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Testing time for young guns in tennis

A lot has been said about the 'next gen', but the longevity and domination of the Big Three coupled with the restructured pro tour poses many questions

Alexander Zverev has four ATP Masters 1,000 titles but a last-eight finish at the 2018 French Open remains his best show at the majors.
Alexander Zverev has four ATP Masters 1,000 titles but a last-eight finish at the 2018 French Open remains his best show at the majors.

On 30 December, the first day of qualifying at the Tata Open Maharashtra, Sumit Nagal wandered around the outside courts, trying to catch some of the action and answering queries about his matches. “I couldn’t get in," he replied ruefully. Nagal, 21, one of India’s young tennis players, had made the trip from Bengaluru to Pune, hoping to make the cut for the qualifying rounds of India’s—and South Asia’s—only ATP Tour event. But with an injury sidelining him for three months in 2018, his ranking dropped below 400, which wasn’t good enough to get him into the qualifiers.

And with the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals, governing body for men’s tennis) and the ITF (International Tennis Federation) coming together to streamline the pro tour, the path to success for young tennis professionals such as Nagal has just become tougher.

Starting this year, ITF Futures, which used to be the first step into professional tennis, will not offer ranking points for events with prize money lower than $25,000 (around 17 lakh), instead it will be replaced by the ITF Transition Tour, which will have an independent ranking system. For top-ranked Transition Tour players, there will be some spots reserved at the ATP Challenger events, which will now become the starting point for pros.

The ATP Challenger Tour has undergone changes as well: the main draw has been expanded from 32 to 48, but the qualifying event has shrunk to four players (from 16 previously) out of which two qualify. Tournaments have been shortened from nine days to seven, including qualifying.

“They have separated the people who play ATP events and people who are playing Futures," says Nagal, who had qualified for the main draw in Pune in the previous edition while ranked 230. The only thing he doesn’t like is that the qualifying event is truncated “and priority goes to ITF". “The sad part is, previously you could plan and go, and play the qualifiers if you didn’t get into the main draw. Now, if you miss the cut by two, you don’t know if it’s worth doing the trip. You will have to invest a lot more time and money now to just make it to the Challenger level," he says.

The reason behind the pro tour restructuring was to put emphasis on quality in the tour and to guard against the practice of earning cheap points on the Futures Tour.

“The quality of players who will be competing in the Challenger will be better now," says India’s N. Sriram Balaji, who has now shifted to doubles. “Only if you make points from Challengers, will you make points for Grand Slams. Places like Egypt, Turkey have a lot of Futures events, there are some players who just get their ranking up by playing or winning those Futures events and then go and play in Grand Slams. They go there and lose in the first round of qualifying, that doesn’t make sense."

In the last week of 2018, for example, the number of ranked players on the ATP list went down from 2,046 to 679. In India, that number went down to 14 from 48. Of the 48 in the old ranking system, 12 had only one ranking point.

The restructuring has, in a sense, added another layer of quality check in a professional sport that is already brutally cut-throat.

“Nobody is making a living ranked 800 in the world," Kevin Anderson, world No.6 and a member of the ATP Player Council, said on the eve of the tournament in Pune that he eventually won. “Earlier it was just the top 100 who were earning through tennis. Now it’s getting better and more people can support themselves playing tennis. The structure, whether it is the Transition Tour, doesn’t really matter because you have to get through that for the integrity and image of the ATP. It is much better to have a cut-off for (the number) people who are ranked."

By 2020, the ATP wants to limit the number of ranked singles and doubles players to 750 each.

While entering the men’s tour has become tougher than ever, the more-famous young players in the upper echelons have battles of their own to wage.

Left with a void of major champions in the generation that succeeded the Big 3—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—the ATP set up the concept of “Next Gen" (players below the age of 21) and is marketing them worldwide.

In 2017, it established the Next Gen Finals, which pits the top-8 U21 players. The total prize money for this year’s Next Gen Finals was $1,275,000 and winner Stefanos Tsitsipas pocketed a cool $235,000, in addition to the undefeated champion bonus of $24,000.

But despite the incentives and attention, the next-gen players have struggled to shine on the biggest stage. Take, for example, Alexander Zverev, the 6ft, 6 inches tall leader of this pack from Germany. The 21-year-old world No.4 has won four ATP Masters 1,000 titles, but when it comes to the Grand Slams, his best performance has been the quarter-final finish at the 2018 French Open. Korean Hyeon Chung, winner of the 2017 Next Gen Finals, made the semi-finals at the 2018 Australian Open. But none of these players are consistent enough to pose any threat to the Big 3 who have won all of the majors in the last two years.

“It is more challenging because it’s five sets. It definitely helps more experienced players," says 2018 Wimbledon finalist Anderson who, at 32, had the best year on tour in 2018. “There have been so few guys in the finals of Grand Slams in the last 15 years, they have so much experience in those situations that they feel very comfortable. It’s very tough to beat them specifically at Grand Slams."

“The first reaction is no," said Latvian firebrand Ernests Gulbis, in Pune, when asked if any of the next-gen players can win a Grand Slam this year. “For people to win a Slam when they are 17-18, I think those times are far gone."

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