Daria Saville Vlog: Toray Pan Pacific Open

This weekend, the tours will wrap up tournaments in Astana, Kazakhstan (ATP) and Ostrava, Czech Republic (WTA). Both are high-value, 500-level events. The Astana event is newly minted, while Ostrava made a giant leap from the bush leagues in just two years to become a 500.

These details point to the increasingly fluid nature of the tour calendars. The tournament menu has periodically been buffeted by the winds of change, as regional forces swell or shrink the game, investors push to buy pieces of the global pie, and unpredictable forces—the Covid pandemic, Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, Arab oil wealth—demand adjustments.

The four Grand Slam events, which have existed in their basic form and occupied the same territory on the calendar for over a century, create a baseline sense of stability in tennis. But when it comes to the tours, the reality is very different.

A decade ago, the tours were coming very close to becoming straightforward providers of on-ramps to the Slams. The model is the still-thriving European clay-court swing, culminating with the French Open. Unfortunately, the other majors have never had quite as large a window to create tune-up events, but the US Open Series and the run-up to the Australian Open have done a fair imitation.

That approach is no longer being emphasized for a number of reasons, including the extent to which “grow the game” and “chase the money” have become inseparably entwined. As well, reformers in tennis and the public have been banging the drum on behalf of more combined (ATP/WTA) events, and special team events like Laver Cup. So let’s see just how much the tours have changed in the past 10 years.


The Australian Open.

The Australian Open.

In 2012, the ATP featured 65 tournaments (we are excluding Grand Slams, as they are independent), one more than this year. As always, the prized, nine Masters 1000 events occupied the top of a three-tier pyramid built on ATP 250s and 500s. (The number stands for the amount of rankings points awarded the singles champion). The 250s are the most common; there were 40 played in 2012, 42 this year).

The Masters have become untouchable, absolved from the kinds of horse trading that characterizes the lower tiers, where tournament rights are bought and sold, and events often moved from one place to another. The same nine events were scheduled this year as in 2012 (and every year in-between), however only eight Masters will be played in 2022, with Shanghai canceled for a third straight year due to China’s Covid restrictions.

A decade ago, the ATP kicked off with a diverse group of five 250 tournaments and one special-event exhibition (the combined WTA/ATP Hopman Cup) that took place in the span of barely two weeks before the start of the Australian Open. The richest of those was Doha, Qatar, where prize-money alone exceeded $1 million—more than twice what the other events, including the two that were held in Australia, offered.

This year, the tour launched on Jan. 3 with the resuscitated, official team event of the tour, the $10 million ATP Cup. Four traditional 250 tournaments were squeezed into the next two weeks (two of them back-to-back in Adelaide) on a drastically shrunken footprint incorporating only the urban centers of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Auckland fell off the calendar; Doha and Chennai, India, were pushed back into February time slots.

The post-Australian Open calendar this year was the same familiar hodge-podge as in 2016. The winter segment features 250s played on four different continents, indoors and outdoors, on two different surfaces (nine events on hard, four on the South American clay mini-tour). Three of the four 500 events are on hard courts. Very little has changed in this segment, apart from some of the usual musical chairs activities among the 250s.


The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

The 1000s at Indian Wells and Miami (aka the “Sunshine Double”), are the sport’s master stroke of scheduling, in terms of location, dates and timing. They have advanced the embrace of combined events and dramatically drop the curtain on the first third of the year—just as they did back in 2012.

The Spring clay-court schedule is virtually unchanged over the past 10 years, making a strong show of stability for both ATP and WTA. The decision to push Wimbledon back by a week, starting in 2015, has been impactful. The six grass-court tune-ups now leading to Wimbledon represent a 50 percent increase over 2012 and, with the upgrade of Halle, doubled the number of 500 events to two. The result has been an instant revival of grass, so often criticized as an “obsolete” surface.

Despite the subsequent grass to hard-court transition, this July featured five clay-court events, including a 500, and just one (Atlanta 250) on hard court. But the ATP still produced seven hard-court tune-ups for the US Open this year (compared to six in 2012), including the well-established Canada and Cincinnati 1000s

Both tours faced major challenges after this year’s final major. The Shanghai Masters was canceled for a third consecutive year by the ATP. So was the rest of the Chinese portion, due to uncertainty about the host nation’s Covid policies (also gone for now, the Beijing 500).

But fear not if you enjoy watching ATP tennis, for in order to compensate for China going dark, the ATP issued single-year ATP 250 licenses to six cities in September and (mostly) October—a month now glutted with 10 tournaments. That’s more tournaments than the ATP offered in April to celebrate the start of the clay-court season.

The ATP’s liberal “guarantee” (appearance money) policy ensured that you will see plenty of the top stars in those 250s this month, because the paycheck they get for merely showing up may be larger than the champion’s prize money haul.

The loaded October docket features the Paris Masters and four 500 events. That ought to energize the final weeks of the season, and compensate more than adequately for canceling the Kremlin Cup in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For the second year, the ATP Finals will be in Turin, Italy.


The Shanghai Masters.

The Shanghai Masters.

How many of these one-off events of the fall, played in places like Naples, Italy, and Gijon, Spain, will survive to 2023 and perhaps beyond? Who knows?

The WTA, which has never matched the ATP’s earning power, is in a more perilous situation. When the WTA unveiled its heralded “Roadmap” in 2009, one of its most significant aims was a swift penetration of the burgeoning Chinese market. The combination of Covid and the WTA’s highly principled stand in the Peng Shuai affair has left the future of the tour’s enormous bet on China up in the air.

In 2012, the WTA featured 50 tournaments, with four Australian Open tune-up events (including two 500s) along with the combined Hopman Cup. This year, due partly to Covid and the feud with China, the WTA staged 51, but with fewer prestige events and significantly reduced prize money.

Sure, there was one more Australian Open tune-up than in 2012—but only two of those five tournaments offered more than a relatively paltry $240,000 in prize money. The bigger problem, though, looms at the other end of the year.

The WTA has had to cancel five Chinese events that were still in play in the fall before Covid and the Peng crisis. What that means going forward is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that a major revenue stream for the WTA has run dry.

Basically, the WTA is reading from the same playbook as the ATP, trying to keep alive the tradition of a consistent tour narrative based on region and playing surface. Both tours are committed to providing jobs for their constituents on a weekly basis until the sport’s ephemeral off-season. That entails using a certain amount of smoke and mirrors.

The current difficulties have rekindled efforts to exploit deeper co-operation if not an outright merger between the tours. In 2021, the WTA finally took the much-needed step of scrapping its ultra-confusing tournament categories in favor of the ATP’s clear and simple three-tier (1000, 500, 250) system.

Most tennis insiders and fans agree that the path forward for both tours is closer engagement with each other, and with the four titanic majors. As ATP Tour Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi put it in an interview in the Sports Business Journal in mid-2020, “If I could summarize it, I would love the tennis fan to have a sort of single sign-on experience into the world of tennis.”