New Zealand's Marcus Daniell is giving back to the game

New Zealand's Marcus Daniell is giving back to the game

Daniell founded a non-profit organization called High Impact Athletes which was officially launched on November 30.

Tennis players live largely in a land of self-preservation, practicing their craft as strict individualists, thinking almost exclusively about their self needs. In their workplace, disciplined athletes with single-minded aims, uncluttered vision and utter devotion to personal goals set the pace. Those who do not keep their focus almost entirely on themselves can get lost in the shuffle.

Yet there are players who set themselves apart with aims and aspirations that transcend tennis.

Enter Marcus Daniell. This 31-year-old from New Zealand is the No. 45 doubles player in the world. He has been ranked as high as No. 34. He has taken five career doubles ATP titles with four different partners. Alongside his current partner Philipp Oswald, Daniell is poised to do his finest work over the next couple of years. Since 2015, he has not played singles, dedicating himself to making a living with a partner solely as a doubles player. In 2020, he made $74,607 in prize money. His career prize money is $886,970. He works hard as a player.

But the enterprising Daniell is currently pursuing a cause larger than himself or his doubles game. He founded a non-profit organization called High Impact Athletes which was officially launched on November 30. The mission of HIA is “to create a groundswell of positive impact in the world, driven by the generosity and social influence of successful athletes.”

HIA zeroes in on two chief areas: Extreme Poverty and Environmental Impact. They seek out charities that are totally transparent so that athletes can know fully where their donations are going. Conceptually, Daniell knew his priorities and recognized the challenges of creating a non-profit.

Beginning in  2015, Daniell started donating a percentage of his annual prize money to charities. As he recalls, “I have donated each year since then between 5% ad 10% of my income to effective organizations. I make a pledge at the beginning of the year and then at the end of the year I think about pushing for more than that. 2015 was the first year in my career where I wasn’t scared of losing money at the end of the year.”

Marcus Daniell- Getty Images

He pauses, and then adds, “In 2013 I was still having to ask my parents to help me out and in 2014 I had maybe a break even year with my doubles results. But I had this huge feeling of wanting to give something back in some way. I think I was always a giver in some sense. Everyone on the tennis tour is incredibly lucky. Anyone like me born in a western country has a huge leg up in life.”

Back in March when the pandemic was first ravaging the world, Daniell was in New Zealand playing Davis Cup. His American wife Caroline—then his girlfriend— was working in New York but joined her family in Connecticut when someone at her law firm contracted Covid. Daniell realized the pandemic might prevent him from being with Caroline for a long time. He got back to the U.S. swiftly.

As he recollects, “With no tournaments being played, that basically meant I was sitting on my ass for a long time with a lot of spare time on my hands.”

Daniell remembers that period vividly. The ATP joined forces with an online learning platform that was offering a course conducted by renowned philosopher Peter Singer, a man Daniell admires immensely. He accessed the Singer course focussing on Effective Altruism and effective giving, territory that Daniell already knew well. He then spoke to people he knew in the Effective Altruism world.

He says, “ That was the conception of High Impact Athletes. The idea is there are charities that are literally a thousand times more impactful than others. It is where we donate that matters. So I thought I might be able to make a difference with that and not just with the wealth of professional athletes but the exposure they have with the millions of people in their audiences. I felt if I could get those ideas to the wider tennis audience and wider sporting audience, that could have untold amounts of positive impact on the world. That was when I landed on High Impact Athletes in June of this year.”

Daniell has used his time intelligently in pursuing fellow players. HIA has only been public for three weeks but he is off and running.

“I am lucky,” he says, “because I am a current professional athlete and I have been doing this donating for five or six years. So I can approach other professional athletes from a a position of equality and tell them why why it matters. I say, ‘Why don’t you join me? That is very different from saying, ‘Hey, I think you should do this.’ It is a shocking idea for most people to say at the start of the year, ‘I am going to give x amount of my income this year to charity.’ But they can see how much passion I have and get a visceral sense of what I am talking about and the impact it can make.”

One of his major selling points to other players is the authenticity of HIA. As Daniell points out, “All of the charities on HIA have been vetted by [reputable] organizations like GiveWell. That sets HIA apart from other organizations. HIA does not take any commission for anything. If someone donates through HIA, 100% of the donation goes straight to the charity where it can do the most good. That should always be the norm in nonprofits.”

He continues, “When I have gone and spoken to guys like Stef Tsitsipas, Kevin Anderson and Milos Raonic—the biggest names I have on board as well as Danny Nestor on the doubles side and others— they are astounded by how transparent things are and the amount of impact each dollar can make through these charities. That is what moves them.”

In the near future, Daniell hopes to expand his roster of athletes and heighten awareness of HIA. He explains, “I want to give HIA credibility in the charity world and use that credibility to spread it out into the entire sporting world. It makes sense to focus on the most lucrative sports to begin with like football in Europe and South America, and the American team sports for the main part.

“I really hope by the end of 2021 HIA will have moved a million dollars to the most effective charities in the world. If I can get guys like Tsitsipas and other big names in sport to pledge to effective organizations, then my hope is that those are the first dominos that topple and the rest will follow.”

He is undoubtedly correct in that conjecture. But while he is immersed the future of HIA, Daniell needs to keep his pursuits as a doubles player uppermost in his mind as well. He is well aware of the complexity of balancing his on court endeavors with what he is trying to accomplish with HIA, which is enormously time consuming.

“That’s absolutely true,” he attests. “I have underestimated how much of my time and energy it would take with HIA. I have found these last four weeks that almost every minute I am not in the gym or on the tennis court, I have been working on HIA. It has absolutely been worth every minute of it. But I do think going forward I am going to need help with HIA. In the pipeline are two unpaid interns who are going to start helping me out. The Effective Altruism community effect is the most generous I have ever come across. They are enthusiastic and they really want good things to happen. No one sees anyone else as competition. Everyone just wants everyone to succeed.”

Daniell and partner Philipp Oswald captured the Sardegna 250 ATP title in 2020. (Getty Images)

Following up on that theme, Daniell says, “If I can get the help I think I am going to need, I could still spend 15 to 20 hours a week on HIA doing outreach. That is something I think I can do symbiotically with my tennis career since I will be in the players lounges and on the road with some of the people I want to develop relationships with.”

Time is of the essence. Daniell projects, “I think I have only four to five years left in my tennis career before I want to do something different. I have loosely made the 2024 Olympics my final year in my mind. That means I have got a ticking clock. I really want to get the most out of the next three or four years that I can. I honestly believe I haven’t come close to my potential on a doubles court in terms of titles or rankings. I am also doing a masters in philosophy online at the moment so it is a tricky juggling act.”

Indeed it is. But 2020 was one of his best seasons ever. He captured his fifth career ATP Tour doubles title with Oswald in Sardinia, Italy, taking that 250 event in October by ousting the top seeded team of Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah in the final.

Daniell understands his assets as a doubles player.

“I play on the ad side,” he says, “I think my biggest strength as a doubles player is my net play—volleys and anticipation and pressure at the net. I also have a good attitude regardless of the score, which I think is even more of a weapon in doubles.”

Looking back on his career, Daniell remembers a crucial turning point when he was 14.

He says, “Tennis back then was my summer sport and soccer was my main winter sport. I actually got to the stage where I was in the New Zealand squad for both. The New Zealand Soccer Federation got in touch with me and said if I wanted to stay on the squad I would have to train year round. That forced a decision on me. I chose tennis.”

That is a choice Daniell is happy he made. But he regrets moving from his native New Zealand to train in Slovakia at 17.

He explains, “It was a huge mistake. I had offers from colleges in the U.S. but I thought if I went to an American college I would just start partying and forget about tennis, but my generation of players proves that completely wrong with the Steve Johnson’s and the like. If I could do it over again, I would let my body mature and go to college in the U.S.”

Injuries were one of the main reasons Daniell’s singles career never worked out and that is why he stopped more than five years ago. His best ranking playing solo was No. 500. His litany of injuries was endless— shoulder, hip, knees, back, hip, you name it. “I did a DNA test,” he says, “and I have terrible soft tissue. I am still trying to figure it out but doubles is a lot softer on the body.”

He has been ranked frequently among the top 50 in doubles since 2015 and, since early in that season, has not been outside the top 100. Now he expects to play with Oswald for an extended period and climb higher.

“I have always been of the opinion,” he says, “that a team should stick together but unfortunately that is not the prevailing attitude in the doubles world. People seem to switch partners really frequently and that really bothers me. It bothers my partner as well so when we connected it was a sigh of relief for both of us knowing we were really making a long term commitment.”

Elaborating on why many partnerships do not last, he says, “I think it is a little bit of ego and a bit of insecurity. Too many people are looking for the quick leg up, especially those between say 30 and 70 in the rankings. Everyone is looking for that flash in the pan that is going to jump them into the top 20 because it is easier staying there then getting there. So some people bounce around and try to get that shortcut. As far as the ego part of it, every doubles player has played singles at some stage so they have spent at least part of their career being extremely self-centered. If people aren’t honest with themselves it is super easy to blame your partner for losing matches.”

Marcus Daniell is not a self-centered individual. He is an honorable young man who cares deeply about not simply the tennis world but the world at large.

As he says, “I really don’t think of myself as extraordinarily generous. I have learned to be very careful with my money. I don’t give it away or spend it lightly. I just think doing donating to charities and now establishing HIA is the right thing to do. I don’t think it is overly generous.”

Those who know him well might beg to differ.