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What does world tennis’ shake-up mean for India?

Illustration: Kannan Sundar

Illustration: Kannan Sundar  

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The sport’s governing body is enforcing reforms that will effectively reduce the number of professionally ranked players by half. How does this affect the game in India? We break it down

Tennis, at the lower reaches if not quite at the elite level, will not be the same again.

Nearly five years after the International Tennis Federation (ITF) commissioned the Player Pathway Study, and subsequently approved the reforms suggested, a new competitive structure will come into force on January 1, 2019. ITF president David Haggerty had called the study “the most comprehensive review of professional tennis ever undertaken”, declaring that the sport, at least at the lower levels, required “radical changes”.

So, what’s different and why has it polarised the tennis community? Here’s everything you need to know:

What has changed?

The lowest tier in both men’s and women’s tennis, the Pro Circuit $15k, will be replaced by the World Tennis Tour 15s ($15,000 prize money). These will no longer offer ATP and WTA ranking points, but instead hand out ITF World Tennis ranking points. The ITF ranking thus obtained can be used to enter higher tournaments (25s and upwards).

What does world tennis’ shake-up mean for India?

For men, the 25s tourneys will fetch both ATP ranking points (semifinal onwards) and ITF points (all rounds). From 2020, these will be limited to ITF points only. For women, 25s competitions and higher will exclusively offer WTA points. As a result, many players will end up having both a professional ranking and an ITF ranking.

Also, five places in the 15s events will be reserved for high-ranked juniors (within the top 100). Promising youngsters, according to the ITF, will be exposed to a higher level early in their career.

Why did the ITF think change was necessary?

For three broad reasons.

One, the ITF was concerned that juniors were struggling to make the transition to the senior tour. It believes the new structure will better link junior tennis with the professional game.

Two, its own research showed that of 14,000 ‘professional’ players, just 600 broke even. This caused some players to resort to illegal methods to make a quick buck. The hope is that the re-jig distributes the prize money better and aids more players in earning a living.

And three, the new tournaments will be shorter (seven days, including qualifying). This reduces costs and incentivises more countries to host them, providing opportunities for more players.

How have the changes been received?

The potential reduction in ranking spots has provoked mixed reactions. The ITF estimates that the number of professional players with ATP and WTA rankings will come down from about 3,000 to approximately 750 men and 750 women. It is likely that not more than 20 Indian players will make the list.

For Karti Chidambaram, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association, it is the right step. “You need to limit the number of the people who have ATP points,” he says. “Earning an ATP point should be a matter of great privilege. You can’t have someone having one point and thinking they are world-ranked.”

But to some, this strikes at the heart of tennis’ USP — an individual sport with very few entry barriers, it enables kids to dream.

Besides, there is this theory that tennis at the lowest levels is intentionally less lucrative and the market automatically ejects those who cannot make the step up. So, governing bodies shouldn’t be sitting in judgement, especially when those at the bottom have little to no access to the prize money pool.

What’s the immediate fallout?

For now, the number of events has nosedived. For the first quarter of 2019, men’s tournaments have reduced by 40% (114 to 69). In 2018, India had hosted one women’s $25k and five $15k events, including four for men, in the first three months. In 2019, only the women’s 25s remains.

What does world tennis’ shake-up mean for India?

“These transition events [World Tennis Tour] will be a waste of money,” says Hironmoy Chatterjee, secretary-general of the All India Tennis Association (AITA). “They are not going to help our players protect their ATP rankings. We opposed the proposals and gave it in writing.” Interestingly, Anil Khanna, Indian tennis’ de-facto supremo, sits on the ITF’s 13-member Board of Directors.

Who is fine with the changes?

Ankita Raina — India’s women’s No. 1 — is fairly relieved. “At my ranking (World No. 195), it won’t have much of an effect, but for others it will be clearer only after two or three months,” she says.

For the youngsters coming through the ranks, there is a clear pathway. “The juniors will get an early taste of the professional level,” says Sunder Iyer, secretary, Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association. “For example, Yuki [Bhambri] spent a lot of time after the junior Australian Open success [2009] playing the Futures. So he lost three or four years. It did obviously teach him things the hard way. But this system may have helped him.”

According to Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India’s men’s No. 1, it will no longer be possible to ‘game the system’. “The reason why some played only Futures and not the Challengers but still made it to the 250s was because there was a gap which allowed them to do that,” says the World No. 107. “Now you can’t. Players should play those at their own level if they want to progress.”

Whom does it affect the most?

For someone like Suraj Prabodh, ranked 878th in world, it is a confusing situation. “In April, I reached a semifinal in a $25k and earned one point,” explains the 23-year-old. “Now I can’t even defend this point in India because there is not a single tournament. Only if you are very rich and have many sponsors can you do it.”

If he drops down the rankings, it may well be a double whammy. A country’s National ranking has often helped players enter competitions. But in the fresh System of Merits for main draw acceptance, it is placed below the ITF ranking.

With a drastic decrease in the number of tournaments and a reduction in the size of the draws (qualifying draws are down to 24 from a maximum of 128), the ITF ranking window, just to compete for a spot in the main draw, narrows considerably.

Wild-card entries are non-starters; nobody can chart out a calendar around them.

Some argue that the changes even put undue pressure on a junior to be established by 19, for he or she can’t use the reserved places anymore. This at a time when tennis careers are getting longer and Indians, barring a few, are late bloomers.

Will the reforms pass the tennis-integrity test?

Not according to American Geoff Grant, a former player (ranked as high as 109) who helped restructure the United States’ National junior circuit four years ago. “They have just switched one integrity problem for another,” he told Sports Illustrated. “An ATP point now will have enormous value. So a young player gets a wild card into a Challenger where winning a match will get him a point. If the opponent is established, he can well say ‘I want to win this match and it will get me going. So let’s agree on who is winning.’ On an order of magnitude it might not be that great, but it is a lot worse to incentivise an 18-year-old to cheat than a 26-year-old journeyman.”

What are the AITA’s plans to help India’s players?

Increasing the number of ATP Challengers is high on the agenda. India currently has three (Chennai, Pune and Bengaluru), and Bhubaneswar and Kolkata are expected to join the list. For women, the AITA wants to double the number of $25k events from the present five.

“The idea is to start an Indian circuit and get at least 25 State associations to host smaller events,” says Iyer, who is also an AITA Executive Committee member. “We can then select the top seven or eight players and send them abroad with a coach and physio to play transition tournaments.” The AITA’s history in this regard has been patchy. But in the present scenario, it may well have no choice but to act.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 6:54:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/what-does-world-tennis-shake-up-mean-for-india/article25854672.ece

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