So as you have read in the previous 2 parts, a drive towards fitness, a key seeding change and a distribution of prize money that more acutely favours the top 32 appear to have contributed to the fundamental alteration of the trajectory of tennis players’ careers. These factors reinforce each other.
What does it all mean? A few notes.
- The irony of the 32 seed issue is that what benefits the 17-32 group as a whole does not benefit the individual. How so? The group of 17-32 seeds have as a group reached round 3 of grand slams more post-2001 than pre-2001; but to compare the same two periods they reach fewer quarter-finals. Presumably catching a top player cold at the start of a grand slam is of the essence. So, those ranked 17-32 have been buttressed as a group but to the detriment of the individual.
- Let’s say that a player turns pro at 17 and, for the sake of argument, that reaching the top 100 is enough to earn a living. 30 years ago, that player if he broke the top 100 would have taken an average of 5 years to do so. Since 2009, a player has had to fight for a further 2 years before breaking through. Does the lack of prize money on offer at the lower levels of the tour mean that players who would otherwise break through are no longer able to? If this favours players from wealth backgrounds or with wealthy supportive federations, will it reduce the quality of players that do break through?
- Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP, has stated that the Challenger Tour should support players who are up-and-coming and should not artificially support veteran professionals who are not going to improve: the Challenger Tour is “meant to be a feeding mechanism, not a place where someone can earn a living”. If anything, the analysis in these 3 posts shows that if any tier of players is being artificially supported, it is those ranked 17 to 32. At what point is the ATP artificially supporting someone on the Challenger Tour if players are improving their rankings in their 30s (Vanni, Estrella Burgos, Feliciano Lopez)? And if it takes a player 7 years to break into the top 100 (turning pro at 17) should they not be supported financially at Challenger Tour level in the “feeding mechanism”?
- The outlook of the tour is uncertain. Have we reached a new norm of fewer teenagers and more 30 year olds? Probably. What does that mean for future grand slam success? A couple of writers from the tennis blog, The Changeover, have drawn attention to the fact that “the ATP has stopped making good young tennis players”. The writers refer to a group of players whose grand slam winning potential appears to have been passed over because of the dominance of the Big 4 (Federer et al.). In 2013, The Changeover called these players, which included the likes of Nishikori, Cilic, Raonic and Janowicz, “The Lost Boys”. The analysis in part 1 shows that the peak period for a career is later than ever before (or being extended) and the age when we used to call someone a veteran – let’s say 28 years of age – is now around the peak of their career. The phenomenon identified by The Changeover is right, but not the labelling: Nishikori et al may actually be The Delayed Boys rather than The Lost Boys – something that is borne out precisely by Nishikori, Cilic and Wawrinka winning and reaching the finals of slams in the last 12 months.
It is incumbent on the ATP and the ITF (for Grand Slam tournaments) to decide what kind of tour and tournaments they want to run. At its extremes you have 2 options: a tour defined by providing outsized financial rewards to the elite players and raising the barriers to entry; or a tour that distributes prize money more equally and sets the conditions for insurgency in its younger talent.
Of course there’s a balance to be struck; and any decision involves trade-offs.
By sustaining the elite you give the top players more of a stake in their success and you also have the opportunity to create more gladiatorial narratives for fans based around Federer-Djokovic XLI or Federer-Nadal XXXIV etc.
By removing barriers to entry (reducing seeds to 16, more equal prize money) you level the playing field for younger players making their way in the game. And there’s some evidence that you actually promote the 17-32 group by giving them the opportunity to strike the 1-16 group earlier in grand slams.
Both points of view are legitimate and I can understand both. But my 2 recommendations are as follows:
- For the ATP – Improve prize money at Challenger Tour level.
The Challenger Tour prize money increases announced in January 2015 are insubstantial, and are dwarfed by the increases awarded at the ATP main tour level. To allow younger players to close the gap with their main tour peers on the level of resources (i.e. coaching, trainers), Challenger Tour prize money should be increased.
What’s important to emphasise is that improving Challenger tour prize money by significant percentages is a relatively simple exercise and inexpensive.
To make Challenger tour prize money in 2014 equal to what it was in 1978 (adjusted for inflation) would cost only USD 3.4 million. An extra USD 15 million would result in the doubling of Challenger tour prize money since 1978. That may be a stretch in one go, but the ATP’s recently announced investments in ATP 250, 500 and 1000 prize money are worth over USD35m annually by 2018. In other words, sharing even 10% of the increase in main tour prize money with the Challenger tour would be enough to keep Challenger Tour prize money equal to (not more than) what it was in the late 1970s, adjusted for inflation.
Prize money scenarios for ATP Challenger Tour
There are some who have a problem with Gilles Simon’s comments about the WTA tour. But on the subject of financial capabilities, he was right in April 2015 when he said: “The best in the world travel with their coach, their stringer, their doctor, sometimes their hitting partner. On the other hand, you have number 80 in the world who gets there without being able to afford a coach. Those two types of players face each other in the first round of a Grand Slam. To me that shouldn’t be possible.”
- For the ITF – time to remove 32 seeds at grand slams and revert to 16 seeds
Having 32 seeds provides players ranked 17-32 with a subsidy amounting to on average 40 points a year or the equivalent of reaching an ATP 250 quarter final. This is an arbitrary subsidy as it is not clear why this group of players – or indeed any group of players – deserves the subsidy.
It is time to scrap it and not just in the interests of fairness and lowering the barriers to entry to the top 32. It is also in the best interests of those ranked 17-32 if they did but know it: having 32 seeds is shown to make progression into the quarter finals of slams less likely for individuals within the 17-32 group than if there were 16 seeds.
It may also make the first 2 rounds of a grand slam tournament less susceptible to lopsided matches. It may even make those matches more exciting – but I can’t find the data for that…
Thanks for reading.