There is indeed a tennis bucket list out there, and I can tell you what’s at the top of Michael Yani’s, even if you never heard of Michael Yani or mistake him for that wild-haired Greek guy who plays the pan flute, or whatever they call that musical instrument.
That guy is Yanni. This is Yani, one of dozens of tennis pros you’ve never heard of, who travel the world making a few bucks here and a few bucks there and who remain obscure even to those who read the agate tennis scores every day in the paper.
For the record, Michael Yani is 31 years old, ranked No. 175 and in 12 years of living, briefly, in some great hotels and, more regularly, in a lot of seedy ones, he’s earned about $330,000, or about $27,500 a year — hardly enough to keep him in blue chips or even to afford an occasional business class flight. But, hey, this isn’t about the money, he’ll tell you. This is about tennis.
And before he chucks it all in and starts leaning on his Duke University degree, he’s praying for one Grand Slam win. Just one. That’s at the top of his bucket list, though I personally like his No. 2 choice better, which is to play a night match at the U.S. Open against “one of those guys.”
One of those guys meaning Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer. The scene: Opening night match at the Open, Arthur Ashe Stadium filled, flash going off in every corner of the stadium, loud music signaling the entrance of the two players, and there’s Yani, ambling down the tunnel and onto the court behind one of the best players in the world. Maybe even waving to the crowd, as if every one of them out there is on his Facebook page.
“I’m dying to play one of those guys at night at the Open,” he said. You can tell as his eyes light up that he’s gone over this scenario in his head more than once. Maybe he’s dreamed it.
We’re sitting in the players lounge at the Longboat Key Tennis Club in Sarasota, Fla., where Michael has just won a couple rounds at a Challenger before getting bounced. He’s snapped up $2,920 and 18 ranking points. Petty cash to top 50 players, but, really, this is a good week for the Michael Yanis of this world.
He was born in Singapore to a Chinese father and American mother, both of whom are now retired, and there was never going to be a doubt about him claiming U.S. citizenship first.
In 12 years he’s played 345 professional matches, but only 15 in regular ATP events for a 3-12 record. Not surprisingly, his tennis life, apart from four years at Duke, has been spent flitting from one Challenger or Futures city to another. Name a major city in the world. He’s been there, though not to Prague or Belgrade, and he’s going to be at a Challenger in the Czech Republic in a couple weeks. So scratch that one off his list.
He’s tall enough at 6-foot-1 and gets by a lot on his hefty serving. Easy-going, talkative and seemingly pretty happy with the cards tennis has dealt him, he still wants that Grand Slam victory. He’s 0-4 in main draw majors, having qualified each time, and two years ago had three match points in a five-set loss to Lukas Lacko — a match that went to 12-10 in the fifth.
And, yes, he can remember every failed match point. “Old age” in tennis comes a lot faster on the Challenger tour, where most of the players are in their early 20s, and it’s not out of line to ask how much longer will Michael hang on.
“For me, it’s year to year,” he says. “At the end of the year I’ll see where I am.” Probably not as high in the rankings as he is right now. He’s got significant points coming off this summer. But he also sees the possibility of an extended career as a doubles-only guy.
Home? The road, though he spends much of his training time in Austin, Texas, where it’s easy to find coaches and players.
There are hundreds of Yanis out there, from virtually every country that has professional tennis players, and they’re all just as obscure — except, of course, to each other. Some give it just a few years and, faced with an inability to earn more than $30,000 a year and with heavy travel expenses and a realization that they’re not going become a fixture on the regular ATP tour, they’re in and out of the game by 25 or 26.
But there are also a few Michael Yanis, who have a college degree on which to fall back, who play into their 30s, for no other reason than it’s fun and the camaraderie is pretty good.
And, oh yes. The possibility of one day coming out of the tunnel at the Arthur Ashe Stadium to play one of those guys.
Charles Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org