Ranked 556th in a cut-throat world: Stories from tennis’ other side

Ranked 556th in a cut-throat world: Stories from tennis’ other side

Yudanov was national champion as a teenager but then turned her back on tennis

Marina Yudanov is the 556th best tennis player in the world. It is an unremarkable statistic that hides a remarkable story.

Back at the start of 2017, Yudanov, 29, was earning more than £30,000 a year as an engineer for Volvo in her native Sweden.

She was financially secure and settled, physically at least, in the buzzing second city of Gothenburg. But something was missing.

That was when she threw herself into the cut-throat world of a hustling lower-level tennis pro, in search of what might have been.

She funds this testing journey herself, giving everything on court and scrimping everywhere off it. Mammoth roadtrips over expensive plane tickets, cheap rental flats instead of hotels, sometimes sharing a twin room with the player she is facing the next day.

“Nothing of what I say is me whining or complaining, I really am not,” Yudanov says.

“I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to do this but it is very difficult.”

This is her story, a world away from the riches at the top of the game.

April 2019

Marina’s diary:

“After losing in the last round of qualifying of an event in Osaka, Japan on the Monday, I used the rebookable option on my flight ticket – that I had paid extra for – to bring my return forward to Thursday instead of Sunday.

“On Tuesday, fate intervened. I got into the main draw as a lucky loser after someone pulled out injured. I then won against a girl ranked 300 places above me, and was due to play on Thursday – the day of my newly rebooked flight home.

“We were more than three hours away from Tokyo airport. What if we played a long match? I’d probably miss my flight. What if I won? I’d definitely miss my flight.

“A new ticket home would cost £550, which would hurt. So what did I do?

“The match was long, I lost in three sets, and then embarked on the most frantic trip of my life, leaving the club without showering, and going taxi-train-train-plane-plane until I arrived, more than 24 hours later, still dressed in tennis skirt and tank top in nearly sub-zero temperature and snow in Copenhagen. Then it was just a four-hour train up home.

“Had we played three minutes longer, I would have missed that plane and been in limbo in Tokyo airport.”

How did it come to this?

Yudanov was once a teenage national champion, but a promising junior career flamed out as the pressures of academia, adolescence and sporting excellence bore down on her.

“I had been in the top juniors of my age, ranked 250 in the world at 16. But all those things were too much for me,” she says.

“I had a teenage rebellion. I was hanging out with people who were not good for me, smoking, drinking and seeing older men. I thought, ‘I hate this’ and I walked away when I was 18.”

For the next six years, Yudanov didn’t pick up a racquet. But tennis crept back into her life, first as a practice partner for a friend, then as a tentative competitor in national tournaments. Then, aged 27, she handed in her notice.

“I had got myself somewhere with a good salary, but every single day I just wanted to get out on court and compete,” she adds.

“I was getting up at 5am to go and do some kind of fitness before work and directly after work I would go and play tennis. It would fill my existence, chasing that feeling of competition that I missed.

“People at work were like ‘oh that is great, follow your dream’. In the back of their head they thought: ‘What the hell does this girl think she is doing, quitting her job to travel the world and lose money playing tennis?'”

And losing money, certainly at the start, is pretty much inevitable.

As an unranked player, as Yudanov was in the summer of 2017, you are a freelance bounty-hunter.

Starting a tennis career from scratch involves searching out tournaments with tiny pots of prize money and ranking points, which in turn give you a chance to enter the next tier of slightly larger events and slowly inch your way up the sport’s greasy pole.

Yudanov began with 20,000 euros of family savings, approximately £18,000, to help her cover the costs of travel, accommodation and equipment as she started out.

Every decision in her career is an investment. A wager that she will collect enough points and prize money at an individual event to offset her costs.

Yudanov has to carefully consider which tournaments represent the best chance to win ranking points – and how much it will cost her

The major purchase she would make to help her career if she came into some unexpected money would be a campervan or motorhome to travel to tournaments in. It was a tactic that Germany’s former top-75 player Dustin Brown used during his own days shuttling between backwater events.