In 2019, the international competitive structure of tennis will change significantly.
These changes will have a profound effect on how a professional player is developed. The impact on U.S. tennis in general will also be far-reaching. Our junior competitive pathway, collegiate tennis, which tournaments our junior and elite players choose to play, and in fact, the dreams of the children we introduce to our sport, will all be affected.
The changes to our competitive system are being driven by the WTA and ATP, which are unions of professional players. As unions, these organizations seek to protect the interests and the jobs of their members … the players on the pro tours.
There are more than 8,000 men and 6,000 women competing for points under the existing competitive structure. The WTA and ATP Tours have set the goal of supporting only 500 to 750 players each through their Tours. They feel this is the way to insure a reasonable income for their members.
Part of their motivation for doing so is to protect the integrity of the sport. Little has been said about this for obvious reasons, but tennis is the second most bet-on sport in the world. The ITF Ethics Committee is concerned about the cheating that is potentially taking place, particularly at entry level pro events.
The present competitive structure
A leveled system of prize money tournaments carrying WTA or ATP points offers a large base of players the ability to advance to higher level events by winning points at various levels. Opportunity is available to almost anyone who wishes to “give it a shot.” Players advance through the system based on points earned in WTA, ATP and ITF Professional Circuit events. Almost all of these events have 32 main draws consisting of 20 players selected on WTA or ATP points, eight qualifiers and four wild cards. Entry-level events with prize money of $15,000 may have up to 128 players in the qualifying draw with 11 wild cards for men and eight for women.
Currently, WTA and ATP points are first awarded in the $15,000 tournaments at the main draw Round of 16. That is, you have to win two matches in an entry-level professional tournament main draw to gain WTA or ATP points.
If you look at the USTA Pro Circuit Web site, you will see that draw sizes are shrinking and WTA and ATP points are much more difficult to gain as they are not awarded until a player reaches a much higher level than at present. In 2020, there will be no ATP points awarded until a player can gain entry into $50,000 + Hospitality level events. These events have very high quality player fields. In the $50,000 Challenger tournaments I have run, we had players such as James Blake and Michael Chang competing.
WTA and ATP points will not start until the $25,000 level in 2019, a bridge year, and will only be awarded in the semis and finals. In 2020 there will no ATP points available until the $50,000 + Hospitality level.
The world governing body of tennis, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), has created a new ranking system which will award ITF points at $15,000 and $25,000 events. This system provides an alternate pathway into WTA and ATP events. At present it is called the Transition Circuit.
The possible impact on our game
With our present system, all players have a competitive progression that, while financially and physically demanding, is open to all and easy to understand. It is all about chasing points to gain entry into higher level tournaments which carry more points.
At present, players start meeting expenses when they reach a WTA or ATP ranking of 300 to 400. The WTA or ATP point systems protect their top 100 players by insuring those players gain entry into the top tier of tournaments.
With the new international competitive structure, our U.S. players’ tournament schedules will change. For some players even as young as 16, the decision whether to play in National Junior Championships or ITF events will be more difficult than ever.
How players use the U.S. college system to develop their games will be impacted. Who and how college coaches recruit will also be affected.
Wild cards controlled by the USTA Player Development Department are used to help our top players progress through the professional rankings. The allocation of these wild cards will be changed under the new competitive structure.
Some wild cards will be used to advance our most promising talent quickly through the system. Other wild cards will be awarded to winners of designated events such as our National Junior Championships, Collegiate Championships and other potential wild card tournaments.
With change comes opportunity. The year 2019 will be a trial year for this new structure, and I am sure many adjustments will be made as it is evaluated over the next few years. It will be interesting to see whether this new system will enhance or hinder the growth of our sport.
More to come on this as the alphabet soup of governing bodies, the WTA, ATP, ITF, USTA, etc. assess and react to these changes.
Bob Ingersole is President of Ingersole Events & Tennis Management. Over his many years of coaching, he has developed many professional and collegiate players. He has vast experience in the USTA and is a Past President of USTA Eastern. He can be reached by e-mail at BIngersole@gmail.com.