With tennis calendar his top concern, Cilic open to prize money cuts

With tennis calendar his top concern, Cilic open to prize money cuts

When the former US Open champion was asked if he would object to tournaments freezing or decreasing their purses, Cilic said, "No. That would be just a normal situation."

In an ideal world in tennis’ uncertain future, Marin Cilic hopes for growth at the lowest rung of the ATP ladder. 

“What I always feel tennis would need to do is start to shift certain incomes from big tournaments, from Grand Slams or Masters 1000s, to smaller ones to help them grow and to grow tennis,” Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, said in an interview. “So that maybe in 10 or 20 years we have, let’s say, a 250 tournament that offers $1 million total prize money and maybe Masters 1000s that grow more.” 

But the thoughtful Cilic, one of the few players able to loosen the Big Four’s grip at majors in the last decade, knows the present climate certainly isn’t ideal. The coronavirus has the world in its clutches, leaving tennis, like virtually everything else, reeling. 

In response during this lockdown, governing bodies have pledged funds to lower-ranked players—reported to be $6 million—but relief for tournaments that provide vital checks every week is so far less clear. Like many pros, their survival is at stake, perhaps more so smaller events, which already have thin margins.

“Some of those tournaments struggle at the best of times to stay afloat,” Sam Stosur, Cilic’s fellow US Open winner and a former member of the WTA’s player council, said from Melbourne. 

As opposed to ATP Masters 1000s earning average net profits of $6 million and ATP 500s making $1.1 million, ATP 250s and their equivalents on the women’s tour pocket around $125,000, the New York Times reported in late March. But most, if not all, tournaments that aren’t held are bound to be in trouble, irrespective of past monetary performance.

Marin Cilic

Those that are contested whenever tennis resumes, if it happens without fans, will suffer, too, in an economy shredded by the virus. Additionally, if fans are allowed, will they return en masse even if social distancing requirements somehow wane? In the here and now, when the 31-year-old Cilic was asked if he would object to tournaments freezing or decreasing prize money, he said no. 

“That would be just a normal situation,” said Cilic, who is spending the lockdown near Dubrovnik with wife Kristina and their 3-month-old son, Baldo.

“For many years a lot of ATP tournaments and Grand Slams have been doing so well, it was the time for the tournaments to start to increase the prize money, as the economy was unfolding in that way. For us, the main and most important thing is to keep the calendar, to keep the tournaments running that give the fruits. It’s the special thing for tennis to have that kind of a long and full calendar.”

ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi didn’t discount a freeze or reduction in prize money, an unfathomable thought when he formally began his new job in January. The Italian has had little time to settle in, but his vision is impressive. Both tours continue to examine the possibility of moving suspended events to later in the campaign. 

“We’re looking at all options,” Gaudenzi said in an email. “If we are able to reschedule events this year, it will inevitably mean under different conditions than were initially set out, with significant changes to the calendar.

“We should also anticipate new protocols in terms of how events are able to operate, with possible restrictions to on-site attendance, and more. We cannot ignore the crisis’ impact on the economy and all these factors will be taken into consideration as we determine how best to move forward.”

As for actually handing out cash, that could be significantly trickier since the ATP and WTA, said Stosur, “don’t have a bottomless pit of money.” Tough choices thus abound about the destination of available resources.

“We intend to support the tournaments as well as the players,” said Gaudenzi. “For any support we are able to offer, we’ll be looking to take a ‘bottom up’ approach in terms of supporting those that need it the most. 

“The extent of the financial relief available is difficult to ascertain without having clarity on the duration of the crisis. Equally, tournament financial relief will not be known until we know whether tournaments can be rescheduled this year. At this time, our intention is to try and reschedule as many tournaments as possible.”

Meanwhile, Gaudenzi’s more experienced counterpart at the WTA, Steve Simon, said in an email the women’s tour would “continue to look into various options as to how and where the WTA can provide further financial relief to our players and tournament members who may require assistance” during these “unprecedented and challenging” times. 

Eugene Lapierre, tournament director of the always well-attended but already scrapped Montreal event in August, doesn’t expect the tour to act as a savior. Alternating the ATP and WTA spectacle with Toronto, this year they were due to host the women. Now trying to recoup a $17 million Canadian loss, sponsors will be asked to retain their financial commitment—for 2021—and the government will be approached. Sponsorships sit behind gate receipts but ahead of TV rights in the Coupe Rogers’ sources of revenue.

“There’s no other way,” said Lapierre. “We don't see the tours being able to help. We know their financials, we’re part of the association as much as the players are, so everyone is getting hurt. A very big hit, but we’ll come back. We have what it takes.” 

That remains to be seen for some of his fellow tournament directors and their events. Asked if he thought tournaments might permanently be lost in 2021—consider the difficulty in trying to sell events in the current milieu—Gaudenzi replied, “Our hope is that we can weather this storm and return to full capacity at the earliest possible opportunity once it is safe to do so.”

Todd Martin, tournament director for Newport's Hall of Fame Open, didn’t know if events would go bust. According to the two-time Grand Slam finalist, however, pain was “inevitable” all around tennis.

“What I think this does is highlight the challenges of our sport and the vulnerability that events have, or the risk events take and the vulnerability of our lower-ranked players,” said Martin, who like Gaudenzi switched from tennis courts to tennis boardrooms. 

“Just like anyone else, I think pretty much every business is taking a good, hard look underneath the bonnet, and, ‘What do we need to really reimagine?’”

Martin and his team will not be able to hold their tournament and induction ceremony as planned, due to state restrictions in Rhode Island prohibiting large events. Official word regarding Newport's 2020 future is expected in mid-May, when the ATP makes its next announcement regarding the tournament calendar.

As tennis continues to grapple with the effects of the virus, solutions that might have been considered unlikely in tennis’ past now shouldn’t be discounted, said the recently retired 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych.

“I think people and the whole sport have to be more open now to changes and to new decisions that have never been done in the past,” he said from Prague. “They cannot look at it like, ‘But that’s never happened in the past.’ Yes, that’s never happened, but now it’s very different and what’s happening now has never happened in the past.”