Emily Webley-Smith’s plea to save tennis

Emily Webley-Smith is a 33-year-old from Great Britain currently ranked No. 230 in doubles, and No. 585 in singles.

Her career-best singles ranking of No. 240 came back in 2011. Her career-best doubles ranking of No. 113 came in 2015.

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Her career began with a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Melanie Schnell of Austria in a $25,000 tournament in Welwyn, Great Britain in October, 1999. And since 2002, she has traveled the world chasing her dream.

So far this year, Webley-Smith has earned $7,264 as a professional tennis player. In her career, she has earned a total of $313,156 which, averaged out over a 15-year career, works out to about $20,000 a year (before expenses).

Her situation, as a Brit, is more fortunate than some. Webley-Smith has received nine wild cards into Wimbledon qualifying (the last in 2014), two wild cards into the singles main draw (in 2004 and 2011), and four more into the doubles main draw.

In her two main-draw opportunities, she lost a pair of matches 8-6 in the third set to two quality players. They were two defeats that, had she been able to turn them into wins, might well have changed the arc of her career.

But it didn’t happen. So Webley-Smith became a vagabond.

So far, she has played tennis in 38 counties, from the U.S. to Brazil, from Bahrain to Sweden. From Vietnam to Nigeria to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. From Indonesia to Cuba to India to Senegal.

In all, she has four ITF singles titles, and 20 in doubles. She has played a total of 1,134 professional tennis matches – all but 36 of them at the ITF level.

She’s a very good tennis player – a professional tennis player who has to scramble every week to fund her next tournament. 

So, in all real ways, she plays because she loves the game. 

So Emily Webley-Smith is uniquely qualified to tell the the story of tennis from the other side – the side of those who can only dream of playing in this week’s tournament in Madrid, where there is close to $15 million of prize money up for grabs.

She also expresses herself beautifully with words.

Here is her ode to tennis. 

She no doubt is expecting replies that start with “give it up, you’re obviously not good enough” and end with “stop complaining, look at all those Wimbledon wild cards.” 

Because people can be like that.

She’s not asking for, or expecting sympathy. She’s just telling her story.

It contains some information and insights that shock the senses, and break the heart.

A Voice

I fear for tennis. I fear for the future of the sport and the soul of it. Sometimes I think we have no voice, other times I think it’s too beautiful a sport to let the dark side win.

I don’t like to think about it, I hate to talk about it; but ti’s there, an ever looming darkness that casts a shadow over everything we play for, and all that we stand for, and against. The longer I play, the more I realise the innocence of the sport is being trampled on, disappearing into insignificance. Doping, betting, tanking, cheating, and the dreaded m-word: money, are all around us, ever present in conversation, observation and literature about the game.

This is not what we deserve.

So often the ugly head of corruption rears up and taints the beautiful simplicity of fair play. It’s a hard world, a fool’s game, but what chance to we have to change it when the sport is guarded by an organization that is funded by the superpowers. Without them, there would be far fewer tournaments. With them, hands are tied and voices silenced to speak against them, so they’ve got us exactly where they want us, with no choice. We have no voice to explain what we have to deal with on and off the court, no moment to say ‘this is not fair’, to stand against cheating, gamesmanship and corruption. I could say so much. Yet, as players, we have no voice.

This is not what we deserve.

How many things would I change given the chance? For the future of the sport, so many. Tennis is dying, and with the changes in place for the end of the year, it will die more quickly. Perhaps it has to die, to be reborn again. But there’s not one professional sport in the world that would attempt to make changes that will ultimately mean less players and participation, less tournaments, less jobs, less earning potential.

I’ve been asked by a few players to sign petitions against the transition tour being introduced, but I will not. It is impossible for things to continue as they are, so many tennis has to be destroyed because we can have hope again. Let them destroy it, I shall still love it anyway. Tennis has given me so much, but for hundreds of players in the coming years not to have the chance to compete professionally at the sport they love, it’s a travesty.

This is not what they deserve.

The reality is a mess, and it’s been largely unspoken for years. Only now, in locations across the world, do I hear the whisper of fear from the players over quiet dinners, killing time in the players lounge, through Facebook group, or petition pleas for help.

But it’s a sorry state of affairs when numerous emails have to be sent chasing prize money that has not been paid to 64 players for an event that took place more than a month ago. The tournament was organized well, and we played our part in making it a success for the city, the sponsors and the country. Without us there would be no tournament, yet we have not been paid for our time, our work.

This is not what we deserve.

Meanwhile the fines continue to be collected; for having the audacity to choose to play a higher event and being penalized for it, for not being healthy enough to compete, or rich enough for the visa. For speaking out against incompetent and unprofessional officiating, for being human enough to show the pressure we are feeling, their mistakes blatant or otherwise, at our expense. The taxes continue to be deducted – twice, and the entry fees are still due, at our expense. Organizations, governments, airlines and sponsors get richer, at our expense.

This is not what we deserve.

I’d like to think that sportsmanship, humility, love for the game, and those among us that can still stand with their integrity intact, can keep the dying embers of hope alive to save professional tennis, but I’m not so sure anymore. We will endeavour to inspire, to keep giving back, and there are unsung heroes doing so across the world blindly attempting to grow the sport, to go on for the sake of going on. But I fear now we are all fighting a losing battle, takin one step forward on a treadmill we are forced to run on that is accelerating in the wrong direction.

This is not what tennis deserves.

Are we powerless to change it? Are we not waving, but drowning in an attempt to help the sport survive? Or are we letting a few authoritative voices overpower a thousand truthful whispers, by isolating ourselves as we lose hope? Their perception is not our reality.

The game is much greater than us as individuals, and this alone is worth the fight, if enough of us believe that.

This is what tennis deserves.

(Essay from Twitter. Photos and embeds from Instagram. Information on Webley-Smith’s career from the ITF website).

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