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Vast disparities of the great game

sports Updated: Jan 07, 2012 00:09 IST

AFP
Highlight Story

In-a-file-picture-Frederik-Nielsen-of-Denmark-hits-a-return-against-Grigor-Dimitrov-of-Bulgaria-during-their-men-s-singles-session-7-match-on-day-five-of-the-Hopman-Cup-tennis-tournament-in-Perth-AFP-Tony-Ashby

One is a multi-millionairess who doesn't even like the sport that has given her everything. The other is a "Joe Nobody" who's happy to scrape a living playing the game he loves.

Welcome to the disparate world of professional tennis, where a handful of superstars enjoy extraordinary rewards -- but the vast majority work hard for relatively little, wondering what it's like to be one of the chosen few.

For Serena Williams, one of the world's richest athletes, fame, luxury travel and plush hotels are the norm. Yet she told journalists in Brisbane that not only did she not "love" tennis, she didn't even like sports.

"It's not that I've fallen out of love with it. I've actually never liked sports and I never understood how I became an athlete," Williams said.

"I don't like working out, I don't like anything physical. If it involves sitting down or shopping, I'm excellent at it."

Elsewhere in Australia, but a world away professionally, 236th-ranked Frederik Nielsen considered the Hopman Cup, where he is representing Denmark alongside women's number one Caroline Wozniacki, the peak of his career.

For the 28-year-old journeyman, without a title to his name, courtesy cars and free meals at the Perth tournament were a rare treat -- and the $45,000 appearance fee is a major pay-day.

"This is the biggest stage I have ever played on, I've thoroughly enjoyed it," he said.

"They take such good care of us players and to be able to play on a stage like that, in front of a great crowd, it's big for me. It's a big pleasure, it really is."

But Nielsen also knows next week he'll be back to outside courts and satellite tournaments as he tries to keep his bank account ticking over, typically picking up $1,000 per event -- barely enough to cover his costs.

"I know that next week it's back to reality and I'm 'Joe Nobody' again," he said.

"So I really appreciate every second here."

Any money he makes will be put straight back into trying to improve his own game, rather than lavished on the trappings of success.

"The money that I make I try to invest in my own game by hiring coaches in different areas of the game," he said.

"So I don't really come out with a profit at the end of the year. It's enough to keep going."

On the other hand, Williams has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles, two Olympic gold medals and earned over $34 million in prize money, not to mention her lucrative endorsements.

"I don't love tennis today but I'm here," she confessed.

"I can't live without it -- there's a difference between not loving something and not being able to live without it."

It's a striking admission, but Williams is not alone. Fellow American great Andre Agassi even said he hated the sport in his controversial autobiography, Open.

"I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have," Agassi wrote.

Nielsen, who has won just $295,000 during his playing career, can't live without tennis either, but his reasons are vastly different.

"If I was in it for the money and everything I would have quit five years ago," he said.

"This is my life and I really love it, this is a dream come true for me.

"As long as I'm fit and I keep improving and I find it to be the best thing to do with my life, I'll keep going."