tAt the end of the week, the Tours will conclude the tournaments in Astana, Kazakhstan (ATP) and Ostrava, Czech Republic (WTA). Both are highly valued events at the 500 level. The Astana event is newly released, while Ostrava has made a giant leap from jungle championships in just two years to becoming a 500.
These details point to the increasingly changing nature of travel calendars. The championship slate has periodically been jolted by winds of change, as regional powers inflate or shrink the game, investors push to buy bits of the global pie, and unexpected forces — the Covid pandemic, Russia’s gratuitous war on Ukraine, Arab oil wealth — demand adjustments.
The four Grand Slam events, which have existed in their primary format and occupied the same area on the calendar for over a century, create a fundamental sense of stability in tennis. But when it comes to touring, the reality is quite different.
A decade ago, tours were so close to becoming a direct podium presenter for the Slam. This form is the European clay court swing that is still thriving, culminating with the French Open. Unfortunately, other majors haven’t had a very large window to create tuning events, but the US Open series and the run-up to the Australian Open have done fair imitation.
This approach is no longer emphasized for a number of reasons, including how inseparably “game development” and “chasing money” are intertwined. In addition, tennis reformers and the public have been beating the drum on behalf of more combined events (ATP/WTA), and
Special team events such as the Laver Cup. So let’s see how much touring has changed in the past 10 years.
In 2012, the ATP tournament featured 65 tournaments (we exclude the four Grand Slams as they are independent), more than this year. As always, nine featured Masters 1000 events sit at the top of a three-tiered pyramid built around the ATP 250s and 500s. (The number stands for the number of ranking points awarded to the singles champion). 250s are the most common; There were 40 played in 2012, and 42 played this year).
Masters became untouchable, and were exempted from the kinds of horse trade characteristic of the lower classes, in which tournament rights were bought and sold, and events often moved from one place to another. The same nine events are scheduled this year as in 2012 (and every year in between), but only eight competitions will be played in 2022, with Shanghai canceled for the third year in a row due to China’s Covid restrictions.
A decade ago, the ATP kicked off a variety of five 250 championships and one special event exhibition (WTA/WTA Hopman Cup) that took place no more than two weeks before the start of the Australian Open. The richest of those countries was Doha, Qatar, with prize money alone exceeding $1 million – more than double what other events had to offer, including the two held in Australia.
This year, the tour kicked off on January 3 with the tour’s official team event, the $10 million ATP Cup. Four traditional 250 tournaments have been scaled back in the next two weeks (two of them back-to-back in Adelaide) to a vastly shrunk area that includes only the metropolitan centers of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Auckland fell off the calendar. Doha and Chennai, India, have been moved to the February time slots.
This year’s post-Australian Open calendar was the same familiar hodge-podge as in 2016. The winter segment features 250 games played on four different continents, indoors and outdoors, on two different surfaces (nine events on hard, four on clay in South America mini tour). Three of the four 500 events are on hard courts. Very little has changed in this part, aside from some usual musical chairs activity between 250s.
The 1000s in Indian Wells, Miami (also known as the “Sunshine Double”) is the sport’s major stroke of scheduling, in terms of location, dates, and timing. They went ahead with joint events and dropped the curtain in a big way in the first third of the year — just as they did in 2012.
The spring clay court schedule has been virtually unchanged over the past ten years, showing a strong show of stability for both the ATP and WTA. The decision to postpone Wimbledon by a week, starting in 2015, was impactful. The six grass court squeezes now leading up to Wimbledon represent a 50 percent increase from 2012, and with Halle’s upgrade, he has doubled the 500 event tally to two. The result was an instant revival of the lawn, often criticized as an “outdated” surface.
Both Tours had major challenges after the final major of the year. The Shanghai Masters has been canceled for the third year in a row by the ATP. So was the rest of the Chinese, due to the uncertainty about the Covid policies of the host country (also gone at the moment, Beijing 500).
But fear not if you enjoy watching ATP tennis, in order to make up for China’s darkening, the ATP issued one-year ATP 250 licenses to six cities in September and (mostly) October – a month now filled with ten tournaments. That’s more tournaments than the ATP introduced in April to celebrate the start of the clay court season.
The ATP’s liberal “guarantee” (appearance money) policy has ensured you’ll see plenty of top stars in those 250s this month, because the paycheck they get just for appearing could be bigger than the prize money the champ gets.
A loaded October schedule contains the Paris Masters and four 500 events. This should energize the final weeks of the season, and make up more than enough for the cancellation of the Kremlin Cup in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For the second year, the ATP Finals will be held in Turin, Italy.
How many of these one-off fall events, played in places like Naples, Italy, and Gijón, Spain, will last into 2023 and possibly beyond? who do you know
The WTA, which has never before gained professional tennis players, is in an even more precarious position. When the WTA unveiled its “roadmap” in 2009, one of its top goals was rapid penetration into the booming Chinese market. The combination of Covid and the WTA’s highly principled stance in the Peng Shuai case has left the future of the massive Tour bet on China up in the air.
In 2012, the WTA featured 50 tournaments, with four complementary events to the Australian Open (including the 500s) along with the combined Hopman Cup. This year, due in part to Covid and the rift with China, the WTA 51 staged, but with fewer prestigious events and significantly reduced prize money.
Sure, there was an additional adjustment to the Australian Open compared to 2012 — but only two of those five tournaments offered more than $240,000 in relatively paltry prize money. But the biggest problem looms at the end of the year.
The WTA had to cancel five Chinese events that were still running in the fall before the Covid crisis and Peng. What that means going forward is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that a major source of income for the WTA has run out.
Basically, the WTA reads from the same rules of the game as the ATP, trying to maintain the tradition of a consistent tour narrative based on area and playing surface. Both tours are committed to providing jobs to their constituents on a weekly basis until the passing sports season is over. This entails the use of a certain amount of smoke and mirrors.
Current difficulties have revived efforts to exploit deeper collaboration if not outright fusion between tours. In 2021, the WTA finally took the much-needed step of eliminating overly confusing tournament categories in favor of the clear and simple three-tier ATP (1000, 500, 250) system.
Most tennis insiders and fans agree that the way forward for both tours is closer involvement with each other, and with the big four.
As ATP Tour President Andrea Gaudenzi said in an interview in Sports Business magazine in mid-2020, “If I can sum it up, I would like the tennis fan to have a single check-in experience into the world of tennis.” –Tennis.com