Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Alison Riske Lights Up UTR All Access; Could this Hiatus Produce a Players Union?

Alison Riske and Prakash Amritraj on UTR's All Access today
I've been spending a lot more time on webinars in place of covering live tennis matches the past few weeks, but although I'd rather be doing the latter, I've managed to learn a lot while staying at home.

Today, UTR hosted a second All-Access hour, their second such program after last week's inaugural event with Sam Querrey, with WTA No. 19 Alison Riske and Prakash Amritraj talking about her career, her path and her breakthrough year of 2019.

Riske is intimately connected with UTR, with her husband Stephen Amritraj (Prakash's cousin) the Chief Tennis Officer there after several years as head of Collegiate Tennis for the USTA. They were married last year, and with access to a tennis court during the COVID-19 quarantine, Riske and her husband, who played at Duke, can safely hit frequently enough to keep her timing.

I first met Riske back in 2007, when she surprised everyone by making the semifinals of the USTA 18s Spring Nationals in Mobile as a 16-year-old. She went on to reach the final of the USTA National 18s championships that year, losing to Ashley Weinhold, but winning a round in the US Open qualifying with the wild card she earned from making the final.

Riske was poised to begin her college career at Vanderbilt, where her older sister Sarah had played (Vanderbilt head coach Geoff Macdonald was a surprise guest on the webinar today), when a family friend (identified only as Tom) offered to sponsor her if she wanted to turn pro. Here's how she described what transpired when the offer came.

"It was two weeks before I was supposed to go; I had my roommate, I had my comforters picked out, and two weeks before classes were set to begin at Vanderbilt, I had a family friend call me up. I'll never forget where I was, I was in our condo in Hilton Head in our living room, and he randomly called."

"We weren't seeking anything, we were not seeking possibilities of turning pro and he called and said, hey, if you want to turn professional, I will support you."

"At that time my sister was traveling with me and he said I will support you and your sister if you want to go professional. I was ranked 220 I think on the WTA at the time, so I was kind of creeping into the qualies of the grand slams, and you know what, I decided that day, we're going for it."

Prakash followed up with Riske, who had just turned 19, by asking if she made that decision on her own.

"It is a huge decision and it's kind of ironic, because if I hadn't had the support of my parents, who were amazingly in support of me turning professional, giving up this scholarship that they pretty much paid for over 15 years of lessons, travel, everything. They were willing to sacrifice what they spent for me to be able to pursue something I was possibly not going to succeed at. They were all in. I think I, if anyone in my family would have been hesitant, it would have been myself. But when I saw my belief in me and the support, I thought, you know what, I'm going to go for it, and worse case, if it doesn't work, I'm going to be an assistant at a university and I'm going to try to get my education paid for that way."

Riske didn't break into the WTA Top 100 until 2013, but she mentioned several times in the webinar that putting timetable pressure was counterproductive for her. Riske, universally acknowledged as one of the nicest players on tour, also gave an account of her introduction to tennis, how she went from hating it to relishing the competition, and how the mental side of her game has strengthened as she has matured, resulting in the best tennis of her career in 2019, when she turned 29.

Spending an hour with Alison Riske is great fun, and this webinar is yet another example of the one true statement about reaching the top of professional tennis: there are as many pathways to success as there are players.

The next All-Access webinar will feature Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri on Thursday. If you have a UTR account (it's free), you can register here.

Riske's webinar should be available via the UTR YouTube channel, by following the link on the All Access page.

During this shutdown, the idea that tennis needs to come together to help players in the 100-250 range is gaining traction, with their financial well-being, always poised on a razor's edge, particularly precarious with no chance to earn any points or prize money. In this article for The National, Reem Abulleil explores the issues, with former Wake Forest star and 2015 NCAA singles finalist Noah Rubin one of the players she interviews, along with former Stanford star Kristie Ahn. Rubin, whose Behind The Racquet initiative has served as a fresh and needed look at many of the off-court issues faced by players of all rankings, has been speaking regularly with Mike Cation on their Behind The Racquet podcast about the need for action. In the March 30th edition, Rubin explains how he has reached out to other professionals and floats the idea of an alternative tour.

Canadian Vasek Pospisil has also been deeply involved in the movement to give players more power and influence in the game, and he talks about that a bit in this recent interview with TSN, a Canadian sports channel.


Peter Trunstet said...

It sounds great that lower ranked players can ban together, alternate tour, and other ideas. But reality is pretty stark. Only the top players generate advertising revenue. You will see matches of the 40th ranked player against the 60th ranked player and no one is in the stands. Anyone who has gone to even lower challenger tournaments knows there are no fans and no way to generate revenue. So not only is an alternate tour not in any way financially realistic as it could not generate money, but even the current tour will have many challenges following the pandemic. Pre pandemic perhaps 80 men and 80 women could make a good living from professional tennis once all expenses are deducted. Post pandemic, this is likely to further decrease. Even leagues like the NBA are projecting a lessening of interest as fans used the shut down to discover alternate interests and fans have less money to spend on entertainment.

So I would tell the lower ranked players that the opposite will happen from the shut down. It will be much tougher for anyone outside the top 70-80 to make money in tennis. Sponsoring companies and some fans will be hammered by the pandemic so there will be less dollars to go around in the future, not more.

Pam from Atlanta said...

I have to agree with Peter. Tennis economics will get worse going forward so I am not understanding how anyone involved with tennis could think unions and more money for lower ranked players will be realistic. This virus will come and go for the next several years according to experts. Many jobs will not come back making fans make tough decisions how to spend. Advertisers will also cut back. If players who are lower ranked are on the razors edge before the virus, goodness knows how they expect not to be in worse shape in the future. If anything, those players who are lower ranked need to start thinking how to make a living from some other means and compete for jobs in a more competitive world going forward. I am a little surprised that Allison would not see things will be much tougher and unions would not be even close to realistic. Once you get outside the top big named players, the fan interest is not that great. Not many paying fans would care if the 80th ranked player was Bob from Bosnia or Carl from Canada. Its impossible to unionize when players outside the superstars are replaceable. Sorry, but that is just the way the real world works.