Britain’s two hard court challenger events, at Bath and Loughborough, won’t be taking place in 2013. It means the only professional men’s tennis staged in Britain at Challenger level and above will be on grass.
The decision to end the two events (both were €42,500) is a complex one, seemingly based on a mixture of economics, rankings and more and offers a real insight into the kind of conundrums that national associations have to make when it comes to their role in player development.
British men’s tennis, as anyone who watches Davis Cup will know, has Andy Murray and everyone else. With injury hitting James Ward, who had been a top 200 regular, the second ranked Brit is currently Jamie Baker (at 246) although he will be moving on up after his qualification for the Australian Open hits the ATP computer.
This means, as things stand, most British players would require a wild card for entry to a Challenger tournament with a half-decent draw. There are arguments that there’s a wider benefit in staging better quality events for players to test themselves, and possibly even giving local players and fans the chance to see top 75-150 ranked men in action. The amount of spectators would suggest otherwise. The Challengers though, are clearly a loss making exercise, and there is every chance they need more than a six figure sum (together) to stage when all costs are taken into account, unless a more than generous sponsor could intervene.
With a cold accountant’s heart eyeing things, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association clearly don’t feel they offer British tennis value in terms of what their home players get.
The money though, hasn’t gone into the LTA coffers. Instead, they have decided to stage more $10,000 futures events to the point where there are around 40 weeks worth, offering an AEGON British tour almost year round.
So the calculations clearly are of a trade-off of more opportunities to play at home and to play more opponents of a similar level – in theory a way to help Britain’s aspiring men accumulate ranking points and move up the system.
The downside to this is that players don’t get to learn some of the demands of playing outside home comforts. If a player wants to be a global success, then they do, at some point, have to face the delights of a South American crowd baying for their favourite on a second serve break point.
It also reinforces grass as the dominant surface within British tennis, which is perhaps not the best way to encourage players to have an all-court approach that would appear to be required to survive the slower pudding like offerings across much of the main tour.
The other side of the Challenger sacrifice and change is a more innovative approach, of a bonus system for British performances in Challengers and Futures where players are paid extra for wins, up to an including qualifying for ATP Tour events. For the full amount of payments, see the link, but a British player who qualifies and then wins a round in a Challenger will receive £1,000 (at the moment that’s US$1,580) on top of their tournament prize money. Lose in the 2nd round of the Maui Challenger this week and you get $680 (it’s a $50,000 event), so you can see how significant this scheme is. Jamie Baker, who’s suffered with medical problems aplenty, has welcome this support in particular.
In value for money terms, it would appear to offer British players more than staging home tournaments and it may also help those at the age of 22-23 who have yet to break through hang round for that extra year which it might just require to get them on their way to the increasingly ageing top 100. The players have to sign a code of conduct to get the payments, but it doesn’t restrict them in terms of demands of using LTA coaching and so on, which is important.
There are other questions too about whether Britain, as the home of a Grand Slam, should offer events through the riches generated, or if indeed it’s the right approach to be more “ruthless” in helping home grown talent develop. If more players move up, then Challengers may become more worthwhile again.
The wider concern may be for Challenger-nomics, if more associations crunch the numbers and decide that staging the second tier tournaments isn’t worth it.
As usual, your opinions are welcome here….comment below.
Many thanks to Irish tennis player/coach Mark Carpenter for his help in inspiring this article.