When Rafael Nadal won Wimbledon on Sunday, he got 2,000 ranking points, a big shiny trophy and a winner's check for more than $1.5 million. When former pro-turned-comedian Michael Kosta won one of his four titles on the ITF circuit, his prize was a little less impressive.
"I didn't even get a trophy," Kosta laughs. "They gave me a bottle of sake, which we finished that night. That's the difference between Futures, Challengers and Tour level. They give us a bottle of sake and we finish it before we're at the train station."
That's not the only difference. During his two and a half years on the Futures and Challenger circuit that saw him reach No 864 in the rankings, Kosta had a front row seat to the humbling-bordering-on-humiliating comedy of errors that is life in the tennis minor leagues. While he's living large today as a stand-up, making appearances on Chelsea Lately and Jay Leno and dropping more F-bombs on funnyordie.com, he agreed to hop on my therapist's couch to confront the demons in his soul from war in the Tennis Trenches.
Okay. How bad was it?
Michael Kosta: It was $%#% hard. Can I swear?
It's a requirement here.
I lived in Tampa. I was with a coach, but I couldn't really travel with him and I couldn't really pay him what he deserved. It was every day, full-time tennis, 22 tournaments a year. Once I earned my first 3 or 4 points in the U.S. Futures, which are the most challenging – I was playing 4 rounds a day, qualifying – once you have that, you can get into the really crappy Futures in Mexico and Asia. You go over there, pick up another 8 points, go back to the States, maybe get into a Challenger. And you just keep doing that.
You hear about some ridiculous court conditions when you go off the grid. What are just the worst places you played?
I remember playing in South Korea on red clay. Instead of nailing the lines, they would chalk the lines like a baseball field. At 5-all in the first, the lines were all over the court. I mean, all over. There was no baseline, so I could move closer and serve bigger, but so could my opponent. It was a disaster.
I remember in Mexico, the umpire flipped a coin that was this big (gestures the size of a small Frisbee) to see who would serve. I asked him, Why is the coin so big? And he said 'I don't have very good vision.' This guy is the umpire and he's telling me he doesn't have good vision.
That would never happen to Roger Federer. Have you ever showed up at a venue and just gone, no way?
You're contractually obligated to play if you're accepted. For a guy in the top 50 to just say &%$# it and leave, you can do that because you're making enough money. But I'd be fined $400, and you're not even guaranteed $400 in prize money.
How did you afford hotels?
In the States, I was pretty good at getting housing. If you were nice, and you'd help doing a kids’ clinic and the exhibition, the next year you went back they'd find the aunt or the neighbor who wouldn't mind having you crash with them.
I hear that's how Maria Sharapova handles her housing.
Right? If you're a collegiate American player, and you're good, but you're not the NCAA Champion, you don't have any money. Unless your parents want to [bankroll you]. There's so many kids out there who just have unlimited credit cards. Some of these guys, it was like they were on a strip club tour, not even a Futures or Challengers tour…4, 5, 6 nights a week, they would just take dad's credit card. It was a round-the-world party.
How many fans actually show up for your matches?
One Sunday I was playing the NCAA quarterfinals in Texas. There were 2600 people watching. I flew to Mexico and was playing a doubles final exactly a week later. There were two people watching. And they were only there because they had the court after us.
%#@&. Look, now you're making me swear. How about groupies? Is there a version of the Susan Sarandon character in Bull Durham in the minor leagues?
Yup. Yup yup. But like, some mom in a terrible marriage. She would house, like, the Australian doubles team… I can only imagine what Tour level groupies are like, but just as the play diminishes as you go down the levels, so do the groupies. (laughs) Everything is the same, it's just lower quality.
It might be someone's mom. Or someone's mom's mom…
I had a friend who had sex with one of the female umpires in Montreal. You can put that on the record but I'm not saying names.
What was your biggest singles match?
I lost to [a guy] in qualifying. He was already gonna be in as Lucky Loser whether he beat me or not. Everyone told me to sell him the match. He was like 140 in the world, I was like 7-800. They said, Tell him to pull out and you'll give him your prize money, which was going to be $2,000 in qualies and 8 or 9 or 10 in the Main Draw. And I didn't. I've thought about that a lot since then because I lost. I never played a Tour event. But at the time I was like, I want to beat him, straight up. I don't want to just give him the match. But a lot of players do that, they sell and stuff. And looking back I think I made the right decision. That being said, I would've loved to have played in a Tour event, Main Draw. What should I have done? I leave it up to you and the readers to decide.
Sounds like you've got just the right amount of tennis PTSD.
It is a grind, but if you can get out of Futures, out of the Challengers, it's a sweet life.
Kosta may not have been one of the lucky few, but the stand-up did come away with something much more valuable. Plenty of material. Check him out July 14-17 at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival and July 22-Aug 22 as he sets off on a tour through Australia, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. All dates can be found at www.michaelkosta.com.
Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.