Ines Ibbou: Algerian in financial difficulties outside the top 500 of tennis

As the top players in women’s tennis gather in Fort Worth for next week’s WTA Finals — with a total of $5 million in prize money at stake — life is very different at the other end of the world rankings.

Algerian Ines Ibbou plays on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tour, where the rewards are much lower than those offered at the Grand Slams.

For the 23-year-old, who is ranked 502 in the world, every expenditure must be strictly controlled.

“One week [on tour] it can quickly mean €1500 to €2000 ($1490-$1990) in expenses – just for me, no coach or anyone else,” Ibbou told BBC Sport Africa.

“Air tickets are very very expensive at the moment, tickets can be up to 400-500 euros just for one flight.

“Then you add accommodation, food, extras, shoelaces – we have to pay for everything.

“The top 10 earn very good money, but you only really start to make a living from tennis when you get to the top 200. With a rank above 200, you’re barely making ends meet.

“My goal is really to reach the highest level, to be among the top 200 players in the world. If I reach that point, I will be able to play Grand Slams. But to get there, I have to manage the financial part.”

The challenges facing Ibbou, who won her first professional title aged 14, were highlighted at a tournament in the Canary Islands in August.

He would have won $60,000 in prize money had he triumphed – compared to the $57,500 and $80,000 first-round losers at Wimbledon and the US Open respectively.

“It’s impossible to make a living in tournaments like these,” Ibbou said after her second-round exit.

“Just to come [to the Canary Islands]I had a 48 hour trip and tried to buy the cheapest plane ticket.

“It’s a small hotel room that I share with another player – we actually played against each other. When you share a room, [only] pay half so it will be good for us.’

High-level players have a range of racquets provided by sponsors, which they often change mid-match when preparing to return serve and occasionally break them when things go wrong.

Ibbou, however, has no such luxuries – with just four in her purse.

“I can’t afford to change them for every tournament and I think I’ve had them for two years,” he said.

Ibbou has also relied on the kindness of strangers to get by.

“I played in Germany in a tournament in Horb. It’s a tiny village in the middle of nowhere where a nice lady I want to thank hosted me for three to four days in her home.

“She opened her doors, she fed me, she was very nice. But it doesn’t happen much.”

Combating inequality and visa complications

Ines Ibbou rose to 502 in the WTA rankings, having finished last year at 726 in the world

Ibbou is Africa’s representative on the ITF players’ panel and hopes to help find solutions to other problems facing players from the continent.

“I think for every African, male or female, it’s very complicated because there is a structural inequality,” he said.

“For example, if you are Senegalese, Namibian or from any other African country, you have to travel to play because there are no tournaments in our countries.

“But when you’re European, French or Spanish for example, in a year you can play twelve tournaments at home. You don’t have to travel or buy a plane ticket.”

African players often face visa issues when traveling to tournaments, which Ibbou says can be “complicated”.

“For example, when I play a tournament in France and I have to go to Turkey or Thailand, you have to have a residence in the country [to get a visa],” she added.

“When I’m in France, I’m supposed to live there so I can get a visa – but I don’t have a residence in France which means I’m supposed to go back to Algeria to get a visa, which can take a long time to process.

“I can wait two or three weeks for an answer. Sometimes people would get involved to help me get a visa, but it was always a hassle or very last minute. It’s hard for me to plan a schedule for the whole year.”

Amine Ben Makhlouf, the ITF’s regional officer for Africa, admits that aspiring players from the continent have to face extra challenges.

“There are two main problems in Africa. The logistics are very difficult for players to travel to Africa and from Africa to Europe,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“For an African player to perform at a high level he needs a visa and that takes two to three months out of his annual playing schedule.”

Meanwhile, African federations lack the funds to support their players – with around $150,000 needed per player per year to maintain a full schedule, including training and matches.

“Apart from Ons Jabeur, there are actually no African players at the top, top level,” said Ibbou, with the Tunisian taking part in the WTA Finals for the first time.

“Our federations do not have the funds of other federations. If we take the French federation, they do not have the same budget as the Senegalese. So, it’s very complicated.

“I’m trying my best to see a development in African tennis, but it’s complicated to hear.”

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