Stuck in the Middle

By The Way - Weekly Columns


It's never easy to go from being a big fish in a small pond, into the ocean, and so it's not surprising that even some of the best junior players find it difficult to transition to the pro tour. At the moment, there are a few routes that players may take to hopefully make their way to the top; - They can go through the college system and get an education whilst playing sport; - They can play the futures and lower ITF tournaments to build up their ranking, slowly but surely; - Local tournaments will often offer wildcards for rising stars, which can help provide a springboard for the players. The picture below shows British youngster, Emily Appleton, playing last year's WTA tournament at Birmingham, where she received a wildcard into the qualifying.

However, despite the routes outlined, there may not always be a route to suit every player, and it's not feasible to keep playing lots and lots of lower tournaments and have little to no income from prize money coming in. Here enters the ITF Transition Tour. The ITF have come to an agreement with governing bodies; ATP and WTA, to produce a system that acts as a 'stepping stone' for players turning pro. ITF have conducted research which has found that over 14,000 players compete in professional tournaments each year, but only around 600 make enough prize money to sustain their career. Of these 600, 350 are men, and 250 are women. In their research, the cost of hiring a coach hasn't been factored in, so the proportion of players able to afford this would be even lower. The time taken to break into the top 100 has increased from 3.4 to 4.1 years for WTA players, and from 3.7 to 4.8 years for ATP players, and this is of the players that make it that far. This ITF transition tour aims to provide more local tournaments, reducing travel costs for players, as well as fees for organisers. Organisers will face lower fees thanks to a combination of structural modifications; - Tournaments will be shorter in length, only lasting 7 days; - Consecutive tournaments need not be held in one country; - Officiating requirements will be reduced. The overall effect of this will be increased opportunities for all transitioning players, including those from countries with less well-developed tennis coaching systems.

Now for the maths bits... The ITF expects that the number of professionally ranked players will decrease from 3000 to 1500, which will be comprised of 750 men, and 750 women. Tournament prize fund will be $15,000, and these tournaments will replace the current 15k tournaments on the ITF circuit. As well as the prize money, players will receive ITF entry points, which are explained in the table below produced by the ITF. This system will allow reserved tournament places for the players with the highest ranking, as follows; - Male players will have reserved places in ATP Challenger Tour qualifying draws; - Female players will have 5 reserved places in main draws of ITF 25k tournaments; - Junior players will have 5 reserved places for transition tournaments for (top 100 ranked juniors).

Other ranking point rules will include; - WTA tournaments with at least $25,000 prize money will continue offering WTA ranking points; - ATP ranking points will only be available in the later rounds of 25k tournaments, but ITF entry points will be available in all rounds; - Challenger tournaments up to 125k will offer both types of points in qualifying rounds. Over 125k tournaments will give only ATP points. The ranking systems will be interlinked so those players competing on both tours may have an ATP/WTA ranking and an ITF Entry Point ranking. Higher-ranked players will be prevented from entering the transition tour tournaments.

Of course, as fans, we are aware that there's a disparity between what the top guys are earning compared with those grinding it out on the ITF tour, but these figures are shocking. Players go into tennis to pursue their dream, and if only a small minority get there, when is the right time to give up on your dream? It must be a heartbreaking decision to make, and I'm glad that the ITF are doing something to help these players along the way. I have read player reports of how those competing in qualifying tournaments, for example, will be disadvantaged in terms of hotel and transport bookings, and if the tournament isn't paying for these things, how do they cover it? It may sound like a dream lifestyle for a lot of us, and, yes, the travel is great, but it is a difficult lifestyle to manage if you're struggling to make ends meet. Do you think the transition tour is a good idea, or do you think there are other things we could be introducing to enable rising stars to make the best start they can in their professional career? Feel free to leave your comments below.