With new Transition Tour, USTA revamps

The effects of the ITF’s new “Transition Tour” plan for 2019 are already being felt.

Thursday, Tennis.Life wrote about Tennis Canada canceling all of its men’s Futures events.

(Tennis.Life was also told by a reader in Israel that his country, which hosted 14 Futures events in 2018, also will cancel the entire slate in 2019. There’s a chance some could survive – financed by players’ parents. The national federation is planning a pair of Challengers instead, but that won’t come close to making up for it).

A plan to compensate for that, to give the country’s young players and aspiring pros the competitive experience they need, has been months in the making. But it still has not been announced.

On Friday, the USTA announced an “expanded system of allocating merit-based wild cards” for American juniors, collegians and young pros.

The USTA will allocate about 150 wild cards to Americans who produce results in selected tournaments. The goal is to maintain “an adequate volume of competitive opportunities for Americans in the new ITF World Tennis Tour structure,” according to a press release.

There were already wild-card rewards in place for some results, such as the under-18 champions and the NCAA championships.

But the USTA will now award wild cards to the year-end No. 1s in the boys’ and girls’ 18s. Wild cards will be available at the four USTA National Open championships.

And it also is adding four new “National Closed Championships”, which will come with more wild-card opportunities.

Beginning in 2019, $15,000 tournaments will no longer award any ATP Tour points, only “ITF Transition Tour” points.

But any American player who wins a $15,000 Futures event in the U.S. will automatically earn a wild card into a $25,000 event. Those events, at least for 2019, will offer a few precious points in the final stages.

Confused yet?

ALL Futures tournaments in Canada cancelled

Schedule adds and changes

Notable in the tentative 2019 USTA tournament schedule for the men is that the number of ITF Futures events at the $25,000 level remains the same, at 21. 

There were 14 $15,000 tournaments in 2018. The 2019 schedule lists three additional ones in 2019, for a total of 17. But there have been multiple changes of dates and locations.

For example, in 2018, there were $15,000 Futures events taking place during four consecutive weeks to start the season. All were in Florida. And three of them were within 90 minutes’ drive: Naples, Weston and Sunrise.

Those four have been reduced to one, in Naples, the week of Jan. 14.

Beyond that, there’s a far more significant change: a major reduction in playing opportunities.

It’s worth noting here that many, many of the players who compete in these events are NOT American. And so, they will be left to fend for themselves, with reduced opportunities.

The qualifying draws for many of these lower-level Futures events, especially in Florida, are huge. For those four tournaments this year, two had full 128-player draws. The other two had nearly-full draws, with a few first-round byes.

All that is gone now.

The $15,000 events will have 24-player qualifying draws. Which means that fully 100 players will no longer have a place to compete for weeks on end.

Even allowing for the fact that some of those 100 are not viable potential pros, it’s still a shocker. As well, it’s a move that makes Americans – regardles of professional potential – play less tennis. Which defeats the purpose of the USTA, which should be to get as many Americans playing tennis, as much and as often as possible.

Women’s Circuit changes

For the women, there generally are far fewer tournaments at the $15,000 level in North American.

In Canada in 2018, there was only one.

In the U.S. in 2018, there were just four.

In 2019, there will be 10 – some of which have locations will to be confirmed.

But again, a big change. Instead of 64-player draws, these $15,000 “Transition Tour” events will be reduced to … 24-player qualifying draws.

Meanwhile, at the $25,000 level, there originally were 20 women’s events (two were cancelled).

In 2019, there will be 17.

This year, there were 15 higher-level Women’s Pro Circuit tournaments in the U.S. Purses ranged from $60,000, to one $100,000 tournament in Midland, Michigan.

Next year, a $60,000 tournament will be added in Innisbrook, Fla. in April. As well, the prize money at the tournament in Charleston, S.C. will be raised from $80,000 to $100,000.

Another $100,000 tournament will be added in Bonita Bay, Fla. the week after Charleston.

Wild-card opportunities

The USTA divides its wild-card deserving players into four categories: “high-performance juniors”, “transition pros”, “collegiate players” and a final category whose name is sure to please those involved, “adult players (late maturers).

The focus on this appears to be transparency, as the USTA plans to make “post-tournament wild-card reports” available after every event.

The ITF’s new plan pays little attention to anything beyond the transition of its (ITF) juniors to play in the (ITF) tournaments. The USTA is attempting to fill in the gap to continue to make college tennis a viable path to the pros.

But … it’s complicated.

When a player earns a wild card on the basis of their results in an event, they have to email the USTA within two weeks. They must offer up three options where they want to use that wild card, and they must be within the next nine months. And then, they have to fill out an online form.

The USTA does not guarantee they’ll get any of their first three choices. In fact, they might have to go option No. 4 or No. 5. For players with school, or whose finances limit them to a certain area in terms of travel, that’s complicated.

It sounds pretty labor-intensive and fraught with drama, to be honest.

Wild cards for juniors, college players

The way the chart describes it, there will be more $15,000 tournaments on college campuses, and a national “top 500” list used as one criteria for acceptance into the $15,000 events. 

There is a long list of wild cards into $15,000 and $25,000 tournaments for various junior champions, finalists and third-place finishers.

As one example, the winners of the Easter Bowl boys’ singles will get a wild card into the junior US Open singles main draw, a wild card into the singles draw of an ATP 80 or 90 Challenger (this is a whole ‘nother reorganization system for 2019), and another wild card into the singles draw of a $25,000 event.

The men’s singles champion at the ITA National summer championships will receive a main draw wild card into one $25,000 tournament. The women’s singles champion will get a wild card into … a $15,000 tournament.

(Again, worth noting here that only American players are eligible for these).

It all sounds completely insane. And it’s equally problematic that an organization like the USTA has to expend the time, money and resources to completely revamp its entire competitive structure, because of changes decreed by the ITF.

Let’s remember that the basic philosophy behind this is to greatly reduce the number of players with a professional ranking. And thus, it greatly reduces the possibility that a longshot, or a late bloomer, can somehow still make it.

Notably, you wonder how national federations with far fewer resources than the USTA are going to manage this sea change for the prospects in their pipelines.

A mountain of paperwork

You hope the USTA has managed to create a bespoke database that can track all the tournament results, all the different wild-card opportunities, and all of the players’ requests, restrictions and priority lists.

transitionOtherwise, you get this visual of a bunch of USTA employees printing out wild-card email requests, and online forms, and matching them up. And then spreading out a big master schedule and trying to get the priorities correct to assign wild-card opportunities to players.

And you wonder what they’ll do if they can’t match those opportunities to players within their selections and the time limits. And you wonder what they’ll do if those players, for whatever reason, can’t end up playing their designated wild-card assignment.

In a word, it all sounds completely insane, and rife with possibility for error, duplication and missed requests. They’re also going to have to check every single request to ensure the player is American, has never considered playing for another country, has done everything they can to attempt to be eligible for international competitions. And on, and on.

Especially in the first year.

We’ll see how it all works out.