In any other year, Vijay Sundar Prashanth’s ranking would have been healthy. He would have had his head above water, swimming against the tide but swimming nevertheless. That changed on December 24, 2018. From World No 746, it dropped to 0. A rude Christmas gift for the 32-year-old who has always held a singles ranking since September 22, 2008. Ten years and three months of graft on various tennis courts around the world airbrushed from history over the course of one night.
Anirudh Chandrasekar was just beginning his career. As an 18-year-old, he won his first ATP ranking point in Cairo more than two years ago. Since appearing on the rankings list with a ‘1929T’ against his name on October 3, 2016, he has always been ranked. That changed on December 24, 2018. The ATP rankings list, the field of his dreams, now had a new number next to his name. 0.
Sidharth Rawat at least has a ranking. 444. But he’s approaching a make or break year. He’s 25, an age when most people begin trading high-risk investments for blue-chip options. Rawat, though, has no such options open. The only field he is well versed in is tennis so he will give himself 18 more months. Will it be worth the investment? Nobody knows.
These were just three of the many stories Indian tennis players shared at the ongoing Chennai Open Challenger. Even as the chill in the air may have departed for sunshine, the stories all have that one singular sense of dread. To borrow a famous phrase from Game of Thrones, winter is coming for the majority of India’s tennis players.
Before going forward, here’s a recap as to what the International Tennis Federation (ITF) did last year. On February 1, 2018, the body announced radical measures as part of ‘major restructuring of professional tennis’. Measures included replacing Futures, the lowest level of professional men’s tennis, with something called the ITF transition tour.
Its creation, the ITF said, “is based on research that shows that while over 14,000 players compete each year in professional tournaments, only around 350 men and 250 women break even financially without consideration of coaching costs.” The release further said “(...) structure is expected to reduce the number of professional players with ATP and WTA rankings from 3,000 players to approximately 750 men and 750 women. “The new transition tour tournaments, which will offer $15,000 in prize money, will replace the existing $15,000 men’s and women’s tournaments on the ITF Pro Circuit in 2019 and will award ITF Entry Points instead of ATP and WTA ranking points.”
The $25,000 events, second lowest in the pyramid, will continue to offer ranking points but only for semifinalists and finalists. Even that would be off the table from 2020. It would, however, continue to offer WTA rankings points at all levels. The ranking points earned by Indians at these $15,000 events throughout 2018 were converted to ITF Entry Points on the morning of December 24. Forty-eight Indian men’s singles players had a ranking two days before Christmas. Only 14 survived the bloodbath.
Why did the ITF do what it did? For three main reasons: giving the juniors a better chance of making that next step, trying to root out match-fixing at the lowest levels and cutting the number of days needed to host meets at the lowest level to help associations save cost.But the ITF may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. To address one problem, they may have inadvertently created another. In theory, having a separate rankings system for entry-level players sounds like a workable approach. However, the ground reality is it has, over a short course of time, killed thousands of dreams.
Chandrasekar explains. “People who want to pursue the sport out of passion will not be able to do so anymore,” he said. “I am still not able to figure out how it’s helpful for the players. The ITF told us it’s going to be helpful but I don’t think it’s that helpful. Guys who are 22 and above and still trying to make it big... not a good thing for them. Earlier, I was getting into the main draw of Futures. Now, I am getting into the qualifiers of the transition tours which is fine because I am at least getting to play in the tournament. But a few of my friends who are yet to get a point... they may end up quitting the sport altogether.”
The 20-year-old will go back to the transition tour but his pathway to the Challengers looks like an Indian road after monsoon season: potholes, slush and pools of rainwater. Here’s what he needs to do to even have a chance. Criss-cross Asia, Africa and the US to play in transition tour events before his ITF world ranking — currently 834 — improves by at least 750 places. So, roughly, he will have to be one of the world’s top 50 best-performing athletes on the transition tour to even have a shot at regularly playing the Challengers.
Guess what? There are 64 Indians who are ranked below the Chennai lad in the ITF rankings list. The pressure is going to be huge because how quickly they progress is directly dependent on how quickly they start winning the low-level events. This is something Prashanth alluded to. “That (the pressure to perform every time we are stepping on the court) is probably the one thing that is on everybody’s minds.”
It’s why the likes of Rawat and other compatriots ranked below him are circumspect about the future. “I will go back to playing on the transition tour to improve my rankings there,” he said. “A player who is good in the transition tour will get more opportunities than me because he has a better ranking. So it’s equally important for us to play that tour.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the people are against it. Nobody likes it to be honest.” The 25-year-old reckoned more and more people will start thinking like himself in the long-run. “If you see it that (taking a call and looking at alternative career options) way... definitely more people might have to make that call.”
Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali had already told this newspaper how the knock-on effect could have severe ramifications for Indians. “The new rules will make it very hard for players outside that bracket (600 and below) to play in the Challengers,” he had said in October. “But considering Indian athletes don’t have many home Challengers, securing wild cards or even getting into qualifying is going to be very difficult.”
Leave aside the Challengers. If sources are to be believed, India may not host a single transition event till July, putting the careers of many at risk. Thus, the only avenue for seeking Entry Points is to keep flying overseas and hope for the best. A Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) official who wasn’t willing to be named said they might consider hosting a $15,000 event in September but it comes with its own complex issues. No sponsor wants to come on board to give their name to an event which has no ATP ranking points.
An All India Tennis Association (AITA) official explained further. “Even if I am willing to sponsor an event, why will I do so after knowing it has no world ranking points on offer? These rules may make it more difficult for us to approach corporates.” If AITA or state associations don’t, Prashanth has a warning. “If they don’t do it, then next year no one is going to have any ranking points or Entry Points.”
The scene is slightly better for the country’s women’s players because the $25,000 meets will continue to offer WTA ranking points at all levels beyond 2019. But even they will struggle to remain competitive if they don’t go abroad. Because, as it stands, India hosts only one $25,000 women’s event per year.
Ankita Raina, India’s best by a distance, said she won’t be affected because of her ranking but that’s not the case for most of her peers. Fifty three women have Entry Points but how many will make that transition to the senior circuit?
There is an Indian athlete, XY. Now, XY gamed the Futures system. How did he do it? Even after winning multiple Futures events, XY insisted on remaining at that level to take his rankings into the top 250. He wasn’t willing to push himself to the next level. This will be stopped under the new system and that’s predominantly why India No 1 Prajnesh Gunneswaran is fond of the idea.
“I think playing less of Futures and more of Challengers improves players,” he said. “The faster you get to that level, the better it is. If you can get to 250-300 by just playing Futures and about five Challengers a year, you are never going to be ready to step up. Now, what will happen is that you play transition and make some Entry Points and the second you make the Challengers cut, you are going to play that. I think that’s the right method.”
But even he is not sure what to make of the lack of world ranking points. “(...) a lot of people are not going to be ranked... I don’t know what to make of it.” Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat too echoed a similar view but he also had a warning. “The idea when it was introduced was good,” he said. “I really liked it because I had experienced it myself. When you are playing Futures, you can break into the top 200 if you are good enough. But it quickly becomes your comfort zone and if you go play in the Challengers or Slams, you can’t win anything. It has happened to me. I won nine Futures in one year but I couldn’t win a match at the Challenger level.”
However, the 28-year-old says the new rules aren’t fair to the younger generation. “If you are 350-400, you don’t get a chance to play in the Challenger because the cuts are very high every week.” What’s more, Egypt, a hotbed for Futures events, might go the Indian way of not hosting many events. “At the end of the day, it’s a business for the people (sponsors). They do it for the business and not to help players. If the business is not working, there is going to be no tournament. That’s how it is. If they start losing money, there is going to be no tournament. That’s how it is. If they start losing money, I don’t think they will continue. No one wants to lose money, no?” Safwat said. Except the players whose dreams may have just become unattainable.
Futures rebranded as transition tour, with $15,000 events no longer having ATP/WTA ranking points. $25,000 to stop offering ATP ranking points from next season. But women’s $25,000 events will continue to offer WTA points.
Transition tour events to have something called ‘ITF Entry Points’. Getting enough Entry Points to qualify for the Challengers is the way forward.
Qualifying size for some lowest-tier events down from 128 to a maximum of 24, thus limiting opportunities. It’s the same at the Challengers.
With lack of Challengers and transition events at home, they will be forced to go overseas in order to fetch vital Entry Points.
Corporates unwilling to sponsor transition events because of a lack of ATP ranking points.
With many having lost their status as professional players, they are worried about their future.
Many in the 250-450 bracket may struggle to get competitions every week because of the high cuts in the Challengers going forward.
No of Indian men’s singles players who saw their ranking fall to zero at the end of last year.
No of men’s singles players having ITF Entry Points as of February 9 (53 is the corresponding number for the women).
No of Indians in the top 100 in the ITF ranking system.
No of men’s tournaments in the first quarter of 2019. The corresponding figure last year was 114.
Rankings only for the top 750 men and 750 women.
No of reserved places for top ITF Entry Point-ranked players in the main draw of Challenger tournaments.
Year ITF okayed ‘Player Pathway’ study. It found out too many players were competing professionally.