FEATURE-Tennis-ITF's new pathway to help dreamers reach the top
By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Armed with his talent and a racket bag full of hope, Frenchman Evan Furness is one of the dreamers hoping to climb from tennis's lowest rungs up onto the biggest stages of all.
The trouble is the vast majority of the thousands of players who venture, like 20-year-old Furness, into the jungle of world tennis find the path leads not to fame and fortune, but to a dead end and debt.
In 2017, there were 14,000 so-called tennis professionals, but fewer than 600 broke even before coaching costs.
While the likes of Novak Djokovic and Serena earn fortunes from the sport and even men's 100th-ranked Vasek Pospisil has banked $5.2 million in a decade on Tour, around 80 percent of professionals quit having earned next to nothing.
In truth, for the majority, a career as a tennis pro has been more fantasy than reality.
Which is why the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has acted on its three-year Player Pathway review, a comprehensive study into the professional game published in 2017, and why players like Furness now see light at the end of the tunnel.
The new ITF World Tennis Tour, a transition circuit of 1,600 junior and entry-level tournaments, began in January to provide a streamlined progression between the junior and senior game, enabling more professional players to make a living.
Prize money pools of $15,000 and $25,000 will be available for entry-level men's and women's events while, crucially, "reserved places" will be available in higher level tournaments.
Jackie Nesbitt, Executive Director of the ITF Pro Circuits, said the initial indications were positive.
"As a sport it was clear we needed to do much better for the players," she told Reuters by telephone. "The new structure has a clear aim and that is to support the best young male and female players and to deliver them to the ATP and WTA Tours.
"It's about fast-tracking on merit, allowing the best players in the entry-level tournaments to move up through the professional pathway quicker and at less cost to themselves."
The new system features an ITF World Tour ranking list which will run separately from the ATP and WTA rankings, both of which will be trimmed back to 750 players.
Top-100 ranked juniors will be eligible for reserved places in $15k tournaments, while Level 2 $25k draws will also have places for players doing well at a lower level.
Four reserved places will be available for ITF-ranked players in ATP Challenger, one level below the full ATP Tour.
Frenchman Furness took advantage of a reserved spot to win a $25k event in Hong Kong and then won another title in Switzerland - proof, Nesbitt said, that the system worked.
"We are really encouraged," Nesbitt said. "It shows they are competing at the right level and are competitive at that level."
While reducing the quantity of players might seem counter-intuitive, ITF president David Haggerty said offering better rewards will help "retain the best talent".
But how many players will make money?
"Too many people were competing for the prize money available," Nesbitt said. "We want to see a significant uplift (in players making money). It will be one of our key performance indicators that tell us how successful these reforms have been."
With minimal rewards, the lowest rungs of professional tennis have been vulnerable to potential match-fixing.
Of the 264 match alerts flagged up to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) by the betting industry in 2018, 163 were in entry-level men's events compared with five on the ATP Tour.
Nesbitt believes offering a clearer path to the higher echelons of the game can help fight corruption.
"Better-targeted prize money will help more players earn a living from the game," she said. "We are creating a good environment for juniors to learn their trade, be educated in integrity and doping matters, and they know they will be rewarded for doing well in the juniors." (Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)