, the players and the ATP will have to meet to come to an agreement on how to raise the prize money. The lack of sponsorships and interest at the lower level in this brutal individual sport doesn’t help us get the money that we need. The distribution of revenue from Grand Slams will have to change. The ATP cannot only promote the top 5 players in the world, but getting them away from this will be a challenge in itself. 
  • Are your parents supportive of your decision to continue playing professionally or would they like to see you move into a “real job”? What about your girlfriend? Both my parents and girlfriend are very supportive of my decision to keep playing. They know how hard I have worked to get to where I am today and they want to see me reach my potential. 
  • What will it take for you to leave the tour? After this year if I’m not able to make enough money to travel and give myself a fair chance to compete I will have no choice but to leave the tour. I won’t leave the tour at this point no matter how bad my situation is; I want to find a way. I am willing to do whatever it takes but there is only so much I can do. 
  • What goals are you trying to achieve as a pro player? What would you like your legacy to be? When turning pro in 2012 I had and still have the goal of reaching top 200 in singles and top 100 in doubles. I have been more successful in doubles and would like to focus on that if I am able to get my ranking high enough. I don’t want to be seen as another player that has the potential and quit the tour because of my financial issue. I want to reach my goals, i want to figure out how I can give myself and many other players a greater chance and if I can’t I would like to leave something else positive behind. This is the reason why I am putting as much effort into this. My day currently consists of tennis, gym, fitness and spending hours on my laptop responding to messages and posting things regarding this topic. 
  • What can ParentingAces readers do to help your cause? Spread the word to as many people in the tennis world as possible. The more people that join/support this cause and the more people that hear about this cause the better our chances are of making a difference. 

To my readers, please take the time to visit Keith’s Facebook groups and blog and lend your support to his efforts to make a difference. He’s not just doing this for himself but also for his fellow players, including OUR KIDS.

20 Comments on “Conversation with Keith-Patrick Crowley”

  1. Lisa – having read your many post addressing the “Structure” of tennis for Juniors and aspiring pros and adding my “This is Crazy” rants, I must admit that if tennis continues down the current path how long will the economics continue to flow. I see VERY VERY empty arenas and we know sport as a business is not a $$$ maker for most sponsors. So where does this road lead? Will it follow the path of the NHL that reduced player $$ in order to sustain the game? Is the answer a “Minor League” tennis circuit WITH all expenses INCLUDED? Many Golfers well down the leader board seem to make a very good living. No Answers just questions from me, and maybe there are TOO many aspiring pro’s? As we look @ The Junior schedule and Futures seems those with deep pockets win out.

    Seems everyone feeding of the “Tennis Player” and the Player starves. I call it it a “TakeWorm.”

  2. SeminoleG – The biggest issue and always will be that tennis is an individual sport which makes it thats much harder to attract sponsors, what is in it for them? With sports like the NFL, NBA and soccer they ALL have one maybe two super stars on the team who attract most of the sponsors. Unless you are top 10 in the world in tennis you are not a super star and getting sponsors doesn’t come easy. The so called ‘minor leagues’ of tennis are the Futures run by the ITF who by the looks of things have very little say in what happens in the ATP (The only association for tennis Professional, yet we have no say…) Many golfers are able to make a very good living because the PGA don’t only promote the top ten players because they know whats good for the sport. Golf doesnt have multiple different organizations like tennis tennis. Tennis and the ATP need a governing body that helps all professional tennis players not just the ‘elite’. If they try to make a difference and aren’t successful then the players can at least see that they have made an effort to help the lower ranked players and the sport. BUT they haven’t made any changes in 10+ years to benefit the 200-2160 players, what does that tell us? Regarding the amount of aspiring pro’s… There are ONLY 2160 ranked tennis players in the WORLD, a very small number of professionals when compared to many other sports at this level! The players with deep pockets do win out for the most part because they are able to play more tournaments, travel easier, not have to worry about anything other than tennis, and generally they have a better support crew. I know many players that fall under this category- although they have it a little easier financially their competition on tour stays the same and they agree that if you are as high as 200-300 in the world you SHOULD be able to make a living… At times its more frustrating for them when they get to a ranking of 200 in the world but still have to call Mom and Dad to transfer money into their bank account for their flight home! When I started this Petition on Facebook I was very surprised when I received messages from players inside the top 200 in the world who currently have the same issue and want to help make a difference too. That shows you were tennis stands at the Professional level…

  3. I do not agree on this one. The structure is what it is, the absolute cream rises to the top. No one outside of family and friends wants to watch any player outside the top 100. Most do not even care much about those outside the top 10. Sorry but that is the reality.

    It is a brutal process, but results in the epic talents like Fed and Nadal and Serena. This entire premise of more money down stream is cute, but not realistic at all. Too many options for entertainment eyeballs these days. The general public will only care about the truly gifted tennis players.

    1. Jon king, ‘cute’ may not be the right word in this case. If you only see the top ten guys as truly gifted then I’m sure you have not been to any challenger events. The fact that grand slams prize money has increased by over 400% and the challengers and futures 0% is a true indication of the current issue. Without taking money away from the ‘truly’ gifted the ATP can most definitely support the ‘not so gifted’ players better than they currently do. Professional tennis can’t survive with only 200 ranked players. They need the 200-2160 in the world to keep the sport alive. There will always be the truly gifted group, not everyone can make it to the top 100. That’s a fact that will never change. Having said that do we as players just sit back and accept it? No. In the end of the day its for tennis. Sure I’d love to earn a living if I’m top 300 in the world but that’s not the point. Its time to make a change and we will do our best to make it happen, cute or not!

  4. Gosh, Jon, that’s a pretty harsh assessment. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I LOVE watching the up-and-comers battle it out. Oftentimes, the matches involving the “big boys” are pretty boring. That said, there aren’t many professions where you can be among the top 500 IN THE WORLD and not be able to make a living, even in sports. Take a look at golf or baseball or . . .

  5. Lisa, my daughter plays juniors. We have friends with juniors, some very high level. I am with you, I enjoy the Orange Bowl, futures, watching the hungry battle. But I also realize the reality. The general public tennis fan does not care. They need swashbuckling stars like Nadal and Fed, others need to make villains out of Serena and Maria to root against. Thats just the way it works in entertainment.

    The powers that be do not care because they do not have to care. Every tournament I go to half the parents think their kids are the next great player. They are willing to support them. The powers know that there will always be cannon fodder for the truly great players. Don’t get me wrong, I wish the 250th player could make a living in tennis….but I also realize that this is a pipe dream. The existing system works for the money people up top. Li Na winning, opening up the huge Asian market even more, will only embolden the higher ups….even more money for the select few. It is rotten, but will not change because the people who control tennis are making a ton with the current system.

    The powers of the tennis world believe that a brutal system where many battle for peanuts and only a few superstars survive works. And for them, it does.

  6. By the way, I agree with Keith-Patrick that the 200-2160 players keep the game alive. But the higher ups know that there will always be replacements for the ones who quit or run out of money. There will always be family and friends who believe and support. The ATP and WTA are just beginning to scratch the surface of some of the foreign markets. They know they will never run out of lower level pro players. Again, we all think its wrong, but not much will change.

  7. As parents we never really understood the dynamics of playing on the pro circuit and had no idea that the game of tennis only supported 100-150 players in the world. We have watched and supported Keith as he together with many other talented young players have battled to break through the cracks. The sacrifices are huge and during the past 2 years we have watched his continued commitment and wondered how he doesn’t get sick of his life .. And come to the conclusion that it has to be the passion for this crazy game:) After all said and done .. As parents all we would like to see is him happy and relaxed again .. Not putting so much pressure on himself .. And playing the game he loves without fear and nerves. The bottom line is that so many excellent players just don’t stand a chance because of finance.The decision to have to quit is imminent yet I think to myself how can you ever give this up? Keep trucking guys and if you are forced to leave the tour eventually .. Remember that your travels and adventures are priceless and make you who you are today.

  8. Linda, thank you for taking the time to comment! I know you are so proud of your son and his willingness to go out on a ledge to help the sport he loves so much. I don’t think many parents have a clue about how tough it is to make it as a professional tennis player nor do they have a clue about how tough it is even to earn a college scholarship to play tennis these days. If our sport is to continue to grow and thrive, we all need to have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed and what our young players are up against out there. I hope Keith continues to fight this battle – I, for one, am definitely in his corner!

  9. Tennis is a simple sport if you understand the math. Odds of winning any tournament are 1/32, if you play one every week the odds are still 1/32 * 52 weeks. You most likely will lose a lot more than you will win. So do you have the money to finance the loss? ( your odds of losing are 31/32) if yes great, if not (99%) do something else.

    Why cant parents figure this out?

    The fact that your kids plays great means nothing that he/she will be a pro. The odds are 99% against you. I wish parents understood the math before wishful thinking the kids will be pros. I have a 9 year old who is great, and we compete against kids who at 9 are already home schooled, and train in two shifts. Insanity is a kind word.

    I you go to college chances are you wont be a pro. Why would you put all your eggs in this low chance basket, with such odds against you. Again the odds of winning a tournament 1/32; the odds of losing it 31/32. Do the math enjoy tennis and use it as a means to be a great person, with character, resilience, ethics, competitive spirit etc.
    Break even for pros is #160, The number of years it takes to reach #160 is around 4-8, so How much can you afford to lose? The math does not lie. Chances are you will not be a pro.

    Parents please teach math to your kids, as they will not be playing professional tennis.

  10. javier, your math is not correct. In any given tournament, there are different levels of players. using your example of a 32 draw….the very worst player likely has a 0% chance of winning. A prodigy would likely be the best or second best player in the field, thus their odds would be much higher than 1/32.

    Same with the pros. As kids get older, you get a clearer idea of their odds of being one of the top 200 players. For example, if your kid peaks in the 14s, and is likely to be 5’2″, her odds are almost nothing. But if your child is getting to the finals of the Orange Bowl, doing very well in ITFs, projects to be 5’9″, embraces the fitness and mental aspects, is very coachable, her odds are much better.

    Parents just need to be realistic with their specific kid’s odds as each player has different odds.

  11. Jon, I accept that the 1/32 is not precise science, but it draws a clear point to clarity.
    The odds of becoming a pro and making a living at it, top 100 are 0.004%. ( Bolletierri was asked in a recent interview: Out of your 250 kids how many can be making a living as a pro, his answer maybe 2?). While growth and many other conditions eventually come to fruition, the fact is as follows: If you are a normal great tennis player your odds are 4 in 1000, to be a pro, if you are twice as good as those great payers, your odds are 8 in 1000. Regardless, you are playing against the odds no matter how good you are.
    Take a look at the last 15 years in Orange Bowl champs in any category that you choose.
    Over 98% with freak exceptions are pros. Look at Donald Young.
    My point is for parents to be smart about the facts and not believe their kids are so good, as the math proves, they are just not good enough.

  12. Fellas as an Engineer and Tennis Parent, YOU CAN”T APPLY any of these numbers, BECAUSE your all assuming the sample set of up and coming Tennis Players have as many if not all the Characteristics of today’s Pros. Case in point if you cannot say with certainty a Eddie Herr or Jr. Orange bowl, or Jr Slam winner will amount to anything more than a good player then how can you predict success?

    Having researched all the results of these Jr events I argue that you’d probably NOT want your kid to win or do well in any of these events.

    Odds of 4 in 1000 don’t become 8 in1000 if you are Twice as good. Why – Tennis tournaments are decided by variables outside the control of either player (Draws for example)

    If the schedule was leveled I would argue that you could then PREDICT the % of success. I can now see that since my daughter had been seeded she has made it to the QF for all her events. When she is not seeded her success rate drops, but is never as hi as when she is seeded. She is the same player against the same sample group and the draw and her ranking drive the next events draw ranking and so on.

  13. Javier, I do not think anyone argues its low odds. My point is that the odds are different for each kid and the parents have to make realistic choices. I remember Sloane Stephens as a kid, we all figured her odds were solid. There were several girls who trained side by side with her, we knew their odds were much less.

    But if you go by just the odds, nobody would ever even try. Even the odds of Rafa at age 13 were much less than 50-50.

  14. Jon, I agree with your point. In fact, I saw a video of Rafa age 10 I think it was and one of Djokovic at around the same age and they seemed no different than any good player in the US at the same age, in fact I even saw a few kids in Florida with better strokes at that age.
    The only point I wanted to convey to the mass amounts of parents that we all know who are so obsessed with their kids and winning that they all seem to forget the odds and how they are stacked against them. Again my argument is not to dissuade people from playing at the highest level, but to put some sanity by understanding the numbers.
    If you thought of the career of the kid as a business ( and you should if you have being a pro as an objective) then you must consider the odds and the cost of the odds. You would then easily conclude that it is simply a bad business.

  15. I agree with you Javier. Perhaps thats why I am a little confused about this discussion. A players mother says she was not aware of the overwhelming odds of making a living playing tennis. I am sure other tennis parents share this sentiment.

    That leads me to 2 questions:

    1. Before spending $100,000 plus on junior tennis I would expect one would have a plan and an idea of the odds of success. Over the years she must have crossed paths with dozens of experienced tennis parents and well known coaches who could have answered any questions concerning the odds of various levels of success. At what point along the way was the realization made of how tough it was?

    2. Even if you knew how low the odds were and how difficult the journey was, would you have not allowed your child to pursue his tennis interests? If so, what would you do differently now if you were the parent of an 8 year old who loves tennis. This would be valuable information for her to share with parents of younger tennis kids.

  16. My take on your 2 questions

    1.- Tennis is a business, and if you want a pro career you are doing yourself and the kid a
    disservice if you don’t understand the numbers. I think if your goal is to play professional
    tennis, then you should really see how realistic this is before you spend 100K. However, if
    your intention is to use tennis to build a champion in life, an honest, hard working, resilient
    person, then money invested in Jr. tennis at high ;levels is money well spent. Certainly it
    would not be in the 100K range. Much less for sure, yet 100% enjoyable. How much would
    you pay to have your kid in their teens, rather than being part of drugs and parties and no
    goals in clear sight ( emphasis in clear sight) to be involved in a sport that requires
    training, coaching, progress, competition, dedication etc. To me that is not even a choice.
    In a heart beat I do it and am doing it.

    2.- Under all circumstances you allow the child to work for a dream and support it, but that
    does not mean you go broke or in debt to do this. You steer the child with knowledge and
    coaching that will make the child realize this eventually. Again if your goal is to be a pro,
    please take a very careful look at the numbers. ( it truly is a bad business), but, if your
    goal is to use tennis to build a life champion, then the money and time spent ( not crazy
    dollars certainly) is the best money you will ever spend on a child for their future.

    3.- My own experience is as follows, we take tennis seriously, we have a monthly budget
    we follow a plan, I am fully aware of how talented or limited my kid is and he has every right
    to dream big, and i fully support it, but I am also aware that the numbers never lie and we
    make good decisions ( financial and sport related all the time).

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