Are ATP Challenger Tour’s “Wholesale Changes” More Like Spare Change?
Steve Fogleman in Charlottesville
I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia for a ninth straight ATP Challenger at the Boar’s Head Resort. When the ATP announced “wholesale changes” for Challenger tournaments back in July, I hardly gave it a thought. I was more interested in tournaments on my immediate radar, like Washington, Cincinnati, the U.S. Open and Da Bronx. Now, the memories of the US Open Series are fading fast so I find myself back in Challenger-ville.
The ATP changes included the main draw field size increasing from 32 to 48 players, condensing the tournaments to seven days, increasing prize money and nearly eliminating qualifying matches. But what do the players think of it all? I asked four Charlottesville combatants for their their opinions on the new and improved Challengers.
Canada’s Filip Peliwo offered up the first player’s perspective on what he calls “a good move” by the ATP. “If you’re ranked 300, this gives me a chance to be main draw,” he said on Monday. “You win one match and you get points immediately, whereas in qualies you’d have to go through three tough matches. These guys are like top 300, top 250 and you’d have to beat three of them. It’s not easy to do that with a full qualies draw, but now you’re in main draw and there’s a little money guaranteed,” Peliwo continued. “That and the free hotel room for a few days adds up. Right now, if you’re 200-300, you’re losing money. You’re not even breaking even.”
Peliwo’s compatriot, Vasek Pospisil, had a different view and a lot to say about it. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around some of the changes,” he told me earlier today. “Personally, I’m not a fan of the new draw and the situation with qualifying. I’m not even sure when these changes were being discussed or if I came in late when these changes had already been discussed. The communication was poor from the ATP side but I would have expressed my opinion.”
“I don’t like the 48 draw,” he said. “The qualifying is only four players. I’ve heard from guys who don’t know if they’re going to get in. If you want to win the tournament, you have to win seven matches in seven days, which is crazy. Even last week in Vegas, I wasn’t seeded there, meaning I had to play six matches in seven days and that’s tough on the body.”
“The whole point behind it form the ATP side was that more guys make first round prize money, which is still very low. So now, your first round prize money is $240, and it used to be $500.”
“Everyone is losing money here unless they make the final or semis,” he said.
He also pointed out that tournament services aren’t available to the players until the Monday start and an injured player who arrived on the weekend wouldn’t be able to get assistance from a physio until Monday morning at the earliest.
American Mitch Krueger has played in many challengers, and while said he sees “the positives” of the bigger draw, he acknowledges that the condensed format comes with a few headaches.
“I keep going back and forth on it,” he told me. “Part of me thinks it’s a good thing in that guys are technically in a main draw that would be in qualifying, but it does make it difficult scheduling-wise. Here, indoors, it’s not a problem, but outdoors, especially in the summer, when it’s superhot or when it rains, it throws the schedule completely off. If it rains in the first one or two days, it’d be tough to play that many matches with no days off.”
And Kruger lamented the loss of a midweek day off.
“In the past, if you made quarterfinals, you’d have two days off.”
His American compatriot, Ernesto Escobedo, was also going back and forth on the changes, which is the talk of the locker room these days. “I feel like it’s unfair because I feel like everyone in the world should have a shot to play tennis,” Escobedo said. “And from going from a full qualies size to four players isn’t fair. But they’re just trying to test out something new.”
“I feel like change is good,” he continued, “so I feel like (ATP) will have to fail a couple of times so that one day it’ll be closer to perfect. Tennis is a great sport and change is OK.”
Escobedo thought that some other players were “overreacting” to the topic, which he described as sensitive. He also predicted that larger qualifying draws would return in the near future.
MY HOT TAKES
Charlottesville was never broken, and I don’t like my tournaments tinkered with. That said, it’s a noble goal for the ATP to increase prize money, as long as it resembles a living wage. As far as all of the other changes ushered in, here’s my hot takes on the topic:
The “increased” main draw field is an illusion in some respects. In 2018, Charlottesville hosted a 32-strong qualifying field for just four main draw berths in a full three match qualifying tournament. Add those four qualifiers to the main draw of 32 and you had 60 players here. Last weekend, 50 singles players headed to Charlottesville to fill out the field as two were eliminated in the puny two-match qualifying “tournament”. Tommy Paul was a lucky loser qualifier who won Charlottesville last year. He was the #4 qualifying seed and may not have qualified again under the new format.
2018: 60 singles players
2019: 50 singles players
As a fan, that’s a 16.77% decrease in players who I want to see. These might be up-and-comers in the 400’s. Personally, I don’t care whether I’m watching a qualifying match or a main draw match. You know me. I go to U.S. Open qualifying for a whole week. Main draw or qualifying, there’s always two warriors on court playing with everything they’ve got to get to the next round.
Then there’s the compressed nature of the event. Seven days seems like plenty of time in which to conduct a tournament. And it assists player scheduling by avoiding the usual problem (a problem we’d like to have) of going to the late rounds of a main draw Challenger and having to pull out of qualifying at the player’s next destination. Let’s hope the new one-week-only tournament change fixes that problem, because it deprives the local fans of more chances to visit the tournament. The upside to a full qualifying tournament is that the fans get two weekends to catch a match. Far fewer spectators are able to catch a 10:00 a.m. Monday start.
2018: 31 MD matches + 31 Q matches = 62
2019: 47 MD matches + 2 Q matches= 49
Then there’s the money issue again, which I thought was supposed to be the main reason for the tinkering. I wrote about watching the players use their dirty laundry as pillows and the broke-ass slog of the Challenger circuit players six years ago.
Two Hundred bucks is what you get for a trip to the main draw in Charlottesville. And prize money for all of the other rounds is down across the board. I’m not picking on Charlottesville, it’s just my regional Challenger. The same goes for the rest of the bunch, too.
Last year, Tommy Paul cashed a $10,800 check for his part in winning the Charlottesville Challenger. This year, either he or his successor will win $7,200 and a free hotel room. In other words, the 2019 Charlottesville victor will need to spend $3,600 on a hotel room, or $514 a night to keep up with the reduced purse. The tournament’s home resort, the Boar’s Head, is among the priciest accomodations in the Charlottesville area and come in at around $200-250 per night. 3 and a 1/2 star accommodations away from the resort are available for $100 per night. It really comes down to whether you’re a perpetual first-rounder or a perpetual semifinalist to decide whether the free lodging or the cash is more important. It also comes down to where you are. Rooms in Champaign and Knoxville aren’t off the hook, but Honolulu and Maui lodging would break the bank.
This is obviously a developing story. To me, $200 still seems like a paltry sum but change has to start somewhere, like Ernesto Escobedo said. I guess we’ll have to start with spare change.