The Challenge of the Challenger Tour

For most of the year, both the avid and casual tennis fan have ample access to professional tournaments from around the world thanks to the wonders of modern live streaming and satellite television. These tournaments usually host between 32-48 of the world’s top tennis players. On any given weekend, there are two to three of these ATP/WTA events meaning that if you are ranked within the top 100 or so, you get easy access into them and easier access to the prize money necessary to run a career.

However, just below this land of television coverage, large advertising deals, and packed stands, another important level of professional tennis exists. The ATP Tour Challenger circuit is highest level of proving grounds for tennis players working to find success on the main ATP Tour.  The Challenger tour is full of players crossing lines between main tour events and the minor league circuit, new younger players looking to build both game and ranking, and the experienced journey seeking to come back and reclaim his ranking and spot in main tour events.

There has been much discussion over the past few months about the ATP’s purse structure and prize money allotment. Many tennis pundits and players have pointed out the lagging winnings of players on tour ranked outside the top 50. As of April 15th Florin Merga sits in 100th spot on the ATP money leaders list having won $107, 479. In comparison on the PGA tour, John Huh who sits in 100th spot on the money leaders list has earned $429,909 to date. Obviously popularity and sponsors dictates prize structure, but the umbrella of the professional tours also has much responsibility in the distributing of revenue. In 2012 the ATP had a much publicized revue increase of 12% to $91 million, with a 16 million dollar surplus.  The ATP recently announced serious efforts to help put an influx of money into Challenger purses, increasing all Challenger purses to a minimum of $40,000 (purse and hospitality) with hopes of increasing them to a minimum of $50,000 in the near future.

Rajeev Ram is an ATP tour veteran who is currently the 139th-best man in the world. Rajeev has carved out a career for himself by pursuing opportunities and points in both ATP main draw events as well as challenger tourneys. Ram has witnessed every level of professional tennis and is quick to acknowledge that the ATP has stepped up efforts to help increase purses and distributing of those funds. “I have noticed an effort but we are talking marginal changes. When I first started playing, the lowest level challenger was $25,000, and they have gotten rid of those, and now it is like $35,000 with hospitality. The changes are noticed, but we are talking marginal.”  Ram, like many on tour has asked himself, why it has taken so long? “It has been a very long time coming…I know that people I have worked with as coaches, who played back in the ’80s and ’90s played for the exact same amount of money in many of these challengers… and I am sure that money on the main level, the main tour has gone up over 100% over that same amount of time.” A good example of this increase is scene on tennis’ most publicized and watched events: the Grand Slams. In 1990, Pete Sampras took home around $350,000 for his victory over Andre Agassi in the US Open final. The 2015 US Open champ will garner close to two million dollars. Smaller tournaments have also had purse increase requirements. The lowest level of ATP main tour event (ATP 250) must offer $400,000 in total prize money. However, up until this year, challenger requirements had been fairly steadfast as to what prize money was to be offered.

The lag in purse increases seems to indicate an under-appreciation of tour professionals whose ranking is under the top echelon. Although many of the faces wouldn’t be recognizable to the casual Sports Center viewer, these players are the meat of the ATP Tour main draws, and their faces are very recognizable to the knowledgeable base of avid tour fans that tennis has. Ram referenced offhand remarks by tour commentators on major networks that seem to undervalue the accomplishment of winning Challenger tour events, indirectly disrespecting the quality of play of players at that level. “One place could get better is on television.  I hear a lot of times commentators talking about one of the big names who is getting ready to play a player is ranked, 50, 60, 70th in the world and their results over the years and how the guy won a Challenger somewhere, and they sort of just disregard it as it isn’t a good result, and I think that is where we as a sport have to change —make those wins seem more credible because that is a very good result for any player to win at the Challenger level.”

Ram is quick to make a point that the level of play on the Challenger tour is not different from that of the main tour events. “A big misconception about Challenger level events is that they will somehow  draw not as good of players, or not real professional tennis players…a bulk of the players are all very similar to who is playing the draws of main tour tournaments, the only difference is that on the main tour you do have a few more top 20 guys. It’s a weird misconception to me that the level of play is so much different, when it really is not.”  A good example of his point would be the recently held Irving Tennis Classic, a $125,000 challenger event held outside Dallas. Main draw participants included familiar names like Jeremy Chardy, Dominic Thiem, Jerzy Janowicz ,Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Giles Muller (all players well within the top 50). Of that group, only Muller made the semis. In the tourney final, up-and-coming Aljaz Bedene defeated the American, Australian Open hero Tim Smyzcek.

Challengers are a proving ground for both the young talent of professional tennis and seasoned veterans. Rafael Nadal won three ATP Challengers in the years preceding his main tour career; Novak Djokovic held trophies of three Challenger events before becoming a main tour force. How can anyone forget Andre Agassi using the Challenger circuit as a place to find his game again, develop his confidence as he sought to gain back the form that had made him a Grand Slam champion? Agassi went on to win five more Grand Slams after his time on the Challenger tour. Sam Querry just last year used the year end California swing of the challenger circuit to find form, confidence, and the all-important ATP tour points to help him back into position of contention on the tour for 2015. The ATP has made millions in revenue from marketing players like these on tour, and if the ATP is going to continue to build and promote its brand across the world, it will continue to need these Challenger tourneys for both grassroots fan support and grassroots athlete development.  The communities that host these tourneys have long and storied commitments to them. The marginalization, or even perception of marginalization, of the Challenger circuit needs to be changed. Just as the minor league systems of American baseball, and European football are celebrated and much ballyhooed (even the NBA is investing in the NBDL more), so should the ATP seek to promote and laud the Challenger circuit and promote its special place in the professional tennis world. As Ram concluded, “…the ATP has a responsibility just like any other company to protect its employees, in this case the players.  It doesn’t matter what their respective rankings may be, they are all entitled to the same rights from the governing body.”

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