Monday, July 23, 2018

Big Changes Coming to ATP Challenger Circuit in 2019; ITF Transition Tour Update; USTA's Role in Continued Success of American Women

The ATP announced today what it refers to as "wholesale" changes to its Challenger Tour for 2019.

The most noticeable change is in draw sizes of the qualifying and main draw, with the main draw now expanding from 32 to 48 and the qualifying draw shrinking from 16 to 4, with just two qualifiers. Because the qualifying consist of only two matches, the maximum length of any Challenger will be 7 days, from Monday through Sunday.

The ATP believes that providing more opportunities in the main draw, and prize money for all main draw participants, will make an actual pro tennis career viable at that level.  The requirement that Challengers provide hotel accommodations for all main draw players is also expected to assist in that goal, although many Challengers have used private housing, which costs them and the players nothing, but pays off in creating supporters and fans, as a solution to that problem. Introducing another layer of expense and administration could prove unsustainable for some tournaments, depending on the sponsor and federation support they receive.

Certainly the impetus behind these changes comes from the ITF's plans for its Transition Tour, because after 2019, the only way to earn ATP points will be through Challengers and ATP tournaments. ITF Tournaments will instead provide ITF World Ranking points, which will serve as entry into its events. Four spots in Challengers will be reserved for those with ITF World Ranking points, with five wild cards also available.

The ITF has recently produced two videos on the Transition Tour for YouTube, explaining how entries and rankings will be affected in 2019, as well as the long-term plan for 2020.  The men's video, released this month, is here; the women's video, released last month, is here.  A video specific to juniors has not yet been released, although the ITF has said many times in the past months that providing a better pathway from the ITF Junior Circuit to the ITF Transition Tour is a primary goal. Getting into the Top 100 in the ITF Junior rankings is now a important goal for access to Transition Tour events; prior to this Transition Tour, Top 20 and the junior exemptions that come with that have been the only significant perk from rankings (aside from getting into junior slams, of course).  For more on the specifics of the Transition Tour, which will include 32-player main draws and 24-player qualifying draws and is also limited to 7 days, see this Frequently Asked Questions section of the ITF Pro Circuit website.

In all this information and explanations, there is no mention of how US collegiate players might fit into this mix. I know there has been some concern that lower profile collegians, who are not on the USTA radar or are not Americans, may struggle to get opportunities to compete when they finish school, with the qualifying numbers so drastically reduced. I also think these changes will increase pressure on the USTA when it comes to the wild cards it controls; with limited opportunities, a wild card is significantly more important. I don't think anyone is opposed to the goal of making pro tennis a viable career for 750 men and 750 women; but the likelihood of unintended consequences is high when changes this dramatic are introduced.

For more on the ATP's changes, see this article from Stephanie Myles at Tennis Life and this article from Simon Cambers at ESPN.

While at Wimbledon, veteran tennis writer Peter Bodo at ESPN looked into the continued success of American women's tennis.  He spoke to the USTA's longtime head of women's tennis, Ola Malmqvist, about the changes to the federation's philosophy in the past ten years, how the National Campus in Lake Nona has helped, and what USTA support actually entails for this article.