I saw the press statement that was released this week by the Regional Associations of Europe, South America and Central America and the Caribbean related to ITF World Tour. 

I am, of course, very pleased that the Regional Associations are becoming active in highlighting the flaws of the tour and the negative impact it has had on entry level professional players in their regions.

I was the person at the ITF that was responsible for relations with the six Regional Associations for 17 years and I know that these tennis organisations do so much good for tennis in their respective regions and are probably closer to what is actually happening out there. The Regional Presidents and their Board members now realise that what has been put together by the ITF, in conjunction with the Tours, is not working and that something needs to be done about it.

I was surprised that the issue of the ATP taking away points is highlighted as the main cause and that the ITF seems to escape the blame relatively unscathed as an apparent victim of circumstance in causing this mess for entry level professional tennis. Whilst I do not condone the fact that the ATP removed points from the 15K events and reduced the points significantly at the 25k events, this was just one element related to what has transpired. What should also be focused on, and not forgotten, is that the ITF put together this tour that is not working and which is causing so much suffering to performance players worldwide.
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I have noticed that the ITF has changed their stance and positioning over the past few months as the disaster of the new tour unfolded. They had been saying, for the past two years, that the previous system was not fit for purpose and that, following the biggest analysis in tennis, they had come up with something that was going to be a big improvement. In fact the Chairman of the ITF circuits committee, who I saw got an award from Tennis Europe last week for his contribution to tennis, told me last year that this ATP decision had opened up a big opportunity for the ITF. This view was shared by the ITF staff. They felt that this new tour was going to be great for tennis as the ITF would now have its own tour and its own ranking. The ITF spoke at length about the 55,000 questionnaires, the statistics and all of the other feedback received but I still hear from so many  successful  coaches in player development and on the tour that they never received a questionnaire.

At the end of 2017, I read carefully the ITF plans for entry level professional tennis and I was so concerned that, in February 2018, I wrote to the ITF President and the entire ITF Board informing them that, in my view, what was planned would not work and suggesting alternatives. A number of Federations, including Tennis Europe, followed suit in mid-2018 and criticised the plans. But these criticisms and suggestions seem to have been mostly ignored. 

Let’s remind ourselves what were the original objectives outlined for the new tour?

  • Improved pathway
  • More players breaking even
  • Reduced costs for the organisers
  • Less risk of integrity related issues
  • Reduction in the number of “professional” players to about 750 men and women

In my opinion, four of the objectives outlined above for the tour have not been achieved:

  • No improved pathway. By reducing the qualifying spots dramatically and by not recognising other pathways such as the US College system, the pathway is much worse and less fair.
  • No more players breaking even. The events have the same draw size and same prize money. But now there is an increase in costs of a $40 entry fee for main draw players.
  • No reduced costs for the organisers. The organisers save on the cost of one white badge official but lose all of the income from the qualifying entry fees and overall, they breakeven in terms of costs.
  • No change in potential integrity issues. The number of bet on matches remains the same as in 2018. The only matches reduced in number have been the qualifying matches that were never part of the data sales and so were not bet on. Players on the tour are still losing $40,000 per year to play the circuit (without a coach) and the ITF continues to sell the data to Sports Radar.

They did reduce the number of players playing entry level professional tennis by over 10,000 but, did they think about the cost to the sport of that reduction before they made that decision? Did they consider the impact on coaches, training centres/academies and equipment sales? And more important, did they think about the impact on these players that have a dream to be professional players, that love tennis and want to play the sport? 

What’s wrong with a 28 year-old player using their own money to travel and play the sport they love? To me it shows a lack of respect for the players that are ranked 1000 or lower in not recognising that these lower ranked players have given up a lot to get to this level and many will represent their smaller or less developed tennis nations in Davis Cup or Fed Cup.
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Also, If you want to cut large numbers of players from this entry level tour, it is important to find somewhere else for them to play before you do. Otherwise the health of the sport suffers. Regional tours? Under 23 tours? There is a need to think outside the box. In previous articles that I have written related to the tour, I have outlined practical solutions that achieve all of the objectives outlined above and I will not repeat them now. All I will say is that there is a better way.

It is true that the ATP tour decided to take away/reduce the points and created the need for two rankings but do not forget that it was the ITF experts that put together the new tour. It should also be noted that the ITF was not publicly critical of the ATP at that time the points were withdrawn and publicly supported this planned reduction of “professional” players and the two ranking systems which they saw as an opportunity.

Blaming the ATP now for what happened is what we call in English a red herring. It helps to distract people from what actually happened which was that the ITF staff took a lot of time to put a new tour together that they said would be better for the players and great for the game. It is now clear that they got it very wrong and they should accept responsibility. I appreciate that change is not easy to introduce but as the Vice President of the DTB said recently……”it is hard to come up with something that pleases everyone, but even harder to develop something that appears to displease and upset everyone!”

Now I have seen the recent questions and answers released this week by the ITF and, in my opinion, it shows once more how out of touch that they are with what is going on out there. It reminded me of what was said publicly in February when the ITF called the 15,000 players that had signed a petition against the tour a small group of uninformed people!

Let me comment on a couple of things related to the ITF question and answer:

  • The ITF says that the qualifying was reduced to 24 because of the Independent Review panel report that proposed a limit of seven days for each tournament. They repeat that they had no choice as players cannot play two qualifying matches in a day because of welfare issues. This is ridiculous. I was a member of the ITF medical commission for 17 years (representing the ITF coach commission) and to say that a high-level player cannot play what amounts to a maximum of 4 sets of tennis and two champions tie breaks in one day is not credible. Did they consult on this with the medical commission members? These are athletes, most of whom are aged between 18 and 30, who are in great shape. Male players play five sets at the Slams and many male and female players play singles followed by doubles and mixed and people accept that this is fine. The players would certainly prefer to play four sets of tennis than be excluded from having a chance. In my opinion, reducing the qualifying from 128/64 to 24 was unnecessary for player welfare issues and was a big mistake.
     
  • Everyone out in the field (players, coaches and tournament organisers) know that the immediate short-term solution is to allow tournaments to run up to 64 draw qualifying at 15K and 25 K events (with maximum two matches per day for two days) and to get the ATP to introduce 16 draw qualifying at the Challengers. So why is this not being done? I think it is because some people who were involved in the development and approval of the tour are afraid to admit that they got it wrong. As the saying goes “Sorry is often the hardest word!”
  • The ITF highlights the success stories from the feed-up in place for the top 100 players on the ITF junior tour but, they do not highlight any of the horror stories of the many talented players out there that cannot play. I know players ranked around ATP 300 that, under the new system, cannot find anywhere to play and many talented players that cannot get a start.
  • I love the junior ITF circuit and it was under my responsibility for 17 years at the ITF, but it’s not the only pathway as playing 20+ weeks internationally does not suit everyone. The ITF junior circuit also does not deliver a level playing field as, for example, there are only 17 junior ITF events in USA and 280+ in Europe. Let me pose an important question. Under the old system, were the top 100 juniors excluded from the pathway and not able to get started in the entry level pros after they finished in juniors? I do not think so. Most of the top 50 already had ATP and WTA rankings by the time they finished juniors and some of them were ranked very high. These players could get into the main draw of many 15k events and the other players ranked between 50 and 100 could get into qualifying which were large enough to accommodate players without ATP and WTA points. I think that the pathway that existed prior to the launch of the ITF World Tour worked OK from a feed-up point of view. The main problem, in my view, was the cost in that players needed to spend three to five years playing on this circuit at a cost of approximately $40,000 per year and the ITF World Tour, with the same draw size and same prize money and same global circuit costs for the players, does not address this problem.

I am a person that has always looked to embrace change and was in charge when we introduced the combined ranking for the Junior ITF Circuit in 2005 and fought to bring in the 10 and under rule change in 2012. So, I am not against change. I know that this article may come across to some as overly critical and negative but, I assure the readers that I have practical ideas and solutions about what should be done to restructure the tour to achieve the original objectives set out by the ITF. However, as these proposals form part of my manifesto for ITF President, I am not allowed to publish these proposals publicly at this time due to the recently released ITF code of conduct for the Presidential elections. If I do, I risk being stopped from running by the ITF ethics commission. But I will make these proposed solutions public in June when the code allows me to.

In conclusion, I commend the Regional Associations for stepping up and criticising the ITF World Tour and the negative impact it is having. For me, the “blame game” is not the way forward and blaming the ATP for all that has been put in place is not justified. Whether the ITF, the ATP or WTA tour were the original catalyst of two rankings, there is now a need for the ATP/WTA tours and the ITF to work together for the good of tennis and solve the problems. The statement from the Regional Association Presidents encourages this cooperation and a recognition that the new ITF tour and the ATP changes at challenger level have not worked. They need to get together to make some short term fix, as I have suggested above, and then get together with some of the more experienced coaches on the tour and tournament organisers to consider options and to think outside the box in order to put something together for 2020 or 2021 that meets the original objectives and that is better for the players. 

The ITF World Tour is not the only challenge that international tennis is facing today and the bigger picture for tennis going forward is the importance of all of the most important constituents working…….Together for Tennis!