MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.— With a single tweet, American pro Jared Hiltzik became the online face of the resistance against the new ITF World Tennis Tour.
"It’s tough," Hiltzik wrote on February 26. "Playing some of the best tennis of my life right now and at [No.] 350 I can’t get into any Challengers. At this point in my career is it worth it to play futures? Or am I just taking away opportunities from other players who are just starting out?"
Hiltzik isn't alone in his contention with the new tour, which replaced the ITF Pro Circuit at the beginning of the 2019 season.
The structural overhaul was done to alleviate, as the ITF says, "financial pressures facing most players and the increasing time taken for players to break through into the Top 100. ... In response, the ATP, WTA and ITF are restructuring professional tennis so that prize money is better targeted; more players have potential to earn a living from the game; and so that there is a clear pathway connecting the ITF Junior Circuit and the senior professional game."
In essence, the ITF's changes aim to help more pros make a proper living then in the past, while establishing a clearer divide between tennis' lower (ITF) and higher (ATP) levels.
But what about players like Hiltzik, who are fighting to reach the ATP and its financial rewards, but cannot because of their ranking with the ITF?
Players at Hiltzik's level now have two professional tennis rankings: one for the ITF World Tennis Tour, and one for the ATP Tour. Each ranking is determined by ranking points earned at tournaments on the respective tours (with some exceptions). Hiltzik is currently ranked No. 383 on the ATP (with 43 points) and No. 324 on the ITF (with 240 points)—a "no man’s zone." His ATP ranking isn't high enough to get him into Challenger tournaments, which are needed to boost his ATP ranking, so he's forced to drop down into the $15,000 and $25,000 ITF events, where can only earn ITF points, or extremely minimal ATP points.
Hence, Hiltzik's tweets—among many others on his timeline—which caught the eye of the ITF:
Hi Jared, just wanted to let you know that we responded to your concerns as part of our Q&A session about the World Tennis Tour— ITF (@ITF_Tennis) March 12, 2019
You can read the whole Q&A here ➡️ https://t.co/lHrd0gKSTn pic.twitter.com/HhknoTrEFL
“The average ATP Challenger cut has been No. 344,” Hiltzik told TENNIS.com last week in Miami. “In order for me to get from 355 to 344, I need 15 points. I’d have to win five $25,000s [tournaments, the equivalent of 25 matches] to jump up 11 spots, or I just have to win three rounds of an ATP Challenger.”
Last year, winning a $15,000 ITF tournament earned a player 27 points, which would equate to a bump of roughly 40 spots in the ATP rankings.
An ATP Challenger will accept 40 ATP-ranked players into its draw, followed by the four highest ITF-ranked players. If a player doesn't get into an ATP Challenger, he can choose to play $15,000 and $25,000 events on the ITF World Tennis Tour. Winners of a $15,000 event earn 150 ITF ranking points and zero ATP ranking points. Winners of a $25,000 event earn 150 ITF ranking points and three ATP ranking points (one ATP ranking point is also given to the runner-up).
The current No. 1 on the men’s ITF tour is Oriol Roca Battalla, with 1,100 points. His ATP ranking is No. 365.
“It’s like the Web.com Tour with golf: There's a lower level and a higher level PGA Tour. It’s what the ATP and ITF are trying to do, create this lower-level tournament schedule, which is fair," he said. “If their idea is to get 300 to 350 players to make money, that's good, but unfortunately tennis is different than golf.”
With a more longevity that tennis players, golfers can afford to spend a year in their sport's lower rungs, grinding as opposed to earning. It's a tougher sell in tennis, a physically demanding game that leads to much shorter careers. Hiltzik, a 24-year-old University of Illinois graduate, is currently faced with a year or longer back at the bottom of the totem pole, when he was previously on the cusp of the Top 300.
“Last year towards the end of the season, I put myself in a good position. Had the changes not occurred I’d be close the Top 300 right now, but it is what it is,” Hiltzik said.
One of Hiltzik's new challenges is plotting out his tournament schedule. While he could afford to be selective last season, he now finds himself entering the maximum five events per week, hoping to earn an entry anywhere. Then, if all goes well, he travels to wherever anywhere is.
With tournaments scattered all over the globe, travel can be prohibitive for Hiltzik, particularly if he wants to play back-to-back weeks.
“You don't know what your next tournament is going to be,” Hiltzik said. “It's really hard to keep up that motivation. I go through practice days just existing out there. I saw two tournaments that I was going to get into, but they got cancelled.”
Last week, two ATP Challengers were held in Lille, France and Zhangjiagang, China. In Lille, the closer of the two events, the last direct acceptances for main draw were Lucas Meidler, with an ATP ranking of No. 275, and Gregoire Jacq with an ITF ranking of No. 27. Hiltzik didn't stand a chance.
Sure, if you have the money to do it and don’t mind 30+hr travel days. pic.twitter.com/AVSmygX8WC— Jared Hiltzik (@JaredHiltzik) March 12, 2019
Despite Hiltzik's criticisms, the new ITF World Tennis Tour is benefitting a set of players, specifically those who played full-time on the ITF Pro Circuit in 2018 and earned substantial ITF ranking points. Their high ITF ranking means greater chance of snagging a coveted ITF spot into ATP Challenger events. Players inside the ATP Top 300 are receiving entry with their ATP rankings.
It’s the players in the ATP No. 300-500 range, like Hiltzik, that are struggling the most.
Hiltzik’s best option right now is to bite the bullet and enter ITF $15,000 and $25,000 events, with hopes of boosting his ITF ranking. It will be a grind, with little earning potential. Hiltzik realizes this, and sees these events as "just for fun," and not a feasible pathway to the ATP.
“Change is always scary," he said. "But with this change right now it's too drastic where the ITF Tour and the ATP Tour are too far away from each other. There's no middle ground for guys in my position."