I have just returned from 10 days in Melbourne and one of the big talking points among players, coaches and tournament administrators that I met was the recently launched ITF World Tour and the new pathway to professional tennis.
I had the chance to speak to coaches from some of the world’s top academies as well as some of the people who have overall responsibility for the administration of these events in countries including USA, Australia, Thailand, Japan and Egypt. I have also been following the posts on social media about the new entry level professional ITF World Tour.
I saw a post today (below) from current top ATP player John Millman and other comments in response from former top British player Mark Petchey, whose daughter is now playing the tour. It seems from their comments and those popping up on social media that there is a lot of confusion and concern out there on the tour among the players and the coaches and that the impact so far has so far been overwhelmingly negative. When I spoke to one organiser who runs 30+ events each year he expressed similar concerns about the negative impact and felt that the role of the ITF should be to spread tennis and not limit the ability of players to play.
It will of course need time to fully evaluate the impact of the changes and I think the positives and negatives will become fully apparent and clearer by the time the first half of the calendar year has been finished. But having taken time to try to get my head around the changes and listen to people affected by them, I will now make a few observations related to the men’s element of the new Tour (apologies to the female players and coaches on the women’s side but I need more time to get my head around the impact on the female side which I will try to do soon):
Number of events compared to 2018:
• The ITF has reported that there are more 15k and 25k events in 2019 than in 2018. However, it appears from the first quarter of the current ITF World Tour calendar on the ITF website, that the number of $15,000 and $25,000 events are down from 114 in 2018 to 98 in 2019. The calendar for March shows 65 men’s events in 2018 versus 49 in 2019. There has also been a worrying trend by many nations to move to hosting $25,000 events with ATP points instead of $15,000 with ITF World Tour points. My concern is about what will happen in 2020 when the points are removed from the 25k events.
Qualifying in 2019 compared to 2018.
• Qualifying in all events is now a maximum of 24 players. The reason given is to allow events (including main draw and qualifying) to be run in 7 days. If so why not have a 32 draw which takes the same time? The qualifying in 2018 in the USA was 128 draw, 64 in Australia and 32 or 64 in most events in other parts of the world.
This reduction of places has had a devastating impact on players trying to play in events that previously they could enter.
In Egypt last week there were 18 players that did not get into the event. From the 23 players trying to get in, 5 got wild cards into the qualifying and the tournament director told me that wild cards for qualifying have now become so valuable that players consider them to be like gold!
Another concern is the number of highly ranked ATP players playing down to earn money and/or get match practice. In Egypt there were players ranked as high as 300 (eg Karim Mamoun) who were playing a 15k and taking spots from players that the circuit was designed for and who wanted to play but could not get in.
Prize money/organisational costs
• The prize money remains the same at $15,000 but now main draw players are being asked to pay a $40 entry fee and so increasing their costs. It makes sense from a fairness point of view that main draw players pay an entry fee in the same way as players in qualifying but it does increase their costs when they already lose money. The idea behind the entry fees is apparently to reduce the hosting costs for the organisers. This, along with reducing one of the white badge officiating requirement, is supposed to make it cheaper. Now I am not a statistician like some of the people that developed the ITF tour and also I do not claim to be a top mathematician but I can do simple arithmetic. In Egypt last week this was the impact of these changes for the organisers:
-Reduction in costs due to one less white badge official-$550
-Increase income from main draw entry fees $1040
-Total positive impact on running costs- $1590
Reduction in income from qualifying entry fees- 40x $40 from the qualifying- $1600
Increased cost to the organiser- $10
Getting started on the pathway
• It appears that there will be significantly less opportunity for players to get started on the tour if they are unranked or lowly ranked or coming back from injury. It will also be hard for late developing players from developing tennis regions to get started. Remember Kevin Anderson and Malek Jaziri were not so highly ranked as juniors and developed much later.
• The events in many nations like Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt are based on a model linked to filling hotel rooms where the events are played. All Egypt and Turkey events in 2018 were 64 draw qualifying.
Now that the draws are smaller there are less players showing up and staying in the hotels and it is likely that the number of the events in these nations will reduce in time as the business model which provided much needed competitive opportunities will struggle to be viable. I would point out that this model of 30+ events was very positive for the players as it reduced the airfare costs for players and it would be a shame if this model of competition stopped.
Transition from Junior to Professional
• For under 18 players, unless they can get wild cards, the recommended route into professional tennis is now through the Junior ITF circuit (5 spots are guaranteed into the ITF World Tour events for current top 100 juniors). However, the 5 spots are only available to these players for the period when they are in the top 100 (current top 100 juniors) or until their 19th birthday. If a player breaks top 100 in their last year in December, and their birthday is in February, then they only get the value of the guaranteed spots for 2 months. What happens to these players after they finish in juniors and turn 19, if they are coming back from injury or want to play at a later stage of their career in these events?
• Not every talented junior player plays on the Junior ITF circuit for reasons such as expense or education. It takes a big commitment from players (and federations/parents) to reach top 100 and usually requires access to a more flexible or online education. Those players who chose another pathway in juniors will now, too often, be excluded and will struggle to get started in the professional pathway.
• For junior players trying to get a top 100 ITF junior ranking, it’s important to recognise that it’s not a level global playing field. For example, in Europe there are 280+ ITF Junior events and the distance and travel costs to play are less than in other regions. In other parts of the world, there are significantly less events and to travel is often more complicated and expensive. Also, now that there is a lot of pressure to play the ITF circuit the quality of the top 100 is likely to go up, making reaching the top 100 even more challenging.
• In developing tennis regions, players often come through later and whilst they may not make top 100 in their last year of juniors, they are still very good players with potential. They will now struggle to get into the pro pathway at a later stage.
• How will the system now differentiate between the low ranked player who the ITF say should not be there (older players without a high enough level of play) and young talented low or unranked players who are aged 19-24 who may have the necessary talent to progress but cannot now get started in the pathway as they do not have either an ITF top 100 Junior ITF ranking or any ITF World Tour points?
What about the impact on US Collegiate tennis:
• For US collegiate tennis, the changes have taken away a lot of competitive opportunities and the chance for many players to enter the pathway to professional tennis. The 128 qualifying in 2018 is now reduced to 24 in the USA in 2019 and this will make it very difficult for talented collegiate players to get into ITF World tour events. The qualifying draw of the first ITF world tour events in January 2019 in the USA were full of ranked players with all unranked collegiate players excluded. I do not think this is good for the game.
• The changes will reduce significantly the number of good matches collegiate players get to play every year during their time in the college system.
Let’s remind ourselves of the original objectives of the changes made by the ITF and consider if they have been achieved?
When the changes were announced over a year ago, the reasons given included:
• To help more players break even.
There is no player making more money at this level. Prize money remains the same and the draw sizes are the same.
• Reduce the costs for players playing the entry level professional tour.
It is still a global circuit and a global ranking and costs to play on the entry level pro tour are pretty much the same for the players as before with an extra $40 cost of an entry fee that now must be paid by all players in the main draw.
• Provide a better and fairer pathway.
With the exception of the current top 100 junior players on the ITF Junior tour, it appears to be more difficult for young talented players to enter the system and progress.
• Reduce the possibilities of corruption.
The ITF are continuing to sell the data in 2019 to Sports Radar and may continue to do so until the end of the contract in 2021. The players are still losing US$30-50K playing on the ITF World Tour (more if they travel with a coach) and therefore remain open to the
temptation of corruption.
• Of course, if the data sales are stopped at the end of 2019, it is likely that the number of events will drop dramatically as the events will not get the data sales payment that offsets over 30% of their prize money costs. As the saying goes…I see trouble ahead!
• To reduce the number of players playing on the professional circuit.
But the big question that many, including myself, are asking, is at what expense to the health of the sport at this level?
In January 2018, I wrote an article about the tour and suggested what I thought were some good ideas for a better way. The article is below. To conclude, in my view…..
THERE IS A BETTER WAY!
I am in Egypt attending the Davis Cup match, Egypt/Norway, and I received a press release regarding the new ITF Transition tour. I have to say that I feel like the boy in the story about the emperor’s clothing.
Am I the only one who thinks that all is not right and that the emperor is wearing no clothes?
I worked at the ITF for 25 years and for 17 years oversaw development including the junior ITF circuit. I was also actively involved in the transition of many players from good juniors to top professionals. I am very surprised by some of the things outlined in the release and am struggling to understand why, in its current format, it is going to be better for tennis than what currently exists.
The biggest surprise for me was the announcement that from 2020 there will be no ATP points for the $25,000 men’s events. Am I missing something? Is this not quite shocking news? What will be the incentive for the ITF’s National Federations to pay around $50,000 in costs to host a $25,000 event when there are no ATP points?
Surely it could have been possible to negotiate, as a minimum, some points for the finalists and semi-finalists at these events?
Fair negotiations with the ATP and WTA would have been from the outset of discussions back in 2014 that ITF member nations will agree to increase the prize money for entry level events to help the players to earn more but in return the tours will have to give ATP and WTA points for the new ITF transition tour events. Not so much to ask for when you consider that the ITF nations are paying 30 million + in prize money for a tour that delivers the players to the ATP and WTA tours.
There are still many unanswered questions including how male players progress from the transition tour to the Challengers and the release says that this detail is still to be decided. The new tour starts in less than a year and this fundamental element is still is not decided? I don’t understand how something can be approved by the ITF Board when it’s not clear what is exactly being approved?
The WTA seem a little more supportive of the tour and at least the number of places in the higher level WTA events for players with ITF circuit points is agreed.
But I am still not convinced that the new tour is going to make the progress of talent easier for either men or women moving out of juniors. I think for players, especially from less developed nations that do not host higher level men’s and women’s events, that this new tour will make it more difficult to progress. The players from the more developed nations will be able to use wild cards into their nationally hosted ATP and WTA events to help their best 18 to 20 year-olds to skip the transition tour.
I see that the officiating costs for the $15,000 events will be slightly less and that host nations will not have the requirement to hold three events in a row, but other than those changes, the new transition tour is pretty much what was there before. A global tour with $15,000 events but without ATP and WTA points.
They say they will set up the transition circuit so that players will play more on a regional basis. Nice words in theory but I am not convinced as in practice because there will be a global ranking system, players will again be incentivised to travel around the world in search of the best place to get global ITF circuit points. How is that going to make it cheaper for the players and ensure they travel less?
I am curious. Did anybody consider creating regional transition tours? Perhaps three Regional Transition tours with one in Pan America, one in Euro/Africa and one in Asia Pacific with the best players at the end of each year getting their tour card to play higher level men’s and women’s events? This works well in golf and this structure attracts a lot of regional sponsors to each tour, creating the chance for more golfers to make a good living. I personally think it could work in tennis and that would ensure the players definitely travel less.
The ITF research showed that there were too many players playing professional tennis and the best did not make enough money. Well these two problems could have been solved very easily in my opinion (without costing extra money to the Federations) by making the men’s and women’s entry level events 16 draw instead of 32 draw.
This change would have done a few positive things, including increasing the prize money for the best players at each event and by reducing the duration of the main draw to four days and accordingly the associated cost to run these events for the federations. Qualifying could have been up to 32 draw. Less players would have then have been able to play on the circuit and get points (50% less), solving the problem of too many professional players, but the best ones, the ones that deserved to be there, could have played six four-day Futures in a month (so in effect tripling their prize money). The obvious is often the greatest secret!
I have seen from the press release that the new circuit was developed on the back of a lot of impressive statistics and research but as Brian Tobin, the former President of the ITF, once warned me: “Statistics are like a bikini. They show a lot but often hide the most important bits!”
What about the players playing in the USA college system? How does this tour help their transition? We know that the top 20 US collegiate players are the equivalent level to a top 350 to 400 player. How will they transition? And what about players playing in other prize money events in different parts of the world?
For now I am not convinced that the ITF transition tour is the best way forward for World Tennis and, as articulated above, I think that there has to be a better way.
Having just returned from Melbourne where I spoke to many top coaches working with performance players, I could see others struggling to understand the new tour and the benefits, and I am curious to know what others working in player development think?
Please feel free to share my comments.