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.

James McGee & His Quest for Success

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Last week, Irish pro, James McGee, was in town working with one of the coaches (Joseph O’Dwyer) at the club where my son trains. James was getting ready for the upcoming Sacramento Challenger tournament (livestreaming of the matches is online at http://www.usta.com/Pro-Tennis/Pro-Circuit/pro_circuit_live/) in Northern California where he will attempt to earn as many ATP points as possible, thereby improving his ranking and, hopefully, catching the attention of potential financial sponsors. If you’ve read any of James’s blog, you’ll understand why this is such an important piece of the puzzle.

I knew James was in town thanks to Twitter, and I immediately reached out to him to see if he would have any time to chat with me. Gracious young man that he is, he let me know his practice schedule and offered to sit down with me between sessions.

The scene: The Olde Towne Athletic Club pub, dinner-time, Dmitry Tursunov vs. Stanislas Wawrinka at the Kuala Lumpur ATP 250 event on the big screens surrounding us, James’s eyes moving between the tvs and me, 2 plates of food in front of him.

Some background info: 26-year-old James is the #1 player in Ireland and is currently ranked 246 on the ATP World Tour. He has played for the Irish Davis Cup Team but has otherwise received no financial support from the Irish Tennis Federation (the equivalent of our USTA). He travels the world by himself 70-80% of the time – no coach or family for moral support – and arranges all of his own flights, accommodations, meals, hitting/training sessions, racquet stringing, etc. While he was in Atlanta, for example, he stayed in the home of a club member and relied on the coach and public transportation (which is very limited in Atlanta!) to get around. He’s been doing this since he was 18 years old and has no intention of stopping any time soon.

I asked James about his life growing up as a tennis player in Ireland. He shared with me that his parents were probably the perfect Tennis Parents. His mom has extensive experience in the tennis world, both as a club player and a coach; his dad doesn’t play but is a big fan, especially of his son. James started playing when he was about 7 years old and quickly developed a passion for the game. However, he continued to attend regular school and viewed that as a huge advantage as it gave him something other than tennis to focus on, leaving him more well-balanced overall. As he explained, “School gave me a break from thinking about tennis. I had to concentrate on my classes, and I had the distraction of my school mates, which was a good thing. By the time my studies were completed for the day, I was so hungry to get to the courts and play!”

The only conflict James can recall having with his parents was when he announced, at the age of 17, that he was pursuing a professional tennis career. His parents were supportive of his decision, however they were concerned about him turning pro at 17 as they knew it was such a significant and important decision in his life. James simply said, “This is what I have to do,” and that was the end of the discussion. Unfortunately, a serious injury side-tracked him for more than a year, and so James did decide to give the US college system a try. Since he had been off the tour for an extended period of time and had no current results to show, the recruiting process was a challenge. James wound up at NC State where his team made a run to the quarterfinals at the 2007 NCAA Year-End Tournament in Athens, GA. Because James posted such great results during his 2 years at NC State, he was able to transition back onto the pro tour and begin anew his quest for ranking points.

Since then, his biggest struggle has been finance-related. When you’re not inside the top 100 on the men’s side, it’s tough to earn enough prize money to cover the cost of training and travel. Most players in James’s situation are constantly on the lookout for sponsors, both for equipment/clothing and for the money to keep competing on tour. If the results come, so does the money. But if a player is sidelined with an injury for any period of time, then it’s tough to convince the sponsors to keep writing those checks.

So, what keeps James on his quest? Why does he keep working and traveling?

It’s all about love of the game.

James doesn’t sugar-coat things. He flat-out told me that, yes, he would love to have a wife and a family someday. But, his current lifestyle and lack of funds prevents him from pursuing that aspect of his dreams at this time. He talked a bit about players like Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic who are at the top of the game, who can afford to take their girlfriends with them on tour and stay at the fanciest hotels and eat nice meals and travel in luxury. But, he added, for a player at his level, there’s nothing luxurious about this lifestyle. It’s a grind. It’s sleeping on people’s floors. It’s eating ramen noodles meal after meal because that’s all you can afford. It’s hoping someone somewhere will find it in their heart to let you use their stringing machine or donate court time so you can practice.

We talked a bit about mentors, and I mentioned to James that I’d love for him to spend some time hitting and talking with my son next time he’s in Atlanta. He said he absolutely would love to! He told me that when he was 13 or 14, a mentor came into his life that really changed his perspective on things and that he would love the opportunity to do that for someone else. He sees himself becoming a mentor to as many players as possible once his time on the tour is done.

I asked James how long he was willing to chase his dream, how many more years would he devote to professional tennis, and did he have a set goal in mind. He told me that he would play until one of two things happens: he is permanently derailed by injury or he meets the girl of his dreams and decides to marry her and settle into family life. Otherwise, he said, there is no end-date in site. He doesn’t want to set a ranking goal for himself – say, top 50 or top 10 in the world – because what if he reaches it? Would that mean it was okay to quit? Or, what if he never reaches it? Does that mean he has failed in his quest? However high the ranking he eventually reaches, James went on, he won’t be satisfied if he doesn’t feel he’s given tennis his all. Tennis is what fuels him, what makes him get out of bed each morning, what drives him to work and to fight each and every day to get better. When I asked him what he saw himself doing once the tennis is finished, he really didn’t have an answer other than it would likely be something in the tennis world, though it could just as likely be in business or some other area. At this point, there is no Plan B. Just Plan A: to continue working as hard as possible, to stay healthy, and to keep earning those ranking points, one tournament at a time.