“It’s a big moment for you…. ,” said the pre-match television interviewer stationed outside the locker room. “But I think you like the big stages.”
“Yeah,” the Italian player with the Mona Lisa smile responded, adding in endearingly halting English, “I am exciting.”
With that, little-known Camila Giorgi, a 21-year-old who could pass for 14, walked through the tunnel and onto the court at New York City’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, tennis’s largest venue both physically and metaphorically. In diminishing twilight on this Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Giorgi was greeted by indifferent if polite applause from the 20,000 or so fans in the stands.
The bona fide ovation came when Giorgi’s opponent appeared. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, the former top-ranked player and current fiancée of Rory McIlroy, would be on the other side of the net for this third-round match at the 2013 U.S. Open.
Though Giorgi was ranked so modestly that she’d had to qualify to get into the main draw, she was, as the TV interviewer had predicted, hardly cowed. Striking the ball uninhibitedly, taking chances and showing off a whimsical, versatile game, she hung with Wozniacki for more than two hours. As her father, Sergio, pumped his fists in the stands, and his spectacular head of Einstein hair — the subject of innumerable cutaways in the TV coverage — shook in the night breeze, Camila pushed the match to a third set.
By then the winsome journeywoman had won over the crowd. Punching above her weight class (generously listed at 5-foot-6 and 119 pounds, she was still giving up four inches to her opponent), Giorgi dictated points and pasted 46 winners to Wozniacki’s 13. She closed out the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, winning what Robert Lansdorp, the renowned coach, would judge “the most surprising match” of the women’s draw.
By reaching the fourth round, Giorgi boosted her ranking to No. 79 and was guaranteed $162,190, the biggest payday of her career. After match point against Wozniacki, as Sergio did a tarantella in the stands, Camila stood beaming on the court. “Hey there, Giorgi girl!” the courtside interviewer gushed. When Giorgi responded to questions with staccato answers that revealed her shaky grasp of English, it only expanded her constituency of admirers. She left to a standing ovation.
As breakthroughs go, you could do worse. Giorgi celebrated with her father outside the locker room. Meanwhile, a chortle of aggrieved investors, from the United States to Tel Aviv, had the same thought: Maybe now I’ll finally get my money back.
The great myth about tennis: It’s a country-club sport, province of the wealthy and privileged. The reality: You can find a decent racket for $150 that will last years. A can of balls costs $3, slightly more than it did in the 1980s. And there are abundant public courts worldwide.
The prohibitive expense comes from trying to make it as a professional. The USTA recently estimated that the annual expenses of a fledgling pro, including coaching, equipment and travel, total roughly $143,000. Most players in the WTA and ATP computer rankings are members of the tours’ working poor. While a star like Wozniacki earns tens of millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements and has residences all over the world, Giorgi’s life is entirely different. She flies coach. She buys her own sneakers. Yes, she’s played Wimbledon, but she’s also played low-level events in Albuquerque, Charlottesville (Va.) and Clearwater (Fla.). In the last of those her run to the quarterfinals earned her a check for $686.
In part, this is a story of the financial strains under which so many players operate. Camila was introduced to tennis at age five, when Sergio took her to a club in Italy. Her talent was glaringly obvious, and by age eight she had caught the eye of agents, including Max Eisenbud of IMG, who represents Maria Sharapova. But when Camila turned pro at 14, her parents faced a dilemma: With three other kids at home, where would they find the resources to help incubate Camila’s career? Camila and Sergio, a native of Argentina who had been a soccer player of some distinction, often traveled together and found ways to economize. For instance, taking an overnight train to tournaments in Europe meant saving the cost of a night’s lodging. Even so, their finances were tight.
In early 2010, just after Camila turned 18, the family received an intriguing offer. Sandy Mittleman, a longtime pro at various tennis facilities, including Nick Bollettieri’s Florida academy, was working at an athletic club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. Mittleman was tasked with increasing the club’s international business. Taking a leaf from the Bollettieri playbook, he looked for a promising potential pro to sponsor. It would be a loss leader of sorts: Mittleman would pay for the player’s training, and his or her future success as a pro would generate interest in the facility.
Mittleman tooled around on YouTube and was struck by an Italian girl, modest in physique but endowed with considerable power: Camila Giorgi. Through Facebook, he contacted Camila, who put him in touch with Sergio. Mittleman arranged for the Giorgis to fly to Massachusetts. “I spent an hour with her on the court, because I wanted to feel her game for myself,” says Mittleman. “I knew right away that this girl could be a top 10 player.”
According to Mittleman, he and Sergio Giorgi seized on a better idea: They would find private sponsors to invest in Camila’s career. While the terms of these relationships vary, they are fairly common in tennis, particularly among players of modest means. A benefactor, not unlike the owner of shares in a racehorse, fronts the money for training and travel in exchange for a cut of future earnings.
(Neither Sergio nor Camila Giorgi responded to SI’s repeated requests for comment about this story via email, Facebook and the WTA Tour.)
It’s a business relationship, but there’s often an element of noblesse oblige. Mittleman connected the Giorgis to a wealthy Connecticut couple who were excited to help a young player. (Under the contract, the couple’s identities cannot be revealed, Mittleman says.) The couple would pay two years’ worth of Camila’s expenses in exchange for a percentage of her prize money. The Giorgis moved to Connecticut to be closer to the family. Mittleman went as well, quitting his club job to work solely with Camila.
Soon there were problems. Reasoning that their funding was making the operation go, the sponsors took a hands-on role in decisionmaking. Mittleman says he was forced out. “I went from two jobs to no job,” he says. Then the Giorgis moved to Florida to take advantage of the climate and better competition.
But money from their private sponsor dried up. Sergio and Camila were not shy about publicizing their need for funding. Appearing on the July 27, 2011 broadcast of Help Me Howard, a news segment on the Miami Fox TV affiliate, WSVN, the Giorgis told their story to a sympathetic reporter. “You were depending on your sponsors to pay everything?” the reporter asked.
“I want to play tournaments and keep going,” Camila said.
Howard Finkelstein, public defender for Broward County, said, “I read the document. It’s not a binding contract. The bad news: Camila can’t force the sponsor to continue to pay. The good news: She can go with a new sponsor if she can find one.”
By then the Giorgis had found more than one.
By the spring of 2011, Mittleman had reconnected with the Giorgis. He had moved to Houston, where he was coaching the sons of a wealthy doctor. Camila was now in the top 200 of the WTA rankings, but there was a problem. She hoped to play Wimbledon but needed airfare. Could Mittleman help?
Mittleman couldn’t, but the mother of the boys Mittleman was coaching was happy to assist. Mendy Wiggins opened her iPad and bought tickets to London for Camila and Sergio on Continental Airlines. “It was going to be her first trip to Wimbledon, so I was happy to help,” says Wiggins. “But I expected to be paid back.”
Giorgi qualified for the main draw, and though she lost in the first round, she earned $18,400. “I didn’t even get a thank-you note,” says Wiggins. “That bothered me.”
Around the same time, the Giorgis came into contact with Eran Gadot, an author and Internet entrepreneur based in Tel Aviv. Gadot met Sergio Giorgi through Facebook a little over a month before Wimbledon 2011. The two discussed tennis, and Sergio talked about his daughter, who was eligible to play Wimbledon but lacked funds and was looking for a private sponsor. Gadot flew to Wimbledon and met the Giorgis at the tournament. Mittleman was there, too. As a guest of a player, Gadot was allowed the equivalent of backstage access, meeting top pros and walking through the players’ lounge. In his week with the Giorgis, Gadot says, he picked up most of their expenses and gave Sergio about 5,000 pounds in cash. He also tried to discuss a long-term sponsorship of Camila. Nothing came of it, and Gadot says Sergio said he would pay him back but never did. “It’s sports,” he says nonchalantly. “Sometimes you win and sometimes not.”
Four months later, in November 2011, Giorgi played a low-level women’s event in Phoenix. A local pro, Alex Ramirez, attended the tournament. Ramirez’s academy, ProTenn International, was looking to do some work on the management side. “All these players need money,” Ramirez says. “Sometimes it’s $1,000 to get them to the next tournament. Other times it’s more. But I wanted to connect a player with a sponsor and help make sure it was a match. Is the player surrounded by the right team? Is it the right situation?”
Ramirez knew Mittleman, who encouraged him to meet with the Giorgis. Ramirez watched Camila play and liked what he saw: a hardworking player with a taste for battle. When he spoke to Sergio, he heard a story of dire financial straits. “It was,” Ramirez recalls, ” ‘We don’t have any money. We’re struggling. We might get evicted.’ “
Ramirez agreed to help the Giorgis find a long-term private sponsor who would front Camila as much as $350,000 for a long-lasting stake in her career. Camila promised to reimburse Ramirez for all expenses incurred once she landed a “professional tennis contract”, according to a contract reviewed by SI. Meanwhile Ramirez rounded up two friends, pooled some money and drew up a promissory agreement that Sergio signed. Then he loaned the Giorgis $15,000 at no interest. According to the signed contract, the loan was payable in three to six installments within 180 days. “It was just to be nice,” says Ramirez. “It was so they could pay their bills, eat, and Camila could keep playing.”
Ramirez says that with Mittleman’s help — and after spending $5,000 out of pocket on travel and legal fees — he located an investor in Florida willing to take an equity stake in Camila’s career. But this was no sugar daddy. The terms were aggressive. The investor would put $350,000 in an escrow account. For the next five years Camila would pay the investor 50 percent of her prize money and endorsement earnings. Once she hit $2 million, the fee would be reduced to 30 percent. At the last minute Sergio rejected the offer. “I’m not into signing big contracts,” he said, according to Ramirez. “She’ll make it on her own.”
Which was fine by Ramirez. But now he wanted his $15,000 loan repaid, as well as the $5,000 he spent to line up the potential sponsor. “In good faith I wanted them to pay me back,” Ramirez says, “even if it was, like, $1,000 a month.” Suddenly the Giorgis were unreachable. Ramirez says texts, emails and calls went unreturned.
When Camila circled back through Arizona in November 2012 to play the Phoenix event, Ramirez says he confronted the Giorgis in person. “Sergio couldn’t have been more charming,” he says. ” ‘I miss you, let’s talk. I got screwed over on another deal, but I want to make this right.’ ” Then Camila lost her next match and the Giorgis split. Ramirez says he hasn’t heard from them since.
Dominic Owen, a well-regarded tennis pro at the Harbour Island Athletic Club & Spa in Tampa, works with a handful of tour players. In February 2012 Owen got a call from two acquaintances. They had just attended a lower-level professional tournament and were awestruck by one of the players in the draw. “We saw this girl who is unbelievable,” they said. “You gotta take a look at her.”
Later Owen saw Camila at his club. He was impressed enough to introduce himself to her and strike up a conversation. She was divinely talented, but he soon realized that there were two impediments. One was a hyperattentive father, a familiar fauna in the wilderness of women’s tennis. The other was a lack of funds. Giorgi and her father claimed they were behind on the rent of their Florida apartment and facing eviction.
Owen spent two hours on the court with Camila, performed some video analysis of her strokes and came away a believer. “She was like a wild racehorse,” he says. “She had all this talent, but not real refined. A few tweaks here and there could make all the difference.”
Owen agreed to work with Camila informally, and he and Sergio talked about making an investment in her. According to Owen, Sergio asked for $300,000 up front in exchange for a share of Camila’s winnings over the next three to five years. Instead, Owen signed a contact with Camila (and two guarantors) on Feb. 24, 2012, in which he provided $10,000 for travel costs. In return, Camila agreed to pay ITA Sports, which Owen owns, a $12,000 management fee on or before March 31, 2012. Owen says, “It was, ‘Here, pay your three months of back rent, and I want you to be able to eat. Get back on your feet and then pay me [my fee].’ “
The following week Giorgi withdrew from a tournament after a deadline. Owen says he covered the fine. The week after that Owen accompanied Camila to a WTA tournament in Memphis. In the round of 32 she beat Nadia Petrova, who once rose to No. 3. Then, in a pattern that has defined much of her career, Giorgi lost intensity and fell to an inferior player. Still, it was a successful outing, and Owen figured that with the Memphis prize money ($3,100), Giorgi would start to chip away at her debt. “She was doing well, the March 31 deadline to get paid comes, and everyone disappeared,” he says.
In May 2012, after a frustrating few weeks of unreturned texts and calls to Sergio, Owen retained a lawyer in Florida and filed a civil suit against the Camila and two guarantors for breach of contract. For maximum effect, at Owen’s behest, a process server handed Camila a subpoena just before she took the court at a small event in Indian Harbour, Fla. She lost the match. “I was flexible,” Owen says. “Pay me back $1,000 a month or whatever. Just do the right thing ethically.” Still, he has received no payment.
By then the Giorgis had yet another benefactor. Todd Andrews, a longtime teaching pro in Florida, had recently moved to Alabama and had worked at a low-level event in the town of Dothan in April 2012. Camila, then ranked No. 147 in the world, won the tournament and $7,315 in prize money. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Andrews amiably told Sergio, “Go give your daughter a hug!”
Andrews’s teenage daughter, Payton, was one of the top juniors in Alabama, and he figured it would be fun and perhaps inspirational if she met Camila. So he invited the Giorgis to join his family for a celebratory meal. The Giorgis accepted, and before dinner Sergio spoke of the financial strain they were under. “Maybe,” he told Andrews, “you know people who could loan us some money?”
Andrews was happy to help. He rounded up a group of local businessmen that included the mayor of Dothan and the president of the Dothan Chamber of Commerce. The group would take care of the Giorgis’ plane tickets from Miami to Paris for the upcoming WTA circuit swing through Europe. Andrews and his wife would travel with them and, on the group’s behalf, pick up the tab for everything from hotels to racket stringing to grass-court shoes for Wimbledon. They all signed a contract under which the Giorgis would repay the outlay within a year. “It was just a way to help a young athlete reach her potential. We wanted to see her succeed,” says Andrews.
For seven weeks, Andrews says, he accompanied Sergio and Camila to tournaments. She lost in the qualifying draw of the French Open, but after adapting to grass she brought her versatile game to bear at Wimbledon. After winning three matches to qualify for the main draw, she beat Flavia Pennetta of Italy, the 16th seed, in the first round. She then beat two more players before losing to No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, who would reach the final and lose to Serena Williams. Giorgi’s Wimbledon prize money: $116,527. Andrews says that by this point he and the Alabama sponsors had laid out more than $27,000 in expenses. Andrews recalls thinking, You know, you gotta pay us back. And you just won more than $100,000. Finally he told Sergio, “Now remember, you owe us!”
“Yeah, I know,” he recalls Sergio responding. “We’ll have it soon.”
Andrews drove the Giorgis to Heathrow Airport and dropped them off. No sooner had they said their goodbyes, Andrews says Camila came running back. They had to pay extra-baggage fees to check in their luggage, and they needed another 400 pounds.
Andrews went back to Wimbledon, where his guest badge enabled him to hang out in the players’ lounge and have lunch on the 4th of July with Richard Williams. But he says he went months without hearing from the Giorgis. Though Camila has won more than $500,000 since her agreement with the Alabama sponsors (she has won $668,482 in her career), they say they still haven’t received a dime from her.
As a last-ditch effort Andrews called Sergio on New Year’s Day, 2013. He was going to bring up the indelicate topic of finances but says Sergio beat him to it. “We need more money,” he recalls Sergio saying. Andrews explained that the investors needed their loan repaid. Andrews then suggested that it might help if Camila honored the contract and promoted the Dothan tournament in a video — I’m the defending champion. I won this tournament, and it’s great.
“Why should we do the commercial if you don’t give me more money?” Andrews recalls Sergio saying.
“Because you have to fulfill the agreement, Sergio,” Andrews replied.
According to Andrews, they agreed that Camila would film the video in Florida, where the Giorgis were living. A producer arrived at the appointed time. The Giorgis never showed up.
Andrews says he consulted a lawyer to look into having Camila’s earnings garnished the next time she played in the U.S. “I know it’s tough out there,” says Andrews. “I still wish them the best, but you gotta pay your bills, you know.”
By January 2013 the Giorgis were living in Florida, and they showed up at a tennis academy owned by Pablo Arraya, a former pro from Peru and the first player to lose to Andre Agassi at a Grand Slam tournament. Like so many before him, Arraya was seduced when he watched Camila play. Arraya agreed to provide Giorgi with coaching, use of his facilities and “whatever else she needed to succeed.”
Arraya says Sergio vowed, “Whenever we can pay you back, we’ll do it.”
Arraya says he has yet to receive payment. And he’s OK with that. “I’m not dramatic about money,” he says. “Maybe she can do a fair exchange, come back [to the academy] and do a clinic for the kids or something.” Arraya says he enjoyed working with Camila: “I really like her as a player but also as a person. She is really adorable, and I’m happy to see her doing well.”
He is less complimentary about Sergio. “He’s rough,” says Arraya. “When you write about them, make it 99 percent his fault.”
Owen sees it differently. “They ripped me off the way they ripped off all these other people and figured it would go away,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s the dad.’ But she’s 22 years old.”
A few days before Giorgi beat Wozniacki at the 2013 U.S. Open, the signature win of her young career, Owen appeared in a Hillsborough County, Fla., courtroom. Later Judge Jennifer X. Gabbard entered a judgment in his breach-of-contract lawsuit against Giorgi. Between interest and attorneys’ fees, Owen reckons that she now owes him close to $30,000.
Mittleman still takes pride in having spotted Giorgi’s potential and bringing her to the U.S. in 2010, but he feels no small amount of guilt. “So many people feel like they were scammed,” he says, “and in some cases — not all — I introduced them [to the Giorgis].”
Camila is ranked No. 97, high enough to gain automatic entry into Grand Slam singles events, such as the 2014 Australian Open next week, where she will play Australian Storm Sanders in the first round. But during the tennis season’s hiatus before the new year, Where are the Giorgis? was the big question among their various investors, many of whom have connected and compared notes: They moved back to Europe. No, wait, they’re still in South Florida. No, they’re trying to get Israeli citizenship.
Tennis players, like most individual-sport athletes, are independent contractors, free (for the most part) to make their own deals. The WTA lacks the authority to enforce private contracts between players and benefactors. A source at the women’s tour, though, heard that Camila is now back in her motherland, playing for the Italian Tennis Federation.
“It’s one of those deals where they take care of all the expenses,” the source says. “It won’t cost her a cent.”