PARIS • With careers spent scratching around dusty outposts, sometimes with only a hundred dollars in their pockets, tennis' unheralded army of foot soldiers claim they are struggling to afford food after being made unemployed overnight by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, Georgian player Sofia Shapatava is pleading with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to dig deep and help out the hundreds of players who lost their livelihoods when the men's and women's tours went into a three-month lockdown.
"Players lower ranked than 250th will not be able to buy food in two to three weeks' time," she told Agence France-Presse.
World No. 375 Shapatava is, however, not optimistic that the ITF will look favourably on her plea.
"I honestly don't think so," she said. "They replied that their plate is full and they will come back to me as soon as they can. But after that e-mail they did not reply with anything."
Shapatava may be a 16-year veteran on the WTA Tour, but the 31-year-old plays mostly secondary ITF events, a world away from the gilded Grand Slam world inhabited by the sport's biggest stars, including Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Despite playing almost 1,500 singles and doubles matches, she has only banked US$354,000 (S$505,240) in career prize money and barely US$3,000 has come her way since the turn of the year.
Yet compared to many, she is well-off. World No. 1,292 Ksenia Kolesnikova of Russia has officially made just US$68 this year.
Many players outside the lucrative top 100 traditionally supplement their meagre incomes by coaching or playing in European club leagues.
However, those reliable revenue streams dried up after governments worldwide banned large gatherings and instituted lockdown measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
"I started the petition to help tennis players to be heard by ITF, after I talked to many of the people I know and about their plans for the next three months, I realised that some people won't even be able to have food," claimed Shapatava.
Official income (US$68) this year of tennis world No. 1,292 Ksenia Kolesnikova of Russia.
"My problem is that my sport will die as it is, it will die, because players who are ranked lower then 150th in the world will not be able to play."
The contagion has brought all tennis competition to a standstill until June 8 at the earliest. The entire clay-court season has also been wiped out, with the French Open moved to September-October from its traditional May-June slot.
Wimbledon could follow suit this week when organisers may postpone or even cancel the grass-court Slam event, which is scheduled to start on June 29.
Getting a wildcard into a Major is a financial windfall for many fringe players, but even that avenue could be closed to them this year.
World No. 447 Tara Moore pocketed US$62,000 after reaching the second round of Wimbledon in 2016 and is worried her peers may no longer be able to pay their bills with opportunities non-existent.
Writing in support of Shapatava's petition, she said: "There are more important things like life and death, but a lot of players from smaller countries, (are) unable to earn any income, unable to claim benefits as they are considered self-employed.
"It will be tough for many players to survive the next couple of months."
The ITF did not respond to AFP requests for comment by press time.