The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, April 21, 2020

COVID-19 player fund created & a look at the ITF Pro Circuit | Interview: Megan Rose ruled the tennis court, but now she rules the boardroom

(Hi! Howard Megdal here. The IX helps build the necessary infrastructure for women’s sports media. In this moment, freelance budgets are being cut, reporters are losing their jobs. Women’s sports always bears the brunt of that first.

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COVID-19 Player Relief Program created

First thing to note: you can support WTA Charities through Amazon Smile, where a portion of your purchase benefits the #wta4love community:

The WTA announced this afternoon that they, alongside the ATP, ITF and four Grand Slams, are in the process of finalizing a program to help financially assist players impacted by the tour’s shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been rumblings of something being formally announced following the leak of Novak Djokovic’s letter to ATP players asking for them to contribute to a fund. It’s great news for the majority of players, whose sole income stems from their on-court results.

Studies have shown that only around the Top 150-200 women break even or make money on the WTA tour. Currently, there are over 1,300 ranked singles and 1,500 ranked doubles players on tour. That’s a staggering number of players in the red, with the obvious majority of those playing on the ITF Pro Circuit, who quickly needs to update their circuit structure.

ITF Pro Circuit: More players, less growth

The ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour spans six continents and 65 countries, with over 500 tournaments in a single year. The lowest tournament prize money purse is $15,000 with levels that reach up to $100,000. In 2019, with data from player and stakeholder surveys, the tour received recommendations from an Independent Review Panel to shorten tournament weeks, cut draw size and create an alternative ranking system, among other requests. Those changes gutted player rankings and opportunities worldwide, with many forced to hang up racquets and speak out on the marginalization.

Enough pushback led the ITF to re-include points from $15,000 ITF tournaments in WTA rankings, as well as increasing qualifying draw sizes. However, qualifying draws still have a 10-point tiebreaker as a third set, entirely a crap shoot and though draw sizes were expanded, it’s still at least half of what it used to be at the $15k and $25k levels.

I started following tennis in 2002, where ITF tournaments ranged from $10,000 to $75,000. There hasn’t been much growth in ITF prize money purses over its 30+ year history. The level of the game has increasingly gotten better, with brand awareness at an all-time high, but it’s not showing in the grassroots and “minor league” portion of the tour. Ultimately, the ITF, who rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year via the Grand Slams, aren’t in charge of assigning tournaments. National tennis associations and the private sector of the sport create, fund raise and manage the tournaments, while the ITF simply oversees the governing.

I want to see the ITF change their minimum tournament prize to $25,000, but open up their qualifying draw size to 64 from the current 28-32. While this may get rid of many tournaments throughout the year, players shouldn’t have to travel 10+ hours, pay their own hotel costs and lose in the first round to make $49 before taxes.

Speaking of lodging, I would also like to see the ITF step in and assist the national bodies in creating host family opportunities at their tournaments and help cut costs. The United States and the USTA Pro Circuit do an amazing job at fostering tournaments where players can alleviate financial strain by staying with locals of the area.

When I started following tennis, the WTA ranking system offered quarter/half points depending on the player’s result at a specific level. I would like to see that offered and have the ITF Pro Circuit ranking disbanded. While this creates a lot more ranking positions, something the ITF was trying to avoid with their original changes, I feel it gives a better picture of the current landscape of professional tennis. There are so many players worthy of professional rankings that are losing out on having their names in the books because of a tough draw or not having the opportunity to travel to enough tournaments to get ranking points in the minimum three required for a WTA ranking.

The ITF Pro Circuit creates the game’s future: it’s that simple. How are the WTA and their tournaments going to maximize their own potential by not having the truly best players be given an even chance? Increasing the bottom line prize money, increasing draw/opportunity size and having a closer eye on the fundamentals of their tournaments could significantly improve the quality and integrity of the game. That’s not including re-purposing the money the ITF gets from selling match data to betting companies (for more history on that, read former professional player Shelby Talcott’s blog from 2019).

The ITF and WTA are in constant talks when it comes to rule changes, ranking updates, brainstorming, etc. There should be no qualms about only giving certain players or certain rankings ample opportunity and shunning out everyone else. The beauty of the ITF Pro Circuit is the textbook reason why the game of tennis is so beautiful: it’s global, individual sport where everyone and anyone can play and have a story/player/gamestyle to relate to. There’s no one generic box someone fits in like other sports. The ITF needs to fully embrace those positives and continue expanding the sport fundamentally.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Procrastinating falling asleep, I found myself watching two WTA documentaries on Youtube. (Note: why hasn’t one been filmed in almost 20 years!? Netflix, get a crew for the 2021 season!):

  • Girls on Tour, released in 2002, talks a deep look into the “traveling sorority” of the WTA Tour and features players, parents and staff that make up the circuit.

  • She’s Got Game, released in 2003, also takes a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, but primarily features former Top 50 player Sonya Jayaseelan.

Rosie Casals talks about how important the Women’s Movement’s momentum was in helping the Original 9 create the WTA in this week’s In This Moment journal.

Congratulations to 1994 Wimbledon champion and three-time Olympic medalist Conchita Martinez, who was officially elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and will be formally inducted this summer.

Two-time Grand Slam champion Mary Pierce will chair the newly-created women’s ITF World Tennis Tour Player Panel, which will have players having a seat at the table when it comes to major decisions that ultimately affect them. 

Venus and Serena Williams were Naomi Campbell’s final guests in a live Youtube chat on her limited-time series No Filter with Naomi. The tennis legends discussed not playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, growing up with each other and their fashion endeavors throughout the chat:

Daria Kasatkina and 2015 US Open champion Flavia Pennetta were two guests on the second episode of Tennis United, the joint-WTA/ATP digital show hosted by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil.

The WTA has been rolling out a My Inspiration series, where players reflect on the idols who helped inspire their own tennis journey:

  • Wendy Turnbull talks about childhood coach Daphne Fancutt and the impact she had into her professional years.

  • Daniela Hantuchova discusses Miloslav Mecir’s 1988 Olympic gold run inspiring her to pick up a racquet.

  • Dinara Safina shouts out Lindsay Davenport as inspiration for a player to emulate and shares about playing her idol.

  • Katrina Adams honors Althea Gibson for being the trailblazer for players of color and inspiring her to build a legacy for future generations

Surging star Elena Rybakina’s coach Stefano Vukov, Jennifer Brady’s coach Michael Geserer and Artemon Apostu-Efremov, a recent addition to Simona Halep’s team, are the three latest spotlights in the WTA’s Coaching Dossier series. In more coaching news, Judy Murray shares tips to encourage kids to enhance their tennis skills during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Zheng Saisai checks in from Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is residing while the COVID-19 crisis keeps tour play suspended. She reached the 2019 Roland Garros doubles final with Duan Yingying, who was the spotlight in this week’s WTA Doubles Dossier.

Paula Vieira Souza discusses being a pioneer for female tennis officials in Latin America, while also juggling new motherhood in the WTA’s latest officiating interview.

WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen checked in with World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, who stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic is bigger than sport and most of it is beyond anyone’s control.

Players are continuing to stay busy while they sit on the sidelines due to COVID-19. Rising star Caty McNally had an Instagram live with Lindsay Davenport to discuss a variety of topics, including her friendship with Coco Gauff, while Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens accepted Roger Federer and Andy Murray’s 100-volley challenge at home. Gauff was also a recent subject in Noah Rubin’s Behind the Racquet series, where her admission to the pressure she faces led to internal struggles.

Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova are two players who oppose the potential no-fan implementation that could form when the tour reopens following COVID-19.

Bianca Andreescu and Karolina Pliskova are the two latest additions to the Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro esports event benefiting COVID-19 victims. They join Belinda Bencic, Sorana Cirstea, Elina Svitolina, Johanna Konta, Kiki Bertens, Angelique Kerber, Madison Keys, Kristina Mladenovic, Carla Suárez Navarro, Victoria Azarenka, Fiona Ferro and Eugenie Bouchard in the PS4 game, with two more players to be announced.

Renata Zarazua, Mexico’s first WTA semifinalist since 1993, reflects on her career-best week and how she’s handling isolation at home.

Tweet of the Week

Kristie Ahn continues to slay the TikTok game, but this collaboration with fellow player Jamie Loeb and ATP player Evan King steals the show this week….don’t worry we have some TikToks too.

Five at the IX: Megan Rose

Megan Rose is the current Senior Director for Competitive Pathway and Team USA Tennis’ Olympic Lead. She a Hall of Fame inductee at Miami, where her senior season produced a 44-2 record. She briefly played on the WTA Tour, peaking at No. 313 in singles and No. 221 in doubles. After playing, she worked in sports broadcasting and was Princeton’s head coach for three seasons. She then transitioned into the corporate side of the WTA in their Player Relations department before moving onto the USTA. When not leading the boardroom, she also has a fashion styling business, Styled x Megan Rose. She sits down with us to discuss her role, how COVID-19 is impacting her job and the USTA and being a woman in the corporate side of tennis where men dominate the numbers.

Joey: You’re the USTA’s Senior Director for Competitive Pathway, a fairly new department they created, on top of being named Team USA Tennis’ Team Lead. Can you go into details of what your role is and what a normal day might look like?
Megan: The main mission of the Competitive Pathway department is to provide opportunities for American tennis players, starting at the elite junior levels through the lower ranks of the professional tennis tours. My responsibility is to develop the strategy and oversee the operation and implementation of the 350+ events that comprise the Competitive Pathway. One of the reasons I love my job is because every day is different; I could be working with the team to prepare for the US Open Junior Championships, speaking with Tournament Directors about what they need to run a successful tournament or constructing the framework for the overall Pro Circuit calendar. I absolutely love my team and can genuinely say that I enjoy going to work every day to work with that group of people.

Joey: You came to the USTA from the WTA, but your current role now incorporates both the men and women’s tours. What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed as you transitioned away from solely women’s tennis?
Megan: One noticeable difference in overseeing both men’s and women’s tennis is the stark contrast in the level of private investment in men’s tennis versus women’s tennis and the false narrative that still remains in some places that women’s tennis is not a sellable asset and viable product. When I started, we only had one women’s $100K event on the calendar versus six on the men’s side. That was not a result of the USTA failing to fund additional women’s $100Ks; we needed private promoters and tournament hosts to invest in that level of event, and unfortunately, more people were looking to invest in men’s tennis than women’s. Don’t get me wrong, there were still incredible partners on the women’s Pro Circuit calendar that have been investing in women’s tennis for many, many years, but we couldn’t quite get to parity with the men at that top tier level. I am happy to say that in 2020, we had six women’s $100Ks scheduled (before the Coronavirus struck) and that was through finding great partners who believe in the product of American women’s tennis and knowing there is great talent to showcase at that level. One other interesting difference has been working with Player Development to develop strategies around the optimal schedule for the men and the women at this entry point to professional tennis; what level of event on what surface will be the best option to help the most American players progress through the pathway into the ATP, WTA, or collegiate ranks based on different development milestones and ages of boys versus girls. I am lucky to now work across both women’s and men’s tennis, and thankful for the opportunity to be able to contribute to the pathway.

Joey: The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sports world, canceling events and postponing the 2020 Olympic Games. How has the process been navigating your tournaments on the USTA Pro and Junior circuits, along with those with the ITF and Olympic Games?
Megan: I can say, without a doubt, that this has been the most difficult period of my professional life, as it has been for so many. We have had over 200 events cancel within our portfolio between March and July, which has included junior and professional Competitive Pathway events. Communication and agility have been the two most important skills in this time; making sure we are getting information to our Tournament Directors as quickly and efficiently as possible, and trying to be proactive and look ahead at where we can try to make up some of the ground we lost during this time. There are a lot of people who are affected by these events being canceled: players, tournament directors, officials, sponsors, etc. so we are trying to be holistic in our decision-making and thinking of the entire tennis ecosystem as we try to rebound from this. The Olympics being postponed was obviously very difficult for the athletes, the IOC and the USOPC. So much work goes into preparing for the Games, and we are doing our best to provide updates to the athletes and make sure the logistics for 2021 are in place so we can ensure the athletes have an incredible experience next year.

Joey: After a phenomenal playing career, you worked in sports media and collegiate coaching before joining the administrative side of tennis. Unfortunately, women are the minority in each of those sections. As someone rising in the corporate ranks, what needs to be done to give women more opportunities?
Megan: I’m lucky in that I have worked for strong women who believe in reaching down and pulling others up behind them. Although it is nice to think that people in the decision-making seats will realize that having women in leadership positions is the right thing and the smart thing to do, I think it will ultimately be women supporting women that will be able to make the biggest difference. It’s important to help younger women focus on leadership development at the early stages of their careers; skills like emotional intelligence, negotiation, and communicating with power and authority are all areas that will help make sure women are ready to raise their hands when opportunities present themselves. I’ve had the opportunity to surround myself with female leaders in the sports industry and that power in community and representation I think will ultimately be the turning point.

Joey: What was the greatest piece of advice you’ve received and if you could turn back time, what would you tell the Megan Rose graduating college?
Megan: I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of great advice and I try to read a lot, but one that really stands out to me is: “Success is leased and rent is due every day.” It reminds me that you have to keep working hard, keep innovating, keep working on yourself, be growth mindset, and always keep laughing. I would tell a young Megan Rose not to worry so much about the timing in which things will happen. Take a deep breath every once in a while and enjoy where you are at that moment.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala,@ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.