Low Pay Leads Some Tour Tennis Players From Forehands to Finance

Sep 02, 2014 8:04 pm ET

Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) -- While Andy Murray aims for a second U.S. Open tennis title, his friend and former Davis Cup teammate Jamie Baker is forging a career in London’s financial district.

Baker swapped his racket for a job at Banco Santander SA, Spain’s largest bank, in 2013 after spending years scraping by as a traveling professional. Baker, a former British No. 2 who grew up in Scotland playing alongside 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon champion Murray, isn’t alone. With a lack of prize money in the lower ranks and the annual cost of playing professional tennis at $143,000, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Tennis Association, some former players end up on Wall Street or in the City of London while still in their 20s.

“I was just outside a position where you can earn a good living,” Baker, who reached a career-high No. 186 in singles on the men’s tour, said in an interview. Although traveling the world was “a reward in itself” at first, Baker said he’d started to think about the financial side of his career by the time he turned 25.

“I was basically dedicating my whole life to playing tennis,” said Baker, now 28. “I could be in a position if I play for another five years and I am in the top 180 people in the world to do this, I could end up stopping playing without a penny in the bank.”

Costly Career

Baker quit the sport having made just over $400,000 in almost a decade on tour. He said there had been “a little bit left,” after investing most of his winnings back into his tennis career.

Murray has made more than $32 million on the court. He faces men’s top seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the U.S. Open quarterfinals today. Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka plays Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

Other former professional players in finance include former world No. 718 Jonathan Pastel, vice president at Wexford Capital in Greenwich, Connecticut. Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg, winners of the 1992 U.S. Open doubles title, later worked together at hedge fund Taconic Capital Advisors LP in New York.

Baker got his job at Santander with the help of Add-Victor, a London-based recruitment agency that specializes in placing former elite athletes and military personnel in business careers.

“One of the single biggest qualities of a top sportsman in an individual sport is resilience,” Steve White-Cooper, director and founder of Add-Victor, said in an interview when asked why former athletes can succeed in financial services.

Rugby Player

Add-Victor has placed about 80 candidates in business careers since it was founded in 2012, said White-Cooper, a former international rugby player. Three of those have been tennis players and he has four more in the pipeline.

Baker’s lack of academic qualifications -- he left school at 16 to focus on tennis -- wasn’t an obstacle for Mike Ellwood, managing director of corporate banking at Santander UK Plc.

“I’m always looking for different things, to try and add different characters, different skills to the team,” Ellwood said in an interview. “Jamie struck me very early on as a very bright, driven, articulate and intelligent guy. So while he didn’t come from the traditional graduate route, I thought he’d be very capable.”

Baker described his sports career in terms of managing his own business, Ellwood said. “So he wasn’t just a tennis player, but he had to manage a number of other people and stakeholders around him.”

Finance Degree

Barry King, a bond trader at Davy Stockbrokers in Dublin, was at a similar crossroads in 2011. A national junior champion in Ireland, King played tennis at the University of Notre Dame. After graduating with a degree in finance in 2007, he worked for a year to save money to go on tour.

Although King, 29, shared coaches with other players, life on the road playing the ATP Challengers and ITF Futures circuit, one rung below the main tour, became “very expensive,” he said in an interview. The prize money on the lower ranks is so low “a lot of guys were frightened for their next meal,” he said.

King quit tennis after fulfilling one of his career goals of playing in the Davis Cup for Ireland in 2011. He left the sport having made $21,058 on the court after reaching a high of No. 431 in doubles and No. 600 in singles.

“I was injured a bit and I felt that if I could keep on playing, I could probably get to around 250-300 in the world in singles,” King said. “But with a degree from Notre Dame and only a few years out of the business world, I was still employable and decided to go for finance.”

There are similarities between the professions, he said.

“You are obviously competitive and driven and you have the mindset of wanting to achieve,” King said. “In trade, there is a winner and a loser. You’ve got to stay calm under pressure.”

Baker, whose brother is a trader at Morgan Stanley, said he learned how to compartmentalize in sport. “You’re always pushing to do something a little bit better all the time.”