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Special report: Revamped World Tennis Tour has made the sport 'more corrupt' and left fringe players seething

Simon Briggs
Changes in the rankings system have had a dramatic effect on players like Britain's Samm Butler - ITA 

This week, the likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are thrilling crowds at a spanking new venue in Miami – the Hard Rock Stadium – where a 13,800-seater court has been constructed on a gridiron field as part of a $72m investment.

And yet, when you look beyond the velvet rope, the players who failed to make the Miami Open cut are seething. In a radical restructuring of the tennis pyramid, every rankings point they had earned from lesser tournaments was wiped off their record at the end of last season, leaving thousands of wannabes with nothing to show for 12 months of schlepping around the boondocks of the world tour: Egypt, Bulgaria, Nigeria.

Then, in January, the International Tennis Federation unveiled a new system – the World Tennis Tour – in a supposed attempt to make life better for would-be professionals. Thus far, the implementation has been shambolic, driving a Canadian player named Maria Patrascu to start a petition – “Change the ITF Rules” – which now stands just shy of 15,000 signatures. Tennis’s rank and file are collectively baffled by the attitude of an organisation which claims to be representing their interests. They are also suffocating within an economic model that distributes 50 per cent of prizemoney to one per cent of players.

“I do think change was needed,” said Samm Butler, a British 24-year-old who told the Telegraph that his most recent $25,000 event in Glasgow three weeks ago would also be his last. “It hadn’t happened in so many years. But I am not sure they [the ITF] have hit the nail on the head. Participation has dropped. The number of tournaments has dropped. Chances for players are not the same any more.

“In the whole lead-up, no-one had any idea what the hell was going to happen,” added Butler, who reached a high point of No. 815 in the ATP rankings in December, only to drop back to zero a week later. “Throughout 2018, there was talk of big changes, but the information wasn’t getting through. For players at my level, it felt like there wasn’t really any respect.”

The Miami Open is a far cry from the reality of life for many struggling tennis players Credit: AP

The whole saga can be traced back to the day in 2012 when the ITF struck a $5m-a-year deal with betting data company Sportradar. Suddenly it was easy for punters to gamble on the spit-and-sawdust matches making up the lowest level of so-called “professional tennis”. And a bizarre inequality grew up between the players making $240 for a run to the semi-finals of a $15,000 event and the tens of thousands of dollars being wagered on them online.

Corruption was soon flourishing on an industrial scale, as we were reminded only last week when seven obscure French players were arrested as part of the latest multinational match-fixing probe. But it took the 2016 joint BBC-Buzzfeed investigation – which disrupted the Australian Open, and thus forced its way into the consciousness of the sport’s leaders – to prod tennis into action. In December, a £25m, three-year independent review ruled that betting data for the bottom-level $15,000 events should no longer be streamed – a reform which has yet to be implemented – while the number of ranked players on each tour should be cut from over 2,000 to 750.

At a briefing in Miami last week, the ITF put their side. “Change isn’t easy,” said Kris Dent, director of ITF circuits. “We’re at the start of the season, when there are always fewer job opportunities, and we believe that these reforms will shake out over the course of the year.”

Even if Dent’s optimism is born out, though, there have been significant teething troubles. New forms of extortion and corruption have sprung up, as players scramble for the dwindling number of tournament spots.

“In Tunisia a few weeks ago,” says Butler, “they were holding pre-qualifying before the qualifying.  They would charge $50 to enter, play them at a ridiculous hour of the night under crappy floodlights, and then the winner has to pay another $40 to get into normal qualies. I usually try find a cheap AirBNB, but you weren’t even allowed to enter pre-qualies if you didn’t stay on-site and pay $70 a night for an all-inclusive package.” The ITF say that they have now outlawed this exploitative practice.

Even worse, though, is the growing issue of under-the-counter wild-card sales. Previously, host tournaments would usually hand out a few wild-card entries to local players. Now, as desperation grips the player base, they are being sold for £2,500 a pop.

“I know one guy who is flying to Africa for a $25,000 event though he is 200 places too low to make the cut,” says British coach Calvin Betton. “I don’t think that would happen if he hadn’t bought a wild card. Then you look at the entry lists: Chileans getting wild cards in Tunisia, for example. I can only see one reason. The tour is becoming more corrupt.”

There is one easy way to relieve some pressure: open up qualifying draws so that more players have a shot. The ITF started with 24 players per WTT draw, moved to 32 after a lot of criticism, and now acknowledges that it may be forced to reach 48. “It’s always going to be about reviewing and adjusting,” said Dent.

Yet confidence in ITF governance is low. It has been painfully clear from its stats-driven, tone-deaf approach that not one member of its executive played tennis to any competitive level. 

“The original objectives were to improve the pathway, help more players break even, reduce hosting costs and the risk of integrity infringements,” said Irishman Dave Miley, who will challenge incumbent David Haggerty for the ITF presidency in September. “Not one of these has been achieved.”

As for Butler, he has a coaching job lined up. “It’s not like I’ve fallen out of love with tennis. But I started trying to prioritise other parts of life. If I had made a bit more money, it would have been a lot more enjoyable.”