In a universe like tennis where the distribution of wealth is ridiculously disparate between the upper and lower echelons of the sport, competing in the poorly-financed, bottom-tiered ITF events can feel isolating.
It is where 21-year-old Algerian Ines Ibbou has plied her trade for the majority of her professional career, and where she had been struggling week-in, week-out, trying to move up the tennis food chain.
"I'm a lonely lady, travelling the world generally in three-legged trips, always looking for the cheapest tickets," the 620th-ranked Ibbou wrote in an open letter directed at world No 3 Dominic Thiem, whose comments about why he preferred not to donate to a Player Relief Fund have been met by mixed reactions from the tennis community.
In a nine-minute video published on Saturday night and narrated by Ibbou, the North African – who was ranked as high as No 23 in the world junior rankings – gave a raw and poignant account of her tough journey in the sport, the sacrifices she has made, and the lengths she had to go to pursue a tennis career from her hometown of Algiers.
When the top-ranked Novak Djokovic suggested that all top-100 players should contribute to a relief fund that would go to those ranked 250 to 700, Thiem told Kronen Zeitung newspaper he had his reservations about the Serb's proposal.
“I know the Futures tour and played there for two years. There are a lot of people who don't give everything to sport," said Thiem.
“I don't see why I should give money to such people. I would prefer to donate to people or institutions that really need it. No tennis players are fighting for survival, not even the ones down below. Nobody has to starve.
“[The top players] all had to fight our way up the rankings. I've seen players on the ITF Tour who don't 100 per cent commit to the sport. Many are quite unprofessional. I don't see why I should give them money.”
Ibbou says she felt “hurt” and “disrespected” by Thiem’s comments, and decided to share her story in a video that has since gone viral and has earned her shout-outs from hundreds of her peers applauding her for her “courage”, along with scores of tennis fans, Algerian international footballers, and tennis stars like Nick Kyrgios and Venus Williams.
“You’re my hero,” Williams commented on Ibbou’s Instagram.
For once, Ibbou doesn’t feel so lonely.
"I felt for the first time ever that I'm heard," Ibbou told The National in a phone interview on Sunday night. "For the first time I felt that people cared about us.
“I was expecting some response from some lower-ranked players like me, but not all these people. Wow that was very… I don’t know, I don’t have the words actually.
“I hope this video makes its way to the ITF, the WTA and the federation. I hope they will change something about the tour, and they really think about it and try to help us players.”
In her video, Ibbou describes the difficulties she faced as an Arab woman attempting to pursue a career in professional sport. She discusses the lack of tennis facilities back home, the non-existent support from big-name sponsors, the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for visas in order to travel to tennis tournaments, and the financial burden of it all. She imagines what her life would be like if she was in Thiem’s shoes, growing up in Austria and being coached by a parent.
“If only you knew, Dominic,” said Ibbou in her video. “Did you know that in Algeria, the ITF juniors are very, very rare and there is not a single ITF pro, ATP or WTA event? There's not a single coach at the international level. There's not even a single indoor court. If it rains for a week we practice our backhands…in the gym!
“And I am not even talking about the quality of the facilities and the courts. We didn’t even know what court we were playing on. Is it grass? Is it clay? ‘Africa’ as they say…”
Egyptian player Sandra Samir, another teen prodigy from the region, who peaked at No 13 in the world junior rankings but struggled with her transition to the pros, can relate to everything Ibbou mentioned in her video, and then some.
Samir, who hit a career-high WTA ranking of No 358 prior to the suspension of tennis due to the coronavirus, agrees with Ibbou that proper guidance from knowledgeable coaches is a missing key ingredient here in the Middle East and North Africa, especially when it comes to making the transition from juniors to the pro circuit.
“We made a lot of mistakes throughout my career but I kept convincing myself this is normal and pushed myself forward,” Samir said. “We didn’t know any better and the only way to figure it out is by going through it, one experience at a time. Did that slow me down? Yes of course it did.”
Samir, 22, recalls how she was dropped by her clothing sponsor Lotto before she even turned pro because they told her she wasn’t ranked in the top 250 on the women’s circuit – an unrealistic ask when you’re still playing juniors.
“At the time we still didn’t even understand anything about the WTA or how to turn pro or what exactly we should be doing. I wasn’t guided,” Samir said.
“Where we’re from, this is normal. If I were from a different place, maybe things would have been different, but I’m not. End of story. I have moved past all of these feelings of ‘why me?’ or ‘what if?’ and all this ‘I’m a victim’ narrative. I’ve been through this a lot and I moved forward. I also got past the phase of laziness, and hopelessness, and everything else you can imagine. I’ve come out the other side stronger.”
Ibbou stresses that she does not blame Thiem for any of her woes, nor does she demand any money from him, but explains that she took offence from his words about the so-called unprofessionalism of lower-ranked players.
It’s worth noting that Thiem did not deem all lower-ranked players unprofessional, and the Austrian reserves the right to donate his money the way he sees fit. In a way he is right. There are many lower-ranked players who do not treat tennis as their main profession. They are part-timers who do not depend on the sport for their livelihood.
Samir belongs to the camp that feels Thiem has a point, along with Argentine player Guido Pella.
Still, Ibbou is not the only player to interpret Thiem’s statements as unfair and it’s understandable why his words are seen by many as, at the very least, insensitive.
Germany's Dustin Brown tweeted about his own travails on the ITF and Challenger circuit, in response to Thiem's comments, and shared Ibbou's video. Kyrgios believes Thiem "doesn't get it" and pledged his support to Ibbou on Instagram.
Irrespective of how one feels about what Thiem said, the reason Ibbou’s open letter resonated with so many people (the video has amassed 100,000 views across various platforms at the time of writing this column) is because it highlights inherent problems in the structure of tennis and a version of her story is shared by countless other players.
While the Player Relief Fund proposed by Djokovic is a classy gesture, it will not solve the fact that competitors get paid peanuts at ITF tournaments, and that barely 150 players on tour can make a living from the sport.
“We have to change something in the system, the system is wrong. The ITF, the ATP, the WTA, maybe it’s time all of them worked together to make something for the players,” Ibbou said.
“I received many messages from players who are struggling because we cannot make a living with these tournaments. We spend more money than we win.”
Ibbou added that she hopes her video can make waves back home as well, to alert sporting authorities in Algeria to the degree of neglect many athletes like her feel every day.
“I really hope so because we are a very young country, there are a lot of kids and they have to give them their chance,” Ibbou said. “I was lucky enough to have parents that sacrificed a lot for me and also I had people that cared for me when I was at my lowest. I was very lucky on that side.
“And I really wish and really hope that this makes an impact in Algeria, and try to change things there.”
A couple of hours after our conversation, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune posted a message to Ibbou on his official Facebook page that read: "There is no way Algeria will waste a sporting talent like Ines Ibbou, who is young and has lots to give in a specialty that is rare for Algerians to excel in. The Ministry of Youth and Sport will take care of your needs. You have my full support and I wish you success, God willing."
By making noise and speaking her truth, Ibbou might finally get the support she deserves after all.