ERIC TAINO - Tennis Player
And they say tennis is just for the rich
By Darren Rovell
NEW YORK -- The gems of the early-round U.S. Open matches aren't normally found on the two stadium courts and the grandstand. Instead, the great stories are sprinkled among the outer courts, where players like Eric Taino play.
The tale of the New Jersey native fits the mold of the now well-known plot: Junior champion, in mid-20's finally finds spotlight, years after No. 1 childhood ranking put him on the map.
Taino, ranked No. 163 in singles before he placed himself in the main draw by becoming one of 16 male qualifiers, was one of only 20 Americans in the 128-player bracket. Qualifiers ranged from David Nalbandian, ranked No. 80 in the world, to No. 301 Mike Bryan, who makes the majority of his money with his brother Bob as a highly ranked doubles team.
Although Taino lost a four-setter Monday night to the No. 22 seed Andrei Pavel, the mere fact the two-time All-American was playing in his first Grand Slam singles match in his four-year professional career proves he belongs on the tour.
There was a time when that was in question as the road to Flushing Meadows has been anything but a speedy limousine ride from Jersey City.
Taino turned pro in 1997 and for the first 1½ years on tour, the kid who says he loves food could only afford $5 meals. With few winnings, he said would have to quit if his 1997 year-end singles ranking didn't dramatically improve from No. 771.
"I lost a qualifying singles and first round doubles match in a challengers tournament in Italy in 1998," Taino said. "And I had to pay for everything from the plane flight to the laundry to the meals. So they tell me when I finish that I won $44. I'm like, 'Can I have that now?' And they said, 'Oh no, we'll send you the check.' "
By the end of 1999, his singles ranking reached No. 447. "But if I didn't have that win in a doubles tournament in Singapore at the end of the year, I probably would have been in the red again," he said. The victory was worth about $25,000, Taino said, which is still his biggest payday. If Taino bows out in the first round of U.S. Open doubles draw, as he has in each of his three previous appearances, his U.S. Open winnings will be $20,000.
After winning the U.S. Open junior doubles title in 1992, Taino was off to UCLA. And although he played all four years with the Bruins, he now feels he should have left early.
"I'm 26 now, which is pretty much middle age, tennis-wise," Taino said. "I'm fresh mentally, but another two years of experience on tour would have done me some good."
Financially, Phil Taino, Eric's father who works as a medical technologist in a New Jersey hospital, wasn't ready to support Eric, after completing payments on sister Eizelle's education at Columbia University. It was time for Taino to go after his junior year, but UCLA coach Billy Martin, who already lost Justin Gimelstob to the professional ranks, talked Taino into staying.
"He said that if Eric stayed for his senior year, he'd help (him) get sponsors," Phil Taino said. "And then the sponsors never came."
Taino still doesn't get paid to wear companies' logos, but he does get free clothes, which would explain why he was wearing shorts that could double as a bathing suit for Monday's match.
"When you are a junior, you have no problem getting sponsors and in college you have your school's deal, but it's tough when you are on your own," Taino said. "Quiksilver gave me shirts, shorts and socks, but their last shipment came in March, since they are ditching tennis for skating and golf now. I pretty much had to beg for my Wilson racquets and shoes.
"Some Thai players have Thai Airlines and some Japanese players have ANA, maybe I could get Continental," said Taino, who is Filipino. "But right now, I'd honestly take anything."
At least his check from the U.S. Open will go a long way, since Taino still lives at home, doesn't have his own car, doesn't pay his hitting partner and doesn't have an agent.
He said he'll be making money for the third straight year in 2001, as a career high doubles ranking of No. 52 helped him earn $90,166 last year. At times it's tough, like when he earned a combined $1,920 this year during a three-week period from late February to early March in tournaments in Vietnam, Singapore and Japan.
But when he steps on the court, he said he tries not to think about finances.
"I'm pretty good at leaving that behind," Taino said. "It's always in the back of your mind, but I try not to look at the points in the match and the rest of the draw and at the end of the tournament, I try not to say, 'If I would have won that match it would have been double the money.' "
For Taino, the matches are becoming less about the paycheck. And that's a good thing.
on that note... Can we help this guy??? Any companies from the Philippines willing to sponsor him? I dunno... the thought just entered my mind. He is Filipino after all.