You probably won't hear about it on the Tennis Channel or in the mainstream media, but there is a boiling controversy that is shaking up the lower tier (Futures and Challengers) pro circuit. Beginning in January 2019, the ITF implemented a new structure to the circuit, introducing a new ranking system, smaller draw sizes and new regulations about wild cards, which include saving a few wild cards for juniors in each event.
The new structure will hardly affect the top players in the world, who have already established themselves in the rankings; however, it will have a devastating impact on the careers of hundreds of players in their mid-20s who are now facing a reality that makes an already barely possible mission close to impossible. The problem created is that there are way too many players and way too little spots in the draw, as the days of open draws are all but gone.
This step by the ITF has turned the lower tier tour upside down. Players are revolting, many of them are complaining that they can't compete and are forced to retire because the qualifying draws are much smaller and they cannot guarantee they will get in the draw; therefore, it's a big risk to fly somewhere and not know if you get in.
How did it all come to this you might ask? How is this good for the game? It isn't of course.
The sad thing here is that logic behind this decision is purely economic and has to do with a deal the ITF made with betting agencies, allowing them to use live scoring for gambling purposes. I would think that anyone who thinks purely about the interest of the sport, especially a governing body, would ban gambling on tennis as it is toxic and invites corruption.
In reality, the money is too big and the lower-ranked player doesn’t really have any influence on such decisions. In this case, a few hundred Facebook posts will probably not help. It's a perfect example of how a financially based decision benefits very few people, but negatively impacts many others, and mainly, the sport of tennis.
The ITF claims that they want more young players to break in so their solution is to give the juniors an unfair advantage with guaranteed wild cards. The tournament directors don't want to spend money on hotel accommodations for lower ranked players, and are losing money so they made the draws smaller. The problem of too many players competing could be solved by increasing prize money and draws, that is what they did in the Challengers, but that helps the mid-level players who are already ranked 150-300. The real problem was that there were about 3,000 players competing for the next 500 spots in the rankings, the prize money is too small and those players are struggling. The best thing for the players would be to distribute the prize money more evenly so a player who is ranked 400-500 can make an average or decent income. Instead, they cut off half of the competitors and shrunk the tour in half. It is unfortunate because we know that in today's game, it takes a few years for a player to reach their peak, often players who hang around without giving up break to the top 100 in their mid to late 20s. With the new rules, it will be very hard, especially since by next year, there will only be around 750 pro players who will have an ATP ranking. It will be a very exclusive club, and players with a good ranking who don't get hurt can stay there for many years.
Pro tennis has always been an ultra-capitalistic business. The top players, not just Roger Federer and Serena Williams, are literally making millions. A top 50 singles player and even a top 100 player can rake in huge prize money checks every week. The ranking system encourages players to play more events, and with the prize money on the tour increasing every year, there is a lot of money to be made if you play 20-25 events a year, plus the four majors which award ridiculous amounts of money even for losing in the first round. With improved training methods and breakthroughs in sports medicine, players are prolonging their career well into their 30s, making it very hard for newcomers to break into the top 100.
The problem, of course, is the prize money distribution (did we mention capitalism?). There really is no good reason why there is such a difference in prize money between a top 100 player and a person ranked in the 300s. Anyone who knows tennis knows that the players in the top 500 could be in the top 100 with four or five good tournaments. However, when you start to go below the 150th mark, the decrease in prize money is very steep, yet the expenses remain the same for a top player or a lower level player. Most players ranked below 250th in the world in singles are struggling to break even and cannot afford their own apartment.
This harsh reality created a fiercely competitive pro tour, with thousands of players dreaming of making a living out of tennis and fulfilling their potential. At the end of 2018, there were 14,000 professional players, with the new system already being implemented every day that goes by the number is shrinking.
By the end of this year, it is safe to say that close to half of those players will be forced to retire from the tour. How will that affect the game? In the short term, it will probably have an effect on the college system, as more top juniors will opt go to college and use their tennis skills to earn a scholarship and give up the dream of becoming a pro before it begins. Another result might be that many players will turn to competing in off-tour money tournaments in Europe mainly. Inevitably, many will turn to coaching.
So, how will all of this affect us in the junior coaching community? In the short term, it will not be felt, but in the long term, the decrease in the number of players on the tour and the difficulties involved in starting a pro career will make the pool of talent for future pros smaller, making it almost unachievable. This will ultimately affect teaching pros like myself who are working with high performance students. The new structure might make financial sense and help form a tighter product from the TV point of view, but it takes away opportunities from players to break through the ranks, hurting late bloomers or players who don't have an endorsement deal or an agency that helps them with wild cards.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.