David Fish, the former Scott Mead '77 Family Head Coach for Harvard Men's Tennis, was just the third head coach in program history, Fish has amassed a 702-319-1 overall record, including 21 Ivy League titles. On four separate occasions, Fish has been named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Regional Coach of the Year, while leading the Crimson to 25 NCAA Tournaments, including 16 tournament victories. In 2014, Fish was the first ITA coach to win the 2014 Meritorious Service Award presented by Conant Leadership.
Through a communication error, we assumed this article was written by David Fish when in fact he submitted the article and informed us it was actually written by Craig Lambert.
David set the record straight when he saw our post:
"The article is great, but my authorship is greatly exaggerated! This wonderful article was written by a friend of mine, who is a much better writer, Craig Lambert. Craig was a long-time contributor to Harvard Magazine and published author, and deeply passionate about tennis and other sports.
We apologize for the confusion.
The 2nd Coming of Open Tennis?
Entry-level Pro tennis today faces a difficult problem.
Fortunately, it is one that has already been solved.
By David Fish
Entry-level Pro tennis today faces a difficult problem, made even more challenging by Covid-19. Fortunately it is one that has already been solved.
As tennis anticipates a “new normal” of reduced air travel and more regional play, the following look back at the beginnings of “Open” tennis reminds us of valuable lessons learned that could again be applied to make entry-level pro tennis more accessible and affordable for players everywhere.
The Unintentional Amateurs
Before the Futures, there was an illustrious past.
Few outside of the elite tennis world realize that most professional tennis players have a tough time paying their bills. To be sure, the game’s superstars, the top 10 or 20 ranked athletes on the ATP and WTA tours, make a very good living indeed from prize money, appearance fees, and endorsements. These athletes collect 90 percent of the media attention and probably about the same fraction of the money. Even the top 50 players on the men and women’s tours generally make a decent living. But below them, the vast majority of professional players ordinarily don’t break even, but actually lose money by touring. They need either a wealthy family or a national federation to soak up the red ink. Though they’re trying to make a living as pro athletes, the stark reality is that they are amateurs—the unintentional amateurs.
The International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) “solution,” the new World Tour, which went into effect January 1, 2019, tried to deal with this situation by eliminating up to 90 percent of these unintentional amateurs from the pro game. The new rules capped the number of players who could win ranking points at 750 (there had been 1,500 ranked men and 1,500 women). The ITF also drastically reduced the number of entry slots available to those winning qualifying rounds at ITF tournaments. When first announced as the ITF “Transition Tour”, it was roundly criticized for various reasons, including the way it would likely cut off opportunities for collegiate players in the United States to compete in pro events. Instead of enlarging the size of the pie or dividing it more equitably, the ITF’s philosophy appeared to be shooing most of the aspiring diners away from the table. Due to enormous player backlash soon after its introduction, the ITF reversed its decision and reverted back to essentially the same pathway that has proven unaffordable for so many thousands of players since its inception. (Ed. Note: The current Covid-19 crisis has once again highlighted the unsustainability of the World Tour model.)
Certainly, the financial rewards of the game could be far more evenly distributed among the players. But the most important reason why aspiring pros cannot survive the grind of lower-level professional tourneys (like Futures events) is the staggering cost. No other sport is as expensive for the individual athlete as tennis. The biggest budget item is travel: airfare, hotels, rental cars, restaurant meals. Add the expense of a coach and a fitness trainer/program, plus entry fees and other outlays. The monthly “nut” is so large that even excellent players can rarely earn enough to meet it—let alone afford a home, a car, clothing, or even a nice night on the town.
Luckily, tennis has already solved this problem. The puzzle of how to enable young aspiring pros to develop their games - without going bankrupt - has been around as long as “open” tennis. In the early years of the Open era, some tournament circuits were structured in ways that kept player expenses down while offering meaningful prize money. Examining how pro tennis worked then before the ITF took it over, can give us a clue as to how to solve similar problems in the modern era.
The Circuit Days
Fifty years ago there was no open tennis. Before 1968, pros and amateurs played separate tournaments, and big events like Wimbledon were restricted to amateur athletes. Although the best tennis players of that era were professionals like Laver, once they had accepted money, none of them could enter the Grand Slams.
In the 1960s, however, just before tennis went “open” and began to boom, quite a few national tennis tournament circuits drew the best players in the game. For example, during the height of the Australian tennis dynasty from the 1950s to the 1970s, top Aussie players would work their way to Europe for the French Championships and Wimbledon by playing events in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India in the months beforehand. “Different parts of the world were seeing high-level tennis,” says international tennis consultant Doug MacCurdy, former director of player development for the USTA and the former director of development and general manager of the ITF.
Long before Futures tourneys, regional and national circuits attracted strong players. There was the “Sugar Circuit” in South Africa and a “Safari Circuit” in East Africa. The Caribbean Circuit began in the islands and later moved to Florida, then River Oaks in Houston. The Indian circuit played almost all its events on grass. These tournaments attracted top amateur talents of the time like Ilie Nastase of Romania, the Czech Jan Kodeš, and Alex Metreveli of the U.S.S.R.
With the dawn of the Open era, all comers could enter Grand Slams, and “You could now say, ‘Who’s the best player in the world?’ ” MacCurdy explains. “Money got into the game and launched pro tennis into a different stratosphere. Open tennis was terrific for spectators.”
But for the athletes, it was a rougher road, with very few opportunities to move up unless you were “really, really good,” MacCurdy says. A fine New Zealand player, for example, had but few tournaments near home that offered enough ranking points to qualify for a major event. The USTA and the ITF were not offering the kind of money or points that would let a young player build a career.
The tennis boom of the 1970s built its momentum from many factors, including the founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972 and the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, and television coverage of tournaments by the Public Broadcasting Service, with Bud Collins at the microphone. It greatly enlarged both live and TV audiences and brought a torrent of money into the game. Richer tournaments began to spring up, and “People no longer went to India for the circuit,” says MacCurdy. “Countries could no longer afford to put up the money to stage a pro tournament. National and regional circuits disintegrated. A pretty large proportion of the world started not seeing pro tennis.”
Top players like Connors, Borg, or Vilas among men, and King and Evert among women, could now win real money every week. Events in Washington, Boston, and South Orange, New Jersey drew elite players as they ramped up to the US Open. “There had been a nice tournament on Cape Cod,” MacCurdy recalls. “One day, that no longer existed.”
The WATCH Circuit
Larry Turville, still one of the world’s top senior and super-senior tennis players, has won many national titles in the United States as well as ITF world championships in 60-and-over singles and doubles. He coached college tennis at Rice for 18 years.
In 1972, while in the Army shortly after college at Georgia Tech, Turville joined with a fellow young touring pro, Armistead Neely, to launch the first pro satellite tour. Called the WATCH (World Association of Tennis Champions) Circuit, the Florida-based tour included 10 tournaments. The first event went off at a two-court condominium development in Miami Beach. WATCH secured sponsorship for its top two players from Jimmy Connors’s manager, Bill Riordan, who allowed the winner to enter his pro event the following week.”There has never been another Satellite/Futures event with that kind of quality,“ says MacCurdy.
“We started the circuit just to have a place to play,” Turville explains. At the start, prize money was $2,500: $1,000 from the host club, $1,000 from entry fees, and $500 from Riordan. By the late 1970s, WATCH events offered tournament purses of up to $10,000 (about $35,000 in 2019 dollars).
As WATCH events grew more popular and began drawing excellent pro competitors, Turville took a meeting with Jack Kramer of the ATP. Kramer asked Turville to set up a points schedule based on a number of tournaments and total combined prize money. “Once I established that,” Turville says, “we were off and running,”.
Within a year, 30 satellite circuits like WATCH sprung up around the world. “Federations like Spain saw that this was a way to get their players into big tournaments,” Turville says. “The satellite system worked great for 10 years. There were two or three other circuits in the United States, but it was tough sledding. The Europeans were putting money into the satellites, but the USTA was not.”
In 1979 the USTA took over the WATCH circuit, doubled the size of draws to 64, and eliminated the housing that WATCH had offered out-of-town players. “This diluted the prize money tremendously,” says Turville. “If you won $200 or $300, that would barely cover your hotel bill.” Additionally, the ITF decided to eliminate circuits in favor of stand-alone tournaments.
“In Florida, the WATCH circuit was a success because we went back to the clubs to build a following,” Turville says. “Our tournaments would offer two free clinics during the week for club players, and a pro-am event each week. We got involved with the club and built a good atmosphere. But the big-money pro events did the opposite: no clinics, and no pro-am. The club just had these professional players from out of town taking over their courts for a week. Not a lot of fun. Basic to tennis is giving back a little something. You’re using someone’s courts, and they should get something out of it.”
The circuits with smaller prize money had helped young players to develop, Turville says. Those who did well could earn points to play at the next level. “That’s the steppingstone that works,” he explains. “Today, it’s a lonely, rough-and-tumble path for young pros. You travel with your coach and live in hotels. If you lose in the first round, you spend a whole week doing nothing.”
In contrast, in the circuit days, there was camaraderie. “The guys hung out together,” Turville recalls. “There were dinners and parties.”
How to Revive Tournament Circuits
Today, the absence of prize-money circuits like WATCH has removed many excellent players from tennis. Where do former college varsity athletes, or professional-level players who lack the money or skill to make it at the highest levels of the tours, go to play? The answer is often “nowhere.”
It’s different in Europe, where France, Italy, and other nations have greater access to local and regional tournaments. If the United States or any other tennis region outside of Europe were to create a similar breed of accessible circuits around major metropolitan areas like Chicago, or San Francisco, or New York, thousands of “unintentional amateurs” would suddenly find venues for developing their skills. The best would still rise to the top, while the rest would get the chance to test their games against them. Aspiring juniors could regularly compete with savvy older competitors in these local prize-money events—just as French juniors do today.
The two key factors are, first, making it affordable. Local events do this by greatly reducing travel expenses, the biggest budget-buster for aspiring pros. The second essential is strong competitive play, the single greatest engine for player development. The emergence of Universal Tennis Ratings (UTR), a very accurate and widely used rating system that first became popular in the U.S. collegiate system, gives tournament directors a powerful tool for doing this. “Open” money events organized around Universal Tennis Ratings that offer more chances for good matches, MacCurdy says, are attracting players who see the chance for good competition and a guarantee of several matches, as opposed to the “one and done” experience of facing a mismatch in the first round.
The Volvo Car Open, for example, a Premier women’s event in Charleston, South Carolina, now hosts a UTR-based Qualifying Wild Card tournament. The 32-player draw is open to anyone with a UTR of 10.00 or higher, including those playing at high school, junior, collegiate, league, or pro-level The event removes age, location, and ranking-system restrictions, and instead uses only the meritocratic yardstick of UTR. The winner earns a wild card into the qualifying draw of the Volvo Car Open.
The renaissance of local prize-money circuits “could spur the development of hundreds of thousands of players who lack financial resources, or who might choose to stay in school,” says former Harvard head men’s coach Dave Fish, now Director of Development for Universal Tennis. “Like James Blake or John Isner, they could become elite players—not just the fortunate few who can afford to stay out there trying to break through on the ITF World Tour.
“Doing this would tap into the same wellspring that the circuits of the 1970s did,” Fish continues. “In France, there are still 50-year-old guys who play more than 50 matches a year! The real beneficiaries are the up-and-coming juniors who get to compete with people like them. Put two 14-year-olds together, and neither will ever develop the savvy of a 28-year-old. But connecting younger athletes with more experienced older players would tap a rich-but-underutilized source of experienced talent. Reconstructing that environment would be hugely beneficial—and democratizing—for tennis."