As many people following me on social media are aware, I have been writing and posting quite a lot over the past 3 years about the structure of professional tennis and the difficulty for very good players to progress and to make a decent living and for a reasonable number of pro players to be able to break even at the lower levels. My point has been that the current system for pro tennis is broken and we owe it to the young players, who have given up so much in their life to get to this level, to work together to establish fairer structure.
My last post on prizemoney levels generated a lot of discussion including comments from players like Benjamin Lock who is ranked 450 ATP but who cannot get into events that will allow him to advance further. I was concerned that the 7 key tennis decision makers (The ITF, The ATP Tour, The WTA tour and the four Grand Slams) were not doing enough to address the problems that these players face.
Last week I had a call from someone working in one of those tennis organisations who complained that while my posts point out many of the problems, I do not put forward any solutions. I will not mention the name of this person here, but it was obvious that they had not read my “Let’s Put a Big TEN into TENNIS” article that was published in the ATP coach magazine Elite Tennis in 2018 that I understand is now promoted globally by Insomniacs Anonymous! We discussed a lot of the issues (it’s good to talk and to share ideas and visions) and I finished the call saying that I would publish this week some of my proposed solutions to the current broken system. I know it’s the clay court season, but I am going to try to use “Serve and Volley” grass court tactics here and try to get to the point as quickly as possible.
So as the airlines say……Sit back…. Fasten your seatbelts……and try to enjoy the flight!
So, what are the problems with the current system:
- Only the top 150 men and top 130 women can make a good living from Pro tennis. The players down to 300 ATP/WTA cannot cover the annual costs to play on the tour with a qualified coach which are close to US$200,000 (US$50,000 player costs, US$50,000 coach costs and the US$50,000-100,000 salary of the coach). I know that a player ranked 180 in the men’s rankings from a non-grand slam nation made around US$80,000 in the year prior to Covid. Another female player ranked 280 made less than US $20,000 in the past 12 months and under US$25,000 in the year prior to Covid. The bottom line is that a top 300 male and female should be able to make a good living after covering those US$200,000 of costs.
- Players at the ITF WTT level are travelling mainly without a coach and their expenses are a minimum of US$30,000 per year. They cannot cover these costs with prizemoney earnings, even if they play 30 weeks per year and have reasonable success. One of our Kazakh female players had reasonable singles and doubles results and moved to 580 WTA and made only US$9,300 in 12 months. In my view the best 700 male and female players should be able at least to break even.
- The players do not have enough say in the professional tennis system. I have said before that in any business you cannot be both the employer and the Union which the ATP Tour and WTA Tour tries to be. The players should have their own union to represent their interests.
- The players between 150 and 300 need more higher-level events but the Tours limit the number of these events on the calendar. I travelled to over 150 countries in my time at the ITF and I have many contacts around the world. As an example of the broken system, I estimate that there are over 30 cities in the world that would like to have an ATP 250. They have the money in place to do so, but they cannot get permission to run one. If there were 30 more ATP 250s, many more players in the top 300 would make a good living. I can see how this policy is good for the companies like IMG and the owners and tournament directors of the tournaments and for keeping the asset value of these events high but can someone explain how this policy is good for the players ranked 150-300?
- The ATP and WTA control the ranking system and the points allocated to each level of event. This is an historical thing that no one seems to dispute openly. The ITF and the Slams and the nations holding pro events depend too much on the Tours decision about point allocation and other than the Slams, who have a double points agreement, they have little influence and decision power. As a result, the lower-level events do not get enough points and you have the ludicrous situation where the ATP will not allocate points for the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and the Olympic Games. Even golf gives ranking points to the Olympics. This type of decision is not good for the sport and everyone in the 7 organisations knows this. The Davis Cup does not get ranking points but the ATP Cup gets ranking points. How is this fair? If someone from ITF or the Slams employed a good anti-trust lawyer, I would think that they would find that controlling the employees of your competitors and the ranking gives the ATP and WTA an unfair competitive advantage over their competitors in pro tennis. Am I missing something here?
- There is little focus and coordinated actions by the 7 organisations on things that would be good for the sport overall. Some things that need serious discussion and action include:
- The promotion of the sport by the pro players. The top players promote their sponsors but rarely promote the sport (for example kids’ tennis) in a coordinated way. The seven organisations should have a coordinated plan to use top players to promote the sport at events but also outside events.
- The promotion of doubles at the top level and ways to increase the participation of the top singles players. Does nobody worry that only 1000 spectators watch the final of the men’s and women’s doubles in a 30,000 seat stadium at the US Open?
- The value offered to the spectators at the pro tournaments. Why is the average age of spectators at these events over 50 years today? Is anybody worried about this among those running pro tennis? (Well, I am worried…………but then I do live in a city with temperatures of -37 and am a sad single guy with no social life!!). Remember a basic rule of business…….when the customer is not buying your product you cannot blame the customer- you need to amend the product!
- It’s very difficult for players from Non-Grand Slam/Top ITF nations to make the transition from 500 ATP/WTA to Grand Slam qualifying level of 250 for men and 200 for women. The Slams and top nations can offer their players wild cards for Challengers and WTA events to help their smooth transition and can give them qualifying and main draw wild cards at the Slams. Benjamin Lock from Zimbabwe does not have that luxury. In 2006, the ITF looked at this on the men’s side. The results showed that Monfils, Murray and Hewitt got over 24 wild cards to top level pro events in their careers. Marcus Baghdadis From Cyprus and Rendy Lu from Chinese Taipei got none. It’s just not a level playing field out there. In 2008, when I was in charge of the Junior ITF circuit, our department made what I thought was a reasonable request to the Grand Slam Board. The proposal was that the World Junior Champions would automatically receive one main draw wild card the next year for one Grand Slam singles. If the player was from the Americas, they would get the wild card for the US Open. If the player was from Europe or Africa, they would get it for Roland Garros or Wimbledon. It the player was from Asia/Pacific they would get it for the Australian Open. Each Slam would have to give a wild card to the junior boy or girl champion every 3/4 years. This was a proposal that we felt would be fair and a positive initiative for the sport but which was rejected on a few occasions.
- It’s not directly pro tennis, but there is a link between junior tennis to the problems at pro tennis. The ITF has done good work with the guaranteed places in main draw of 15 k events for top 100 players. This has helped a lot the transition from juniors to entry level pro tennis. But at the junior level it is still very expensive to play your way into the top 100 especially if you are getting little support from your national federation. One challenge is that If a junior player plays 20 tournaments, the Coach/Tennis Director/Parent does not know if they will play 20 singles matches or 100. It’s very difficult with this system for the Federations, the coaches and the parents to plan effectively and to work in a cost-effective way.
These are some of the problems as I see them.
We have a saying in Ireland that if you think you are something-you are nothing. I am not saying that I know all the answers and what I will outline below are my ideas, based on my experience in international tennis, to combat the challenges outlined above. There are many other people involved in international tennis that will also have good ideas that should be listened to. But first the sport decision makers should be ready to listen and to be open to change. But Tennis is not a sport that has a history of being very open to change.
Let me give a good example from my time at the ITF. In the late 90s, the ATP had the idea to put the Mercedes logo on the net. It was a fantastic sponsorship move and it generated a lot of extra money for the ATP tour. What was the reaction to this idea by the ITF? They announced that it was against the Rules of Tennis and they told the ATP they should not be doing this. For three years the ITF adopted this position with the support of the Slams while the ATP continued to do it. Then the ITF realised the value of this commercial move (BNP Paribas wanted to do the same thing in Davis Cup and Fed Cup) and so ITF changed the rules to allow it.
The first reaction to proposed changes in tennis are usually very conservative. I love the traditions of tennis more than most. I was one of the people standing up for the tennis traditions when the ITF changed the Davis Cup format in 2019, but I believe that the sport has to be more open to good changes especially those that improve things for the players and the spectators.
I hope you are enjoying the flight so far!! There may be some slight turbulence ahead as now we are getting to the proposed solutions.
- The players should establish their own players’ union. This new organisation would negotiate conditions with those organisations (ITF, ATP, WTA and the four Slams) that are conducting professional competitions/events and running Tours.
- The World rankings should be jointly owned by the ITF, ATP, WTA and the four Grand Slams and controlled by a joint ranking body. There would be representation in this ranking decision- making authority from ITF, the Tours and the Grand Slam Board as well as at least one male and female player representatives from the newly formed player union. This new ranking authority/body would decide which events should get ranking points, what level of points to allocate to each and would try to ensure that the points offered allowed for a smooth transition for all talented players. The rankings would be able to give points to any event run by ITF, ATP, WTA, the Grand Slams and other Tours (Regional Tours?) deemed to be organised to the correct level and respecting the rules of tennis. Think about Golf. The ranking allows many respected tours to function under one ranking system. The PGA tour, The European Tour, The South African Tour, The South American Tour, the Asian Tour and then the World Rankings decide what events to count and at what level of points to allocate to each event on the different tours. Close to 500 players make a good living in golf. It can work in tennis.
- The ITF would no longer be restricted to only run events with prizemoney $25,000 and below. Why is this an accepted rule?!! Who decided that this was good for the sport? The ITF could now run 50K, 75K, 125K and 250 K men’s and women’s events and the players would be free to play the ATP, WTA or the ITF events and other tours that might develop and be recognised by the ranking authority. Those 30+ cities wanting to hold ATP and WTA 250 events can now do so through the ITF tour or via the ATP/WTA Tour. They do not have to lease an event or buy an existing event. It will be made clear to the players by the ITF and the Slams (and hopefully by the Tours) why this is good for them and the sport by outlining the current problems in the broken system and how this will increase the number of players making a good living. Oh-but won’t the ATP/WTA threaten a boycott? This is a possibility and I remember the 1973 Wimbledon boycott but if we do this right the players will understand what we are trying to do and, in the end, they will go where the money and the points are. If the ATP and WTA do not want to join the new ranking body, which of course is a possibility, the ITF and Slams should go it alone but include the ATP and WTA points events in their ranking. We do not want a war and ideally we want to work together to do what’s good for the sport.
- At the lower levels, the solution is very simple. The key thing to the unranked and lower ranked players trying to enter the pro tour is that they can get into the system. So, we need big qualifying at the 15K and 25 K events (32-64 players). My proposal would be that only players reaching quarter finals of singles and finals of doubles at these events would get prizemoney. By doing this the good players will get enough prizemoney during the year to breakeven. Remember in golf only players that make the cut get prizemoney.
- My revised prizemoney breakdown for 15 K and 25K events would be:
- Winner singles-$4,000; $7,000
Runner up singles- $2,000; $3,000
Semi Finalists singles- $1,000; $2,000
Quarter-finalists singles-$500; $1,000
Winner doubles-$3,000 per team; $,4000 per team
Runner up doubles- $2,000 per team; $3,000 per team.
- If this money distribution was in place in the past few years, Benjamin Lock would have won US$39,350 annually instead of US$26,384. Our player female player, Zhibek, who is currently ranked 580 WTA would have won $17,500 instead of $9,300. Another male player ranked 580 in the men that I know won only $15,000 in the past 12 months. Under my proposal the amount would be over $25,000.
- In a normal non covid year the player ranked 480 is making easily enough to cover expenses (and maybe enough to have a coach with him 10 weeks) and those male and female players ranked 580 would have generated close to the $30,000 to break even and can continue their profession with reasonable dignity covering their basic costs.
- For doubles, I would start all doubles at the Grand Slams on the second Monday. Top players that lost in the first 3 rounds could then chose to sign in and enter on Sunday. Having the doubles in the second week will be good for the spectators as often in the second week the outside courts do not have important matches. In addition, the seven organisations should find a way via their funds or a sponsor to reward the male and female player that has the best men’s and women’s combined singles and doubles ranking at the end of the year. This will encourage more participation in doubles by players ranked between 15 and 50 in singles. Maybe $4.5 million overall prizemoney broken down as US$1,000,000 for the top ranked, $750,000 for the second place and $500,000 for the third placed in the combined ranking. A bit of trivia for this long flight……Which was the last male player that in their career won both singles and doubles Grand Slams? It was Kafelnikov. It has not happened since 2003.
- At the tour events I would introduce a cut like in golf. Any players reaching the quarter finals makes the cut and would stay around until the end of the tournament. Different prizemoney and points would be awarded for each place. Two sets and a Champions tie break could be played for the placement matches. For the tournaments they can activate better sponsorship around the players as they know who will be around on the Thursday for the last 3 days. For the spectators that have bought tickets for the last few days, they will have a better chance to see their favourite players and the tournament spectators will have more action on semi- final and finals day. And the players will play if the difference in points and prizemoney for each place is significant. Remember, they enter the tournament hoping to play 5 matches! I will probably be stopped from entering the 2021 Wimbledon Championships for committing sacrilege, but I think the Slams should play off for 3rd and 4th place to have more action on the last days. A bronze medal at a grand slam could be positioned to mean something to a player’s playing record!
- I would make one important change at the Junior ITF level. For all Grade 5 and 4 junior ITF tournaments, I would operate a placement system with different points awarded for each place. All players would play 5 singles matches in the week. I know that the Tennis Directors of the World would be so happy with this (Ivo Van Aken of Belgium and I have spoken about this many times over the past 20 years) and would be ready to pay a higher entry fee if necessary. The players cannot leave on Tuesday if they lose first round and have to stay the whole week anyway. The referees will have to work harder (sorry!) and the courts will be busy all week and a few extra costs will be incurred with balls but think of the customer satisfaction and the benefit to know that your player is guaranteed 100 singles for 20 weeks ITF junior tennis travel would be a great benefit for all.
The above proposals may seem a bit radical to our rather conservative sport. But tell me why (other than political reasons) what I am proposing could not be done and that they will not improve the current problems. I am sure they could be implemented and go a long way to solving the current broken system and make a big difference to the sport and the young players fighting hard to make it to the highest levels of pro tennis. But as I said previously, these are the ideas of one individual and there are many knowledgeable and creative people working in top junior and pro tennis who could come up with other ways to improve things. We just need the ITF, the ATP and WTA tours and the Slams to be open to listen to new ideas and to be ready to work together, with the players, to find solutions good for the sport.
I am not convinced that my ideas will be received very positively by Executives in the 7 top tennis bodies. They will probably not be so supportive of my ideas and vision. But people reading this need to understand that many have an incentive to keep the status quo which works very well for them. It suits to continue to focus on your own organisations and to blame the other organisations for the problems. Call me cynical, but everyone still gets paid regardless of what happens with the players ranked 200-700.
“It’s the ITF’s fault” say the Tours. “They do not understand Pro tennis”. “It’s the Tours’ fault” say the ITF “as they control the ranking system and we cannot do anything to solve the issues without their support”. The Slams say that this is more a problem for the ITF to solve and they point out, quite rightly, that they have improved the prizemoney for players ranked 100-200 through their prizemoney increases and I commend them for this.
This constant fighting and lack of support goes on and on and has been like that for the past 20 years. I know. I heard it so many times and I am tired of no meaningful changes being implemented. We need to work together. Maybe “Together for Tennis” would be a good slogan for a Presidential campaign?!
I Hope you enjoyed your rather bumpy flight to a possible new structure of pro tennis! Quite a few potential solutions put forward here. No problems-only solution!
Comments and feedback on the in-flight service and entertainment is welcomed.