Greater competition globally has been one factor in the decline in US men’s professional tennis. This is compounded by US men playing too much uncompetitive tennis on the ATP second “Challenger” tier of tournaments. The USTA should consider establishing a regional centre in Europe to train and financially support its players to become more competitive. This will also help to address the wide discrepancy in US men’s results between playing in the US and playing abroad.
1) INTRODUCTION – THE PATIENT IS SICK
According to ATP rankings, last week was the worst week on record for US men’s tennis: only one player in the top 50 (Isner) and only four in the top 100: Isner plus Querrey, Klahn and Young. The US has only once before had as few as four players in the top 100: but back in early 2011 there was at least the consolation that those four were ranked in and around the top 20 (Roddick, Fish, Isner, Querrey). See the below graphic.
U.S. Men’s Tennis Rankings 1973-2014; ranking of Top 5 players and the average of their combined rankings. Source: raw data from atpworldtour.com
The chart shows that 2014’s travails are part of an ongoing trend: the US, which once dominated the top of the ATP rankings, is currently a minor player. The torch of McEnroe and Connors was more than adequately taken up in the 1990s by Sampras, Agassi and Courier. But since the retirement of Sampras and Agassi, US tennis has steadily declined.
Put it another way: 46 grand slam titles and 7 Davis Cup titles between 1973 and 2003; a solitary Davis Cup win in 2007 since. See chart below.
U.S. Men’s Tennis Rankings 1973-2014; annotated.
Many intertwined reasons exist for the decline in US men’s tennis.
- Let’s start with a player’s finances: tennis is poor compared to the US’s marquee sports. Ryan Harrison, US tennis player, finished 2013 ranked 100 and earned USD 343,000; a US PGA golf tour professional ranked 100 earned over USD 800,000 last year. The average NFL salary is just shy of USD 2m. In addition, tennis players have to pay for their own travel to tournaments, often on different continents. If you do not make the top 100, tennis does not provide a financial incentive for a professional athlete. We’ll come back to finances later.
- Interviewed as part of a recent LA Times article, Jose Higueras, second in command of player development at the USTA, the governing body for tennis in the US, lamented the lack of competitive drive of US players. Another former player is quoted anonymously: “I used to play for the rent. These guys are paid and given lodging and wild cards. For them life is good.”
- Coaches such as Robert Landsorp (former coach to Sampras, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport among others) decry the USTA’s miniature tennis programme and the decline in one-on-one coaching.
- There is also the self-reinforcing issue of role models: if Djokovic’s rise can inspire others in Serbia (see this New York Times article), so the absence of a US male champion may discourage other Americans from pursuing the sport.
However, while the above issues will all play a part, I want to focus on something else: the standard of competition.
- The effect of global competition on US men’s tennis has been recognised widely and is addressed briefly below (section 2.1).
- What may not have been recognised is the inadequacy of the second tier of “Challenger” tournaments in the US in their current state to help improve the ailing state of men’s tennis in the US (section 2.2).
2.1 Global competition
Global competition in the men’s game has increased since 1973: more countries are represented in the men’s top 100 now than in 1973 (35 vs 26). The culture of the game has become more global too. While in 1973 the game was dominated by players from English-speaking countries, that market share has been almost completely eroded completely (see chart below). Men’s tennis has become a multi-polar world, underpinned by strong recent growth across Europe and South America, with Spanish-speaking, French-speaking and, more generally, Eastern European countries to the fore. National funding, global marketing, individual country’s standard bearers, and the wider distribution of ATP tournaments have all played their part. This has made the ATP tour culturally rich and globally marketable. Less cosy and all the better for it.
Unavoidably, it is also part of the reason why US men’s tennis is in the state it is.
Players in ATP top 100 by language or origin 1973-2014; countries represented in the top 100
2.2 Lack of competition in US Challenger level tennis
But here there’s an additional problem. For if global competition is putting pressure on America’s men, then these same men are not playing enough competitive tennis.
To be clear, I’m not referring to Isner or Querrey, established members within the ATP’s top 60, who qualify by dint of their ranking for almost any ATP tournament they want to enter. I’m referring to the next tier of US men’s professional players who through being ranked between 60 and 120 in the world typically will play a number of the ATP tour’s second tier “Challenger” tournaments.
Broadly, these US tournaments do not meet these players’ needs for competition in the US whereas they do in Europe.
To test this, I have analysed four US members of this second tier – Tim Smyczek, Jack Sock, Bradley Klahn and Donald Young – and compared them to three of their European peers: Jiri Vesely (Czech), Dominic Thiem (Austrian) and Jen-Lennard Struff (German). For effective comparison, the seven share the following characteristics:
- An improved ranking in 2013
- A similar year end ranking to each other
- A playing schedule of several Challenger tournaments in 2013
I measured how often each of the seven had played against higher ranked opponents in Challenger tournaments: the results are striking. See the table below.
How to read the table below
In the table below, Donald Young improved his ATP ranking from 190 at YE 2012 (year end) to 96 at YE 2013 (red columns). As at 4 March 2014, he was ranked 81. In 2013 he played 45 matches at Challenger level (CH, the blue columns), 21 against players ranked higher than him, 24 against players ranked lower than him. Specifically in Challenger matches in the United States (the green columns), he played 12 higher ranked players and 21 lower ranked players.
Analysis of selected US / European players and Challenger-level matches
Based on this snapshot of seven players, US men’s tennis players play too much uncompetitive tennis at Challenger level. More specifically:
- The three European players, Vesely, Thiem and Struff, played a larger proportion of their Challenger matches versus higher-ranked players than their American peers, 35% compared to 25%. None of the Europeans played any Challenger tournaments in the US.
- In 2013, Tim Smyczek played just 8% of his Challenger tour matches against higher ranked players. 35 of his 38 Challenger matches were played in the US. Following the US Open until the end of the year, Smyczek played 20 matches, none against a higher ranked player nor one person ranked within 20 places of him. Despite this, and losing 5 of the 20 matches, he increased his ranking from 105 to 73.
- Jack Sock played 19 Challenger matches, only 1 against a higher ranked player – which he lost (to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, ranked 71). He lost another 8 Challenger matches to players ranked between 127 and 477.
- Sam with Bradley Klahn: following the US Open until the end of the year, he played 25 Challenger matches (winning 19, losing 6), where he played only 2 players ranked above him; and improved his ranking from 134 to 101. 9 of his matches were against players ranked 300 or lower. His best results in 2014 have been winning two Challenger tournaments outright, a sequence of 10 wins that involved beating no player ranked within 60 places of him (but 5 outside the top 200).
- Of the seven players in the table above, Donald Young played the highest proportion of higher ranked players (47%). What stands out thought is that for tournaments he played outside of the US that proportion rises to 9-3 in favour of higher ranked players (75%), thanks largely to Challenger tournaments in the UK and Mexico.
- (Included as an appendix to this post is a comparison of Challenger tournaments in Europe and the US in two weeks in November 2013. The difference in quality of entrants underscores all of the above. A quick summary: while the two European tournaments had a combined 9 players ranked in the top 80, the two US tournaments had zero players ranked in the top 80.)
The headline performances of the seven players in 2014 are reflected by their 2013 record. See table below. I would argue that the lack of competition is responsible for the different trajectories of the seven players analysed. The four players who played the larger proportion of higher-ranked players in 2013 have kicked on in 2014.
2014: Best ATP points results of selected US / European players
- Vesely, Thiem, and Struff with greater competition last year have continued to improve with excellent “best results” in 2014.
- Young made the third round at the Australian Open in 2014, a fair result for his work in 2013.
The other three players have had mixed results. It is relevant that Smyczek and Klahn’s best performances have come at Challenger level so far this year as opposed to ATP level (Smyczek is 0-5 against top 100 players in 2014); while Sock continues to struggle to assert himself on the ATP Tour. Without that competition, it is difficult to know either how well they are playing or how good they could be.
It will be interesting to see how Smyczek, Sock, Johnson and Russell perform in Miami qualifying this week: none has been given a wild card into the Miami Masters 1000 main draw.
3) A SUGGESTED REMEDY
Open a USTA regional centre on the Mediterranean coast. Nice, France or Barcelona, Spain should do the trick.
There is no question that finances play a large part in why the three European players played 0 Challenger tournaments in the US, in the same way that the US players played the majority of their Challenger tournaments in the US. Travelling for Challenger tournaments incurs a large upfront cost on a tour where the winner of a tournament can expect to earn in the area of USD 6,000 to USD 10,000 – let alone those that get knocked out in the first round. It is not sustainable.
But to become more competitive, US players should play more in Europe. Accordingly, the centre would provide the financial support, training facilities and European base for Team USA. Players can enter ATP or Challenger tournaments in Europe with the USTA meeting the costs that would otherwise preclude the players from travelling to Europe.
This would allow US players to benefit from greater competition, exposure to different events, and especially better preparation for grand slams and Masters 1000 tournaments. The players’ rankings are already sufficient to allow them direct entry to European clay court events and also Challenger events. In time, this would help to reduce the current discrepancy in the performances of US players between matches played in the US and those outside the US. (Isner wins 70% of his matches played in the US, and only 52% played outside the US.)
However, as it is currently, the cost of travelling and paying for accommodation means that US players play a majority of tournaments in the US. As a result, US male professionals play other Americans more. With Isner and Querrey playing Challenger tournaments very infrequently, the fundamental question is: what good does it do Americans to play each other if none of them is ranked that high?
Time for a rethink. Time for the Riviera.
“You know, if we wanted to take each other’s rolls, we could have just stayed home”
The analysis in this appendix briefly compares two weeks on the calendar at the end of the year. In consecutive weeks in November in 2013, Europe hosted the Bratislava and Helsinki Challenger tournaments. The US hosted Challenger tournaments in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in Champaign , Illinois.
The European and US tournaments could not be more different in terms of quality.
Week commencing 4 November 2013
The Bratislava tournament had 5 players ranked within the top 80. The rank of the “last direct acceptance” (the lowest ranked of all the players automatically included in the main draw) was 221.
In contrast, the Challenger tournament in the same week in Knoxville was far weaker: no players were ranked in the top 80. The 8 seeds were all American and the last direct acceptance was ranked 340.
Week commencing 11 November 2013
Move on a week. The Helsinki tournament attracted 4 players ranked within the top 80; last direct acceptance was ranked 257. For the Champaign tournament , again no one within the top 80, top 4 seeds all US and a last direct acceptance of 570.
With the high number of US players involved at these tournaments, the impression is of the same group of players fighting a zero sum game over a fixed number of ATP ranking points. It reminds me of the film Rounders where a bunch of poker sharks, waiting to take down hapless tourists in an Atlantic City casino, play among themselves, when one says: “You know, if we wanted to take each other’s rolls, we could have just stayed home.”
The US men’s tennis contingent needs to leave home.