By CARLOS NAVARRO — @TheMagician5GS
Special to Tennis With An Accent
Once upon a time there was a tale of greed and power. A tale of unsung heroes who joined forces to put an end to injustice. A tale of working-class people. Little by little, they were being deprived of the opportunity to fight for their dreams.
It has always been said that tennis is an elitist sport. In a certain way, it is. The amount of money you need to make it to the top is insane. The hunt for sponsorships or patrons is pivotal. This is a worldwide sport, and you need to travel everywhere. Economically, that takes its toll.
Consequently, it is a strange paradox that, in this tale, the role of villain is portrayed by people who were supposed to alleviate your problem.
The ITF World Tennis Tour story lasted for only half a year. It was short. It was emotional. And it needs remembering, because we shouldn’t want history to repeat itself.
Part I – A new beginning
Midway through November of 2018, this tale began. The ITF gave birth to the ITF World Tennis Tour, first called the Transition Tour. It is here where we have our first problem, of a communicational nature – players had been consulted about several topics, but were told that, indeed, what was taking shape was a new, revolutionary pathway for the lowest echelon of the sport.
Tennis is like a pyramid. At the top level there is a small elite group which easily makes a living out of the sport. They are the best players, right?
But if we look at the bigger picture, the most important echelon is composed of thousands of players. It is located at the bottom of the pyramid – and, for the first time, tennis was trying to drastically reduce the number of professional players in that echelon. The World Tennis Tour was being used as a sophisticated filter. How could that happen?
The answer is quite simple. Let’s start from this premise – they wanted every tennis player to truly become professional. What they were trying to achieve, in their minds, was a decent financial cushion for everyone.
We are looking at a false premise from the very beginning – the ATP No. 750 player is already a professional player. He travels around the world with a very specific goal in mind. He spends his time in tennis. He invests in tennis. His daily routines are related to tennis.
There was no way the humblest tennis players stood a chance of becoming pros (according to their definition) out of the blue. Yet, the ITF contemplated that possibility and thought it was plausible by a myriad of changes. These were the biggest ones:
The creation of a new, alternative ranking – ITF Rankings. They would work alongside the ATP rankings, not against them – sort of a second-division-ranking which would give a maximum of five protected spots in Challenger tournaments. Besides that, $15,000 Futures would stop giving ATP points, and $25,000 Futures would only give 2 and 1 ATP points to both the winner and finalist of the tournament.
Futures qualies would be limited to 24 players – prior to this year, there could be up to 128 players in some tournament. With fewer matches being played, the aim of this change would be to reduce players’ physical load.
5 junior players would be able to enjoy reserved spots in several Futures tournaments in order to make their pathway to the pro circuit easier.
Qualies matches would be played in a best-of-three and a third-set tiebreaker format.
Part II – Putting the plan into practice
Following this revamping, a new revolution in the tennis world had just started. The ATP ranking was at that time made up of 750 tennis players – more than 1,000 players who were fighting for their spot through Futures and qualies had just seen their names removed from the list. They weren’t pros anymore, just second-tier players.
It is at this point where we should sit back and try to analyze these changes. It is time to discover whether the ITF had met its goals.
In the first place, the aim of reducing expenses due to less players competing in qualifying was put in place in order to help the growth of tennis tournaments around the globe.
The complete opposite happened.
During the first three months of 2019, 97 Futures tournaments were held. Compare that to 2018, when 114 Futures had been played in the same span of time. Not only did the players have fewer opportunities to get into a main draw – they had fewer tournaments in which they could do so.
Tournaments galore were losing money because of these changes. Their only way out was to host the infamous pre-qualifying tournaments, where players were charged a small fee… just for the sake of playing.
These tournaments awarded the winner a wild card… for the qualifying draw! Eventually, the ITF was obliged to intervene in what had become an active business of coercion, blackmail and corruption – and not only that: The resorts, the places where these tournaments were being held, only allowed players to get in if they were staying at the official hotel of the event (money talks…).
On another note, only one junior player who got into a Futures main draw via ITF reserved slots was able to capture a title – which goes to show how this “revamped pathway” was far from effective.
The lack of spots in ITF tournaments created a bottleneck that led to the most logical solution: Lots of players decided to call it a career. Former top-900 players had nowhere to compete: they found themselves with fewer spots and fewer tournaments. Not only players from this group were trapped – players from 350 to 500 in the ATP rankings got stuck in a “professional limbo.”
What do I mean by that? Every single tennis player who committed to Challenger qualies during 2018 had a very slim chance of getting into Futures because their ITF points count was way too low. Not only that – their ATP ranking wasn’t good enough to make the Challenger cutoff. Then, the icing on the cake: There are only four (!) qualifying spots available in Challenger tournaments starting this year.
Obviously, you can’t put the blame on the ITF – it is not their jurisdiction. However, the lack of communication and understanding with the ATP (the other governing body of the sport) in order to effectively provide these essential changes to the sport was simply careless; it showed an utter lack of interest in the majority of the players.
Part III – The union
A perfect example of everything explained above was Jared Hiltzik. The American tennis player competed in only eight tournaments during the first half of the season (six months). If things didn’t go according to plan at the Challenger level, was it worth it to come back to the Futures when he would hardly be rewarded with ATP points?
Players such as Jared found themselves at a crossroads. The ITF World Tennis Tour demanded an iron will from those trying to climb up the ITF rankings. Reaching the cusp was beyond tough; there were very few changes. You would see the same players in the Challenger reserved spots week in, week out.
In order to stand a chance of fighting for these places, players would have to steadily keep winning Futures for three months. Representative examples of this dynamic include cases such as Francisco Cerundolo, an Argentinian player who had to win four Futures tournaments (3 M15 and 1 M25) in order to have a chance to access these “privileged” positions. That means about six months of playing – half the season spent scrapping for a small opportunity where a player would need to prove himself.
But let’s go back to Hiltzik’s case. His words back up the “limbo theory.”
This is what Hiltzik said:
“It’s tough. Playing some of the best tennis of my life right now and at [No.] 350 I can’t get into any Challengers. At this point in my career is it worth it to play futures? Or am I just taking away opportunities from other players who are just starting out?
“The average ATP Challenger cut has been No. 344. In order for me to get from 355 to 344, I need 15 points. I’d have to win five $25,000s [tournaments, the equivalent of 25 matches] to jump up 11 spots, or I just have to win three rounds of an ATP Challenger.”
His testimony leaves an impression on whoever reads it, but his is not the only one. Remember there’s more to this problem – that group of players which had no opportunities left.
Bruno Mardones was a top-1,400 player before deciding to call it quits:
“We, the players who are between the 1,200 and 1,800 position, have about a 0.00002% of chances to make it due to this new system. Had the size of Challenger qualifying not been reduced, maybe this problem would not be as huge as it is. But up until this year a fair number of players decided to give the Challengers a go, approximately 80 or 90 players who are now playing Futures. That takes spots away to those of us who are not in the top 1,000, let alone a 15-year-old boy who wants to start his career. He is unable to, he can’t gain any experience.”
Could you imagine a tennis prodigy (ex: Felix Auger-Aliassime) with no possible way of getting into a Futures main draw?
The Molotov cocktail was about to explode. People reacted. Tennis players reacted.
March 15, 2019 marked a new, fresh start.
Juan Pablo Paz, a former top-350 player, shared a Twitter video of an event that took place during a Futures tournament in Tunisia. The video, which went viral, featured players galore in a hotel hall. The message they wanted to send was crystal-clear – we got reunited here because we simply want to save tennis. That was the revolutionary motto.
These meetings gradually grew. They got bigger and bigger. They branched off to Facebook groups or to Change.org petitions. The elite players echoed their feelings, their struggle being heard by lots of voices. Famous personalities such as Toni Nadal sent videos of support.
At that point, all the players needed was a link to the highest positions in the tennis governing bodies. That link proved to be completely pivotal. Dirk Hordorff, a member of the German Tennis Federation and former coach of Rainer Schuettler and Janko Tipsarevic, backed every single one of the players’ proposals and passed them on to the ITF’s “big fish.”
Changes started being made – for example, the Futures qualifying got a little bit bigger. Yet, they were not enough, not the complete upheaval the players were seeking. Their fight never ceased. The public opinion and social pressure placed on the ITF’s shoulders were the key factors that led to the final part of this story.
Part IV – The End
This tale is far from a happy one. There is no happy ending – only a hasty movement, almost undercover, that brought the World Tennis Tour down.
May 23, 6:42 p.m. The ITF announced the complete end of all the changes that took place at the beginning of the year. They were coming back to the old system, with all the points reverting to ATP points.
It all happened three minutes before the Roland Garros draw was made. The tennis world was focused elsewhere, so the ITF thought it was the perfect timing for the announcement. The players must not be allowed know anything, they thought. I mean, who cares about all the players who struggled for six months?
Do not get it wrong. The end of the ITF World Tennis Tour is a relief. It is the lesser of two evils. The point we should emphasize is that the players set a very positive precedent. Only on a few occasions David was able to dethrone Goliath, and this was one of them. In fact, I’m still amazed at the fact the humblest players forced one of the biggest governing bodies of the sport to back down. It’s an unmatched feat, trust me.
They want this to be an anecdote, though, an experiment which went the wrong way. But remember: The ITF World Tennis Tour does not have a happy ending. This is merely a situation which is not as awful as it was at the beginning of the year. It is not a situation in which players in the top 1,000 have a dramatically improved chance to make a much better living in professional tennis, despite being (literally) one of the 1,000 best professionals on the entire planet.
The ITF World Tennis Tour boils down to this:
It is a lesson learned the hard way.
Better that than nothing… but a better solution is still waiting to be found.