ATP plots three-year plan to develop Challenger circuit

15 November 2013 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By Michael Long | Contact the author

ATP plots three-year plan to develop Challenger circuit

Russia's Teymuraz Gabashvili, a seven-time champion on the ATP Challenger Tour, is one of eight players competing in Sao Paulo this week.

The ATP Challenger Tour Finals got underway in Sao Paulo, Brazil earlier this week with the second-level tour’s eight best players doing battle for the year-end crown. Ahead of the event, SportsPro spoke to Andre Silva (below), the ATP’s chief player officer and a member of the organisation’s Challenger Committee, to discuss the future of men’s tennis’s ‘other’ circuit.

You’ve probably never heard of Teymuraz Gabashvili, Oleksandr Nedovyesov or Guilherme Clezar. You may not know where Bucaramanga, Le Gosier and Rimouski are. But names such as these are part of everyday life on the ATP Challenger Tour.

Administered by the ATP, the ATP Challenger Tour is the second highest level of competition in professional men’s tennis and this week the tour’s eight best players, including the aforementioned trio, have travelled to Sao Paulo in Brazil for the season-ending ATP Challenger Tour Finals.

Held on the outdoor clay of the Sociedade Harmonia de Tenis, the Finals are the culmination of a season that began as long ago as New Year’s Eve last year but which has taken place well and truly under the radar.

In order to ensure the same will not be said of years to come, the ATP has laid out a three-year plan with the aim of creating a second-tier circuit that is not only a viable career path for its players, but also an attractive proposition for fans, media and sponsors alike.

“It is a challenge because it’s a difficult product to sell,” admits Andre Silva, the ATP’s chief player officer and a member of the organisation’s Challenger Committee who is directly involved in the day-to-day running of the Challenger Tour.

“I think we are a little bit behind and need to do a better job of creating a platform, or a better platform. The platform exists but it needs to be one that makes more sense.”

This year, some 145 Challenger tournaments in more than 40 countries have been held in the run up to the Finals and another eight take place this week or next. Events have been staged in countries as diverse as Ukraine, Korea, Ecuador, Guadeloupe and even the tiny south Pacific island of New Caledonia.

By spanning the farthest reaches of the globe, travelling as it does to some undeniably obscure destinations, the Challenger Tour enables professional men’s tennis, sanctioned under the ATP banner, to reach fans that otherwise wouldn’t be able to see it in the flesh. But that, coupled with a congested calendar, poses a number of scheduling challenges.

“One thing that you see, especially at the beginning of the year, is there is a lot of holes and understanding the circuit is very important,” says Silva, a Brazilian who works out of the ATP's Ponte Vedra Beach office.

“Players that are trying to come through and make it to the ATP level, they cannot be spending a lot of money travelling around, going one day to play a tournament in Germany and next week having their only opportunity to play in Tokyo. You need to figure out a way to create swings and we, the ATP, are committed to finding ways to attract tournaments in the right regions at the right weeks.”

Though nowhere near as glamorous and not nearly as lucrative as its World Tour cousin, the Challenger circuit provides a vital gateway for players seeking to earn enough world ranking points to compete on the elite tour.

The ATP describes it as “the springboard to fame for the future stars of professional tennis”, but while it is true that the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and many more of the game’s greatest exponents have progressed through its ranks, the reality is that the majority of the players currently competing on the circuit will never reach such heights.

Part of the ATP’s strategy to better facilitate a player’s pathway to the elite, therefore, is to incentivise existing Challenger tournaments to upgrade their category status. With events assigned world ranking points according to how much prize money they offer and whether they have hospitality facilities – they range from US$35,000 to US$125,000 plus hospitality - Silva believes tournaments must find ways of increasing the prize money they offer.

“Right now we find a lot of Challengers at the same level, at the US$50,000 level, and we want more Challengers at the US$75,000, US$100,000 and US$125,000 levels,” he explains.

“We are already, at the beginning of next year in January, we’re going to have a tournament [in Heilbronn, Germany] that is going to jump from US$100,000 to US$125,000. We have a couple of tournaments that are going to go from US$50,000 to US$75,000, and that’s important because it’s not only money, it’s about the points.

"We need to find ways to create better mobility, create a less expensive journey for the guys playing to come through."

“The higher the prize money, the more points and that creates the opportunity for people to actually move up the rankings. If everybody only played at the US$50,000 level, they’re actually going to balance themselves out and the other guys are going to continue to be where they are. So we need to find ways to create better mobility, create a less expensive journey for the guys playing to come through.”

That, however, will not be easy whilst the gap continues to widen between the haves and have-nots. Players competing at the Challenger level - and indeed those at the lower reaches of the ATP World Tour, many of whom compete in Challenger events throughout the year - are struggling to make ends meet while those at the top of the game, who regularly play for six or seven-figure prize funds, are getting richer and better equipped to deal with the rigours of an increasingly physical and internationalised sport.

“Of course the guys at the top are better prepared, they are fitter, they understand better how to stay at the top,” Silva adds, “so it’s normal that it’s taking a little longer for teenagers to break through.”

As 2013 draws to a close and the 2014 Challenger Tour schedule is gradually pieced together, the first phase of the ATP’s three-year plan will see the lowest level of prize money increase US$5,000 to US$40,000 next year. It is a modest raise but one which Silva believes is at least a step in the right direction.

“Eventually we don’t want to see at the bottom level US$40,000 – we want to see higher,” he says. “We want to create a system where you basically allow tournaments to come into the calendar but only at a certain level because it doesn’t make sense to have any more at the minimum level.

“If there was a blank canvas, it would be great and you could probably do everything you want but it’s not in the best interest of the players either for us to be radical and then they lose a bunch of tournaments. That’s the fine balance of keeping enough opportunities but at the same time improving the opportunities.

“You know at first you’re going to find resistance, you’re going to find people that can actually not get to where you want, so it has to be more of a three-year plan than a one-year plan.”

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