On the Edge of the Spotlight

The Odyssey of Marco Trungelliti

¿Se necesita algo más que una familia, una raqueta y un buen café para ser feliz?

Marco Trungelliti is disappointed.

He slumps on the bench on Court 14 and stretches his aching legs. He stares at the ground for a few moments and catches his breath. He looks down at his feet—his shoes and socks brick-red with clay. He picks up his racquets, empty water bottles, and soaking towels, and methodically arranges them in his bag.

Every year, for two weeks, 128 players from each men’s and women’s tour kick up the iconic red surface into clouds of dust at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris—home of the French Open, the second Slam tournament of the year, and the most prestigious clay tournament in the tennis calendar—as they compete for the highest prize and a seat at the table of the tennis elite.

Every player ranked between 1 and 104 earns a direct entry into the tournament. The next 128 players with the highest ranking are given a chance to compete for a spot in the main draw through a mini qualifying tournament consisting of three rounds. Marco Trungelliti’s shot at the glory and prestige this year, however, is prematurely halted.

He had just finished his third round qualifying match, having lost to Hubert Hurkacz, a young Pole, who sits just one spot above Marco in the official rankings.

The defeat stings.

Professional tennis is an expensive sport to play. Depending on the size of a player’s entourage, 40 weeks of travel, hotels, meals, equipment, and coaching can add up to over £300,000 a year in expenses.

Approximately 50 million people around the world play tennis. Of those, 400 or so make enough money to consider themselves professional players, and even within that group, the disparity of wealth is huge.

In 2019, the number one ranked player, Rafael Nadal, made over $16m in prize money and around $26m in endorsements (that same year, Roger Federer, one of the most-marketable players in the world brought in $100m from endorsements alone).

For comparison, Thomas Fabbiano, who finished the year ranked 100, made a little over $600,000 from tournaments. He likely had little to no endorsement deals.

Marco himself compares the situation to “a city with a population of 3,000 where only about 70 people live well”.

At the time of the 2018 French Open, Marco Trungelliti is ranked 199 in the world, and his annual earnings are in the range of $170,000. Had he won the last match of the qualifying round and reached the main tournament, he would have made a guaranteed $55,000 and consequentially been able to pay for the next few months of his tennis life.

On the periphery of the sport, a match of that magnitude can often spell the difference between life and death. For Marco, it wasn’t quite so.

But he is still disappointed.

“Does it take anything more than family, a racquet, and a good coffee to be happy?”

Marco doesn’t think so. His Instagram bio attempts to encompass his entire philosophy of life—and in his case, it feels genuine. With a mane of bushy locks serving the background to his cheerful, cherubic features, Marco is bursting with life. His curious eyes sparkle over a toothy grin that seems permanently attached to his face.

Born on the 31st January 1990 in Santiago del Estero in northern Argentina, Marco Trungelliti took up tennis at the age of 4, but it wasn’t until a year later that he took his first tennis lesson at Santiago Lawn Tennis Club—at the time the only tennis club in the city.

He earned his first ATP point at the age of 18 in the F5 Futures tournament in Villa del Dique, Argentina. After qualifying for the main draw, he defeated a fellow Argentinian player, Gaston Briano, in the first round of the tournament.

He still remembers it. Marco had always wanted to be a tennis player, and that win was an affirmation of his desire.

At 5'8, Marco is relatively short for a tennis player, but just as his compatriot Diego Schwartzman, what he lacks in stature, he makes up for in heart.

His game is consistent and uncomplicated. A typical baseliner, Trungelliti is solid off both wings and enjoys constructing points from behind the baseline. There are no fireworks to his game, but what he does, he does well and with a smile.

The way Marco plays tennis is the extension of the way he lives his life—with soul and heart. Off the court, he loves a good cup of coffee and a walk in the mountains.

After the match, Marco doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself. There is nothing else left for him in Paris. He showers, says his goodbyes to the Philippe Chatrier dressing room, and catches the next available flight home to Barcelona to wind down.

What may be surprising to non-tennis fans is that following his loss to Hurkacz, Marco’s chances of playing at the French Open, although slim to non-existent, are not technically over.

The Slam’s lucky loser system offers players that fall in the final round of qualifying an opportunity to replace the main draw participants who withdraw from the tournament before their first match.

As Marco is too far down the list to have a reasonable chance of making the cut, he decides it’s not worth sticking around and goes ahead with a planned holiday. Marco’s mum, grandma, and brother are visiting from Argentina and the idea is to rent a car and travel around Spain.

Meanwhile, as Marco and his family slip into the warm fuzziness of the holiday mode, 650 miles away in Paris, players start to drop out of the main draw of the 2018 French Open.

One of the main tenets of life promises an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. In the tennis world, this translates to playing matches.

Given the size of the prize money on offer from the earliest rounds in Slam tournaments, and the fact that a tennis player who doesn’t play doesn’t get paid, it was not uncommon for players to step out on court carrying a niggle or even an injury and hope for a swift and painless loss.

In 2017, the powers that be at the head of the Grand Slam board decided that it doesn’t make for a good show. They settled on the introduction of a new rule, in effect from the 2018 Australian Open, that would give already qualified players an opportunity to withdraw at a short notice, but still before the start of the tournament, and receive 50% of the first round’s prize money. The remaining 50% would go to the lucky loser replacing them.

The change worked: more lucky players got a helping hand out of the qualifiers, and the main draw competitors were still rewarded for earning a place in the main draw—often culminating years of hard work.

Whereas in the previous years, the first day of a Slam could sometimes resemble a battlefield, with players limping off the court and offering an apologetic wave to the disappointed crowd, now it was full of energy and fresh faces.

On Sunday morning, as the whole family prepares to go to the beach, Marco gets news from his coach. A number of players already withdrew from the French Open’s main draw.

While the sixth and seventh lucky losers already managed to get in—and had been given the unenviable task of facing ranked number 1 in the world Rafa Nadal and number 4 Grigor Dimitrov respectively—the eighth spot has also opened up, and it poses a significantly easier challenge: world’s number 206 Bernard Tomic whose dislike of clay is superseded only by his infamous dislike of giving a toss.

The spot should technically belong to Prajnesh Gunneswaran, but in a cruel twist of fate, Gunneswaran, who had never played in a Slam before, decided that he was too far down the pecking order on the lucky loser list, and went ahead to play a Challenger event in Vicenza where he consequently lost in the first match.

A first-round spot at the French Open 2018 is now up for grabs and it can be Marco’s. All he has to do is to make it to Paris on time.

With the clock ticking, Marco weighs his options. The French air traffic controllers are on strike, and with flight cancellations frequent and unexpected, he is not willing to take the risk.

The French rail workers are also protesting. This leaves a car journey the only viable option—a 650-mile road trip from Barcelona to Paris. Having grown up in Argentina, Marco is used to long car trips. It can definitely be done, he thinks.

“Grandma, get out of the shower,” he bellows, “we’re going to Paris.”

In June 2015, Marco Trungelliti was 25 and struggling to support his playing career. He had only competed in a handful of ATP matches, and played mainly in Challenger and Futures level competitions—the second and third-tier respectively of the tennis’s tournament ladder.

One day, when he was training at the Deportes Racionales club in Buenos Aires, Marco was contacted via Facebook by a person claiming they could get him a sponsorship deal.

Ranked around 270 in the world at the time, Marco saw this as a big opportunity. If you look for a common denominator in all derailed tennis careers, the most frequently quoted reason is a lack of funds. At that moment in Marco’s professional trajectory, a sponsorship deal could be his lifeline.

Trungelliti was due to travel to Europe to train with Joss Espasandin, a Swiss tennis ex-pat living in Buenos Aires, and to play for a Swiss tennis club Nyon in regional competitions.

He messaged his mysterious sponsor back saying that he would be happy to meet and discuss the opportunity but it has to happen soon.

The following day he travelled to a bar in Manuel Ugarte y Cabildo, a quiet and leafy neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. He sat down at a table and was met by two men, one of whom was the person who contacted him through Facebook. After initial chitchat, the man launched into a well-rehearsed monologue, the gist of which was this: trust is paramount, do not speak of this conversation to anyone.

The situation, sketchy as it was from the beginning, took a turn for borderline illegal. Deep in his heart, Marco had been wary of the meeting from the very beginning—it sounded too good to be true. Even so, desperate times, desperate measures, and all that. But what came next was still a shock.

The second man at the table, quiet until now, took charge of the conversation. He was confident and forceful in the way he spoke. His words left Marco with no doubt as to the nature of the “sponsorship” opportunity they were offering.

The men were match fixers. They wanted him to throw sets or even whole matches. Like a puppet on a string, he would lose when they told him to and win when they let him.

Marco sat quietly, his heart pounding, cold sweat dripping down his back, as the man casually explained his modus operandi.

Before a match they wanted him to lose, he would get a call from a burner phone. Never a text message. Never WhatsApp or Facebook. He would be informed of the desired outcome of the tie, and after the fact, a trusted person designated by Marco would receive an envelope with the payment.

Marco’s eyes grew big when he heard the sums they were willing to pay in order to fix the matches: between $2000 and $3000 for a Futures match, $5000 and $10,000 for a Challenger, and between $50,000 and $100,000 for an ATP match.

To say that this was a lot of money would be a vast understatement. For Marco, whose career winnings stood at around $150,000 after 8 years on the tour, this was an exorbitant amount of money. The man assured him that the whole operation is highly efficient. He gave him names of 8 players, from Argentina and elsewhere, that he was working with.

Marco went home brokenhearted. A few days later, he travelled to Nyon, Switzerland, and told Espasandin what happened.

The two mulled it over for a little while and decided that the best course of action is to alert the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU). With the help of Espasandin, who had a better command of English, Marco sent an email to the whistleblower inbox at the TIU.

Match fixing in tennis is rife. And while it is not a victimless crime by any measure, it thrives in the vacuum created by the financial imbalance of the system in place. Fixers seek out desperate players and offer them a way out.

It would have been easy for Marco to take the money. In all probability, it would have improved his life on tour. At the very least, he could have turned a blind eye and saved himself the headache of torrid two years, filled with interviews with TIU agents, and culminating in a trial where Trungelliti was asked to testify in front of the accused.

For a process that started with an email sent to a “confidentialTIU” inbox, a lot of it was done in the open. Marco did the right thing. Coming forward took courage and a real sense of right and wrong. He should have been applauded for what he did.

Instead, Marco was vilified and shunned by both fans and colleagues alike. They called him a rat and a snitch. His mental health suffered, and as a consequence, he had to seek professional help.

Instead of protecting him, the powers that be threw him in at the deep end, swim or drown, offering little to no support along the way. Just as the tennis pyramid was not interested in Marco as a player, the TIU was not interested in him as a person.

In 2016, Marco Trungelliti was again approached by a different group of match fixers. He reported them to the TIU.

With the bags still packed from the French Open, Marco and his brother Andre toss them into the car they had rented for the holiday. They pile in with their mum Susi and grandma Lela, and set off for Paris.

The 10-hour drive from Barcelona to Paris is an arduous undertaking, but not an uncommon choice amongst travellers.

Heading up, you have a few options. You can go via Toulouse through Dordogne with its stunning cave paintings in the Vézère, and the porcelainesque city of Limoges—passing through some of the prettiest villages in France. If you are willing to make a little detour, you can also swing by the châteaux of the Loire Valley.

Another option is to go through Beziers and cross the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world. Those with a sommelier’s heart will head up to Avignon, and further to the Rhône valley, one of the world’s most famous wine regions.

Marco is not thinking about any of that. For him, it’s a straight journey from point A to B.

With time being of the essence, it would be tempting to put the foot to the floor, but he knows it won’t make much of a difference. The spot opposite Tomic’s name will remain empty on the Monday playing schedule, and tomorrow it will be assigned to the highest-ranked player who lost the final qualifying round and signed in before the morning deadline.

It’s now 4 PM on Sunday and they’ve been travelling for about two hours. Marco enjoys the drive. The roads are fast and relatively safe—something not all that common in his native Argentina where the Highway Code is more of a suggestion than an actual rule.

They make short stops to grab coffee and stretch their legs, then switch at the wheel. In total Marco drives for about four hours, his brother Andre for six. Andre is in charge of the radio and mile after mile, they listen to folk, jazz, and Andre’s band of choice, Abuelos de la Nada.

Throughout the journey, Marco keeps in touch with his coach. Getting to Paris on time is only half the task at hand, and while simply showing up will net him 50% of the first round’s prize money, Tomic is a scalp to be had.

They discuss his strengths and weak points, the ways Marco can hurt him. They plan a warm-up session for the morning and talk over strategy.

About 80 miles from Paris, Mil Horas by Andrés Calamaro comes on the radio. The whole car bursts into song. It feels strangely symbolic.

Hace frío

Y estoy lejos de casa

Hace tiempo que estoy sentado sobre esta piedra

They make it to the hotel just after 11 PM. Marco goes straight to bed.

Four days after leaving Paris, Marco is back, this time on Court 9, with another shot at the French Open. In a slightly ironic twist, it’s his opponent who arrives five minutes late.

Marco greets the Australian with a nod and a cursory hello. They exchange groundstrokes, then spend a few minutes warming up their volleys, overheads, and serves.

Before the play starts, Marco sits down on the bench, resting his HEAD Prestige racquet next to him. He looks down at his shoes, socks still free of clay—a clean slate. As he takes a sip of water, his eyes wander through the full stands. He searches for his mum, grandma, and his brother. They smile and wave.

He can tell they’re nervous, and he is nervous, too, but no more nervous than he is normally before a match. He welcomes the anxiety, the familiar churning in his stomach. It means he wants it.

Marco takes another sip and stares at the red clay, the pristinely swept court, still and immaculate like the surface of a lake on a windless day.

The news of his journey travelled quickly—it has made rounds on Twitter and was even mentioned on mainstream media. The fans in attendance now feel a personal investment in the narrative. In their minds, they are here as much to watch as to participate in his story.

He closes his eyes and tunes out the noise, starts playing the match in his head. He sees himself racing around the court, leaving footsteps and slide marks—painting the clean surface with a real-time heatmap of his movements.

When the chair umpire calls time, Marco snaps back to reality and trots back onto the court.

They begin. From the start, they go toe to toe, trading body blows and testing each other’s games—looking for a chink in the armour.

Marco takes the first set 6:4 but then drops the second 5:7. No one said it would be easy. Marco knows this.

He shifts into another gear, and pushes himself even harder, the way he has done hundreds of times before. He silences the pain in his legs, forces every muscle and sinew to listen.

He takes the next set 6:4, and when he serves at 5:4 in the following and ends the match with a finely struck ace out wide to Tomic’s backhand, the crowd erupts. They see his success as a form of inevitable cosmic justice, a fairy tale ending to a fairy tale story.

The fact that they were here to witness it adds a layer of intimacy to the whole experience, like partaking in an elaborate but subdued flashmob. He, the wayworn hero, went on a perilous journey, faced obstacles, and now emerged victorious. This is the way all good stories are supposed to happen.

Marco doesn’t give it much thought. He is happy to have won. He is happy that the effort of driving down to Paris was not in vain. But most of all, he is happy that he played the match well, and got rid of the bitter taste of Thursday’s defeat.

He sits down in the post-match press room, tired but effervescent. Somebody tells him later there were about 110 journalists in the room. It’s not the type of attention he is accustomed to, but he takes it in stride, with a smile, like everything else in life.

“Are you going to sleep now?” somebody asks jokingly.

Marco beams, “I hope I can sleep for a day and a half.”