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Clamour grows for ITF to rethink controversial changes

A restructuring has seen more then 1,500 players lose their professional ranking.

The clamour is growing for a major rethink of the changes that have been made to the structure of tennis, with players fearing for their future in the sport.

At the start of this season, more than 1,500 players lost their professional ranking, with the sport splitting into three tours: ATP, WTA and ITF World Tour.

The latter is run by the International Tennis Federation, which has found itself in the line of fire from players, coaches and others within the game who feel the changes are taking tennis in the wrong direction.

The ITF sought feedback from more than 55,000 people in the sport before implementing its plan, with the aim of streamlining the professional game, targeting better prize money and reducing corruption.

But, in attempting to cut out those who are never going to make a make a living from tennis, many players have found themselves struggling to get into tournaments.

One of those is American Jared Hiltzik, a 24-year-old college graduate currently ranked 355 who finds himself questioning his future in the sport.

He told Press Association Sport: “It goes through your mind for sure, especially being married now. My wife sacrificed a lot and she tries to support both of us as best as she can.

“There are times when it’s really tough. The one thing driving me forward is I know I’m playing really good tennis and can compete with top 100 players, it’s just getting that opportunity. I’m running out of other things to do.”

Hiltzik’s main problem is the reduction of qualifying draws at second-tier Challenger events to just four spots, three of them reserved for leading players in the ITF rankings.

  • Rankings split into ATP/WTA for professional players and ITF for those at the bottom of the sport.
  • ATP/WTA ranking points no longer awarded at 15,000 US dollars events, and only a small number for 25,000 men's events.
  • Places reserved in main draws and qualifying for leading ITF ranked players and top 100 juniors.
  • Smaller qualifying draws at ATP Challenger and ITF events to enable tournaments to be completed within a week.

He is not ranked high enough to earn direct entry into most of the Challenger tournaments he wants to play in but sees little point in dropping down to the ITF Tour now so few ATP ranking points are available.

Hiltzik also does not want to take opportunities away from lower-ranked players who are finding themselves shut out of all tournaments, including his 22-year-old brother Aron.

He said: “We’re suffering. My brother is a top-25 player in college and he’s the 200th alternate at 15Ks (the lowest level of tournament) right now. I feel really bad for him. Everyone’s in the same boat.”

In response, the ATP, which runs the Challenger Tour, pointed out that main draw fields have increased and insisted playing opportunities over the season will not be diminished.

Ross Hutchins says there is a
Ross Hutchins says there is a “major focus” on increasing the total number of Challenger tournaments (John Walton/PA)

Chief player officer Ross Hutchins said: “We are monitoring the changes closely and speaking to players of all rankings, event organisers, coaches and more, to ensure that the changes are serving the players and tournaments in the best way possible for their scheduling and careers, as well as ensuring that we optimise the link between the ATP Challenger Tour and the ITF World Tennis Tour for a smooth pathway.

“We believe that the number of playing opportunities at Challenger level throughout the totality of the 2019 season will match or exceed the number of players that played Challengers in 2018 and far exceed previous years.

“We also have a major focus on increasing the total number of Challenger tournaments in the calendar moving forward, which will further increase opportunities for players.”

Hiltzik had kept his thoughts to himself but the final straw came when a Challenger he was entered into in Mexico in March was cancelled because of a lack of sponsorship.

He has joined a Facebook group of players calling for change while a petition started by Canadian player Maria Patrascu has so far attracted nearly 14,000 signatures and Metro reported that a letter signed by 670 players was sent to the ITF last week.

Although the players affected are not household names, the issue is beginning to attract wider attention within the game.

Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky plans to raise it at the next ATP Player Council meeting in Indian Wells while several prominent coaches have also spoken out against it.

Former top-10 player Janko Tipsarevic, who has an academy in Belgrade, weighed in on Facebook, saying: “These changes that are being done by the ITF are doing nothing else but ruining and destroying the sport. I’m seeing so much pain and suffering.”

Janko Tipsarevic feels the changes are ruining tennis
Janko Tipsarevic feels the changes are ruining tennis (Scott Heavey/PA)

The ITF insists it is listening and on Wednesday announced an increase in qualifying draws for its events from 24 players to 32, but it has made it clear there is no going back.

Hiltzik is not against change and had supported the restructuring before he realised the practical effects.

“I thought it was going to be really good just because it really differentiates players who have a chance to make it,” he said.

“But mistakes happen and you have to re-evaluate, and if they go back to what they had before I don’t think too many people are going to be upset about it. Change can be good but this was one that hasn’t quite worked.”

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