Trying to Change Pro Tennis One Signature at a Time
TORONTO — In a subterranean food court in downtown Toronto, shoppers bustled past Maria Patrascu without a glance, unaware that the young woman sipping green tea was the leader of a growing rebellion in professional tennis.
A year ago at this time, Patrascu was a little-known left-hander playing obscure tournaments in Egypt as she tried to get her world ranking under 600. But now she is unable to enter tournaments because of controversial new International Tennis Federation rules designed to slash the ranks of pro players.
So, instead of playing, Patrascu, 22, remains at home, seeking to upset the I.T.F.’s new World Tennis Tour one signature at a time. But what began as a petition has turned into a surging player revolt that Patrascu, more than any other player, has helped bring to light.
“It started out rebellious, but it has definitely evolved,” she said. “It’s just a movement to pursue justice.”
About 10 months ago, Patrascu began reading how the I.T.F., one of four governing bodies in tennis, planned to introduce a complicated string of rules to restructure the lower levels of the sport. Patrascu grew alarmed that she and hundreds of young players like her would find it far more difficult to get into tournaments and pursue a tennis career.
Last March, Patrascu started an online petition to halt the changes. For many months, it gathered only a modest response — about 2,400 signatures through December. But once the changes took effect in January and thousands of aspiring players felt the full force of the new rules, support for her petition soared.
It added more than 12,000 new signatures in just the last six weeks and now has more than 14,500. With Patrascu leading the way, supporters have already extracted one concession from the I.T.F., with more possibly on the way.
The movement continues to grow, and some players have met with lawyers to discuss a lawsuit against the I.T.F. Dave Miley, a former federation official and coach who has also opposed the new rules, praised Patrascu and the players and coaches who have joined the fight.
“What she and other players are doing is admirable, and they have cause,” Miley said. “To me, 14,000 voices out there are not uninformed.”
Professional tennis has several tiers, much like baseball with its major leagues and several levels of minor leagues below them. The best and most famous tennis players play in ATP or WTA tournaments. The rest, as many as 14,000 of them, toil anonymously around the globe in small events that are supposed to serve as tennis’s talent incubator.
Patrascu is one of those. Born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1997, she moved to Toronto with her parents when she was 5. She showed promise as a junior, winning the Canadian under-14 championship, and turned professional at 18. But her career-high ranking is No. 615 in the I.T.F. and No. 819 in the WTA.
Most players’ chances of making it to stardom are slim, and for many, it is challenging to just break even financially after paying for travel, training and other expenses. That is why the I.T.F., after commissioning an extensive study, declared the old structure unsustainable. Too many marginal players were basically masquerading as professionals.
The I.T.F.’s mission is to promote tennis around the world, and the organization works to ensure that there are tournaments on all continents. But those events have been open to all-comers, and they have included players with little hope of breaking into the top tier — some over 50 years old. The I.T.F. study determined that in one year, as many as 6,000 so-called professional players did not earn even $1. A recent independent investigation also found that there was a “tsunami” of fixed matches at the lower levels, where players earning little prize money are vulnerable to betting syndicates.
The I.T.F. determined that the best model for professional tennis should include no more than 750 men and 750 women. It recommended new rules to restructure the tour, effectively eliminating almost 13,000 aspirants.
The new system is intended to provide an easier path for the top 100 juniors to matriculate via easier access to bigger tournaments, perhaps at the expense, opponents say, of other players who develop at later ages. (A certain number of spots are reserved at some events for the players in the top 100 junior rankings). With a smaller pool of truly professional players, the I.T.F. hopes, the meager prize money and ranking points offered at the lower levels could be distributed more efficiently.
But Patrascu, and many other who are taking to various platforms to vent their anger, say that hard-working players with real potential are getting caught up in the cull as tournament sizes are reduced and rankings points become more difficult to attain.
Patrascu said she received so many messages every day from frustrated players detailing their own problems with the new tour that she was unable to reply to them all.
“They’re killing the players’ dreams, just to end up with a handful of really, really good players,” she said of the I.T.F. “All the rest are forgotten.”
In December, the I.T.F. granted Patrascu a one-hour conference call with the federation officials Jackie Nesbitt and Andrew Moss. Patrascu later lamented that she let her fellow players down on that call, because she could not stop the new plan.
Then, in January, the new tour was introduced and Patrascu’s WTA ranking disappeared, she said. The most jarring change for most players is the limit on entrants for the qualifying rounds, the mini tournaments that allow fringe players to play their way into the main draws, where modest prize money and rankings points were up for grabs. These entries were cut to only 24.
In the past, many tournaments had large qualifying draws of 48, 64 or even occasionally 128 players.
Patrascu explained how the changes in the size of qualifying draws has impacted her boyfriend, Kevin Portmann of Italy, who went to a tournament in Tunisia last month and was required to play two pre-qualifying matches on the day he arrived. That was just to get into the qualifying rounds. She said she cannot afford to travel to Africa or Europe for tournaments with little hope of reaching the main draw.
“You have to win five matches just to be in position to play someone who is totally fresh,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Players are fuming because they now require more points to move up in the rankings, but it is harder to get into the tournaments to get those points. Also, double specialists are at a greater disadvantage because singles rankings are now used to determine entry into the doubles draws.
As the new reality sinks in, many players, their coaches, families and friends are turning to Patrascu’s petition. Some have followed her initiative with Facebook pages, like the one with a banner headline that reads, “Don’t Kill Tennis.” Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, who runs the player’s academy, spoke out against the new rules in an Instagram video last week.
The I.T.F. insisted that Patrascu’s petition contained “inaccuracies” and said that much of the other criticism had been “uninformed.” But under siege, it made its first amendment to the new rules two weeks ago by expanding qualifying draws to 32 players. The federation also promised to continue monitoring the rules and act accordingly.
“Of course we are listening to the players,” said Kris Dent, the I.T.F.’s senior executive director for pro circuits. “It would be foolish not to listen to our constituents. Change is never easy, but in this case it is vital.”
Patrascu said she was encouraged by the revision but said it should only be the start. Meanwhile, her days are spent training indoors in Toronto and stoking the burgeoning rebellion.
“I don’t feel like I’m doing this for myself, especially because I’m not sure where my career is headed,” she said. “The time that I’ve dedicated to it is really from the bottom of my heart. I wish players could have more opportunities.”
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