•The ITF Transition Tour/ATP Challenger Tour- The real impact of the proposed changes on players, tournament organisers and national associations•
I have recently received the most up to date information on the ITF Transition Tour and the recent announcements by the ATP about the Challenger Tour and their decision to increase the prizemoney and to make the draws 48 instead of 32.
I have to admit that it was not easy for me to get my head around it all and I have worked in international tennis for 25 years. So, I am not sure how the players, coaches on the tour and tournament organisers will fair! I am very supportive to the objectives of the ATP tour to try to increase the number of players making money or breaking even on the tour and at first glance, the way it has been positioned by the ITF and the ATP makes it seem extremely positive. However, on deeper investigation, I see some challenges ahead in the roll out. I know that the players and coaches on the tour are still a bit lost about the implications of the changes but I am also pretty sure that the tournament organisers, most of whom are linked to National Federations, are only now beginning to realise the implications of these changes for them.
I wrote an article in February this year (see below) and have already outlined in detail some suggestions at the entry level professional tour for 3 Regional tours (Pan America, Euro Africa and Asia Pacific) instead of a global tour and a proposal to have 16 draw, 4 day events, instead of 32 draw tournaments. I proposed an obvious way to triple the prizemoney at the $15,000 level for the best players while reducing the costs of the players and all without adding extra costs to the host nations. And the number of ranked players would have been reduced by 50%. I also suggested that the global rating system,UTR, could be used in the future to ensure that all results involving high performance players, including US collegiate results, could be included in the ranking system used to accept players into professional tennis events.
I will not focus on the practical proposals outlined previously in this article other than to say that, in my opinion, there is a better way for the entry level professional tour to be structured than the proposed ITF Transition Tour.
Let me try to summarise the announcements made over the past week by ITF and ATP related to Transition Tour and ATP Challengers:
•All ATP Challengers will offer full hospitality and will have 48 in the main draw instead of 32 players.
•The tournament organisers at Challengers will be required to provide full hospitality for all 48 players instead of 32 players. It will not be possible to organise Challenger level events without providing full hospitality for the event. In 2019 the organisers will get a grant of $2,000 from the ATP tour towards these costs.
•The previous 16 draw qualifying will now become a 4 draw qualifying for two qualifying spot in the main draw. The qualifying will comprise 3 players coming from ITF transition tour and one will be a wild card from the host country. It appears that the main reason for this small qualifying event is that the tournament organisers need to have lucky losers on site to fill any vacancies in the draw through late withdrawals.
•The ITF has announced that there will be 4 places for the ITF ranked players coming from the transition tour in the main draw of the ATP Challengers and the 3 places in the “4 player” qualifying and have positioned this as a breakthrough and a successful outcome of their negotiations with the ATP re the player pathway to professional tennis.
A lot to absorb!
So, what are the implications of the changes for players and tournament organisers?
Over the past days I have spoken extensively with some tournament organisers, coaches, players and federation officials and I now have a few observations:
•The main change announced by the ATP is that the qualifying of 16 players that existed before in Challenger events has now been incorporated into the main draw and those players will get prizemoney and accommodation, whereas previously they did not.
The prizemoney for the players losing in the round of 32 to the winner of the tournament will not change but this move will certainly help the 16 players previously in qualifying as from 2019 they will get some prizemoney even if they lose their first match and they will get hospitality at the event. This positive change for these players will have a knock-on effect in increasing costs to host the Challenger level events in 2019 by over 30% and likely by much more in future years.
I am aware that in 2019, the ATP will cover the costs of the extra prizemoney for the extra 16 players and will give a grant of $2,000 to the organisers towards the extra cost of providing hospitality but this is unlikely to happen in 2020 and onwards? I think that by 2020, the full costs of the hospitality and prizemoney will likely revert to the organisers. Already some of the existing tournament organiser are considering whether to continue to hold challenger level events and I saw a worrying press announcement from India last week saying that the Challenger in Pune is likely to be cancelled due to the increased costs. As I am actively involved in tennis in Asia, I can see this occurring in a lot of Asian nations over the coming months and probably in other parts of the tennis world.
•The ITF has for the past 6 months been negotiating with the ATP to have some spots reserved in the main draw of the Challengers for players progressing from the Transition Tour. I am aware that the ATP were strongly resisting allocating any places in the main draw of 32 and were only offering to the ITF qualifying places for transition tour players. It appears that the “48 draw” solution has saved face for the ITF and has helped the ATP to appear as if they have made concessions in their negotiations with the ITF. By increasing the draw size to 48, the ITF could be given the 4 spots in the enlarged draw of 48 (and can make that look like a win in the negotiations) and the ATP would have an extra 12 spots to use as they see fit. It all looks nice on paper but when you look deep, there is a cost and it appears that neither the ATP or the ITF seems to care that the increased cost related to this decision is going to eventually rest with the event organisers, the majority of which are funded and or organised by the National Federations.
•ITF, ATP and WTA say that they want a system that ensures that the best players are in the draws of professional events, but I still see no recognition of the US collegiate system. The top collegiate players are still not catered for even though we know that the top 10 players in the collegiate system are at least the equivalent of top 400 ATP and WTA. When you look at the players in the top 100 today, you see that the US College system is once again a way to progress to the top professional tennis as a high percentage (over20% in the men) have come from US collegiate tennis. The worrying thing in the USA is that many US colleges that previously funded and organised ITF futures events are struggling to justify funding the new Transition Tour events in 2019. My fear is that in the USA there will be less events at this level taking place, leaving a big gap in competitive tennis there.
In the article referred to above that I wrote in February on my flight back from the Australian Open in Melbourne, I compared myself to the boy in the story about the emperor’s clothing. I have a lot of respect for the people working with the men’s and women’s tours and with the ITF and I am sure they are genuinely trying to make positive changes for tennis, but I do not think that what they have come up with is the best solution. Having said that I do think that the proposals on the women’s side are a little better in that WTA points will remain on offer for players from $25,000 and upwards at least in the short term.
Let’s go back to 2013 where the original catalyst for looking to change the entry level professional tour was to try to increase the prizemoney for the lower level players and to find a way for more players to break even. The ITF coach commission, that I was a member of, was the group that brought this to the attention of the ITF at that time.
So, the important question to be asked is:
After all the changes, are the players below 300 on the men’s and women’s tour going to be able make more money and have less costs resulting from playing on the professional tour?
Between 200 and 400 on the ATP rankings, 16 players will be better off at each Challenger event as they now get hospitality and some prizemoney for losing in the round of 48. However, as far as I can see, everyone else in the men’s and women’s structure stays the same in terms of prizemoney and expenses. At the Transition Tour level, prizemoney definitely remains the same as do the travel and other costs for the players with the big change being no access to the valuable ATP and WTA ranking points. As far as I can see, players ranked below 300 in the world will still be losing over $50,000 per year to play professional tennis and most will continue to struggle to be able to afford a coach to accompany them. When you consider all that they have given up in their lives to become high level tennis players, it just does not seem fair.
The costs at the lowest level to host $15,000 and $25,000 will not changed significantly and the costs at the Challenger level will increase dramatically and so less of the developing tennis nations are likely to be able to host events as is likely to happen in Pune and in other parts of the tennis world.
The bigger and wealthier nations will be able to afford to run higher level events offering ATP and WTA points and to give their best young players wild cards. However, a big concern for me is for the young talented players coming through from developing tennis nations whose federations cannot afford to organise higher level professional events. For players like a Marcos Baghdadis from Cyprus or a Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia, it will be so much more difficult, in my opinion, to breakthrough into the top the top levels of professional tennis and to eventually progress to play in the big ATP and WTA events and the Grand Slams.
I am also not convinced that the ITF has done enough to protect the interests of their shareholders, the National Associations that own the ITF, and it seems that the majority of the benefits of the changes agreed have passed to the ATP and WTA. For the Tours the new system and what has been agreed with the ITF helps their tour a lot but I think it’s not very positive for the ITF nations and not sufficient recognition when you consider that the ITF National Associations fund so much international competition at the high-performance player level (Regional 14 and 16 and under events, 18 and under Junior ITF events and entry level professional tournaments) all of which provide the necessary breeding ground for the ATP and WTA tours. It seems that the Tournament Organisers/Federations are now expected to pay the same or more over the coming years for considerably less in return.
The obvious is often the greatest secret and, in my opinion, there were more obvious ways to solve the challenges facing tennis at this entry level of professional tennis. They certainly could have looked more outside the box for solutions and I fear that, with these proposed changes, we are going down a very precarious route. I hope that the ATP, WTA and ITF will look again at all of the changes and try to come up with something that is more creative and which is better for tennis, for the players, tournament organisers and the National Tennis Federations, than that which is proposed for 2019.
If you want to read the article I posted in February, it’s available here.