Interview | A season-ending championship for the ITF World Tennis Tour can help establish a legacy, says Andrew Moss

From introducing competitive tennis to budding youngsters to laying out a clear-cut pathway towards the upper echelons of the sport, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) does a host of things. ‘From Playground to Podium’ is after all one of its flagship slogans.

In an interview to The Hindu on the sidelines of the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour event at the Bowring Institute in Bengaluru, Andrew Moss, Strategy and Pathway Head, ITF World Tennis Tour, discussed ITF’s sprawling governance mandate, players’ financial constraints, tournament parity between men and women, expansion plans and more. Excerpts:

How is it being in India and what are your thoughts on how the ITF World Tennis Tour is progressing here?

We’ve been really delighted in the last couple of years to be able to partner a lot with the AITA (All India Tennis Association). We’re acutely aware of the fact that it’s a very costly business for professional tennis players with the travel and accommodation. What we want to do is provide opportunities in their own countries so that cost is less and it’s more about ability and being able to climb the rankings. We’re delighted that in the last 12 months we have introduced a new category of women’s events, a $40,000 tournament (W40), of which there are four in India this year. And we are looking to grow that next year.

You mentioned about the importance of making it easier for players to manage costs. But apart from say the top-200, it’s tough for others. Are there any efforts to ensure that more people can live off the money they make by playing tennis?

One of the things that the ITF has invested itself in is prize money on the women’s World Tennis Tour. Last year (2023), it was over $17 million, and that was a record. It was two million more than in 2022, which was also a record. There are some smaller things that you can do as well, like having tournaments in consecutive weeks, either in the same country or at small distances between countries. One of the things we did at the start of 2023, and we’re doing at the start of 2024, is having the same women’s $40,000 tournaments in consecutive weeks in Thailand and India because the visa travel is quite easy. We are also going to survey players’ costs. If they’re playing in their country, what kind of travel and accommodation costs do they have? What happens when they are playing outside their country? It should be able to give us an idea of what it will take for more women, in particular, to be able to cover their costs with prize money. You spoke about top-200, but what would it take to allow 400 women to do the same or 500? So it’s all about making sure that more women can see professional tennis as a legitimate career and we are committed to making sure that happens. What we are also trying to do is provide the same level for women as the ATP’s Challenger events do for men. That’s in the number of events. We got just about to parity this year, but there are differences in the number of tournaments that provide hospitality and in prize money. Those are two gaps that we would like to close in the short to medium term.

You mentioned tournament parity. For men, ATP handles everything upwards of Challenger 50 (50 points). But on the women’s side, it’s the ITF that handles until W100 and only then does the WTA come in. Does that disadvantage players?

It’s not the same, but I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. The most important thing is the policy and the commitment to executing that policy. The number of tournaments is now the same between ATP Challengers and the women’s equivalent, which is great. Three or four years ago, for every one ITF women’s event at the $40,000 level (W40) or higher, there’d be two ATP Challengers. But now it’s one to one. So, as I mentioned, it’s the policy and the commitment to executing the policy that’s the most important thing.

The ITF’s mandate is to grow the game and also look to build a commercial enterprise with a sustainable revenue-expansion model. How do you balance the two?

When we look at the success of the World Tennis Tour each year, we don’t just look at the prize money or number of events at a certain level, but we’re also looking at how many different nationalities of ranked players there are, how many different countries are organising competitions. At the moment, there are about 75 countries that host ITF World Tennis Tour events. There are about 140 countries that host ITF Juniors. So the most obvious place to look for new hosting countries are the ones that host Junior events but not professional ones. If you could get to 100 countries organising, that would be great. We’re always looking to help more players get onto the pathway and be given opportunities so that we can be agnostic about where talent comes and it can still succeed.

The tennis calendar stretches from January to November. Do you think it’s too long?

I think we have to be a little bit agnostic to the time of year. There are times of the year, for example, here in India in December where you might get great crowds and that really helps the tournament work commercially. So it’s not quite so easy to say, ‘we’re going to stop in December.’ One thing we need to be mindful of is about players who are playing in the Grand Slam qualifying in Australia in January. They do need time to rest and recuperate. More broadly, we have been thinking about having a bit of structure to the beginning and the end of the year. Like an end-of-the-year championships for the ITF World Tennis Tour. Something like that could bookend January to November. We’re aware that the tour can run every single week. There are fewer events in December than there are at other times of the year, so that kind of has its own logic. But at the same time, we are also a global tour and December is not necessarily a down month everywhere in the world. I think we have a nice balance at the moment. Up until November, there’s a strong representation of tournaments, and it tails off in December. But I understand that a lot of players would like it a bit structured so that they can have a proper off-season before Australian Open qualifying.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain plays a forehand against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the Men’s Singles semifinal match at the Nitto ATP Finals.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain plays a forehand against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the Men’s Singles semifinal match at the Nitto ATP Finals.
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Is the season-ending championship for ITF World Tennis Tour like the ATP Finals, WTA Finals and the ATP Next Gen Finals? Is it in the works?

It’s an idea and we need to discuss it with the Tours (ATP and WTA). It’s certainly an idea because I think it gives a little bit of structure. The ATP has the Finals, as does the WTA. So I think something like that could help. It’s also one of those things where we could start establishing a legacy of the ITF World Tennis Tour. For a player like Carlos Alcaraz, who has been World No.1 and a Grand Slam champion, what were the stages in his career? It is not just that he won a ATP Masters 1000 or that he won Challenger titles. It is also that he won a Men’s ITF $25,000 in Spain in 2019. Had there been a moment for him where he might have been able to win an end-of-year championship for men, that could have been an interesting kind of staging point in his career. And that’s one of the things that could help the profile of the ITF Tour. But it’s only an idea for now.

Considering any such change involves discussions with multiple stakeholders and tennis governing bodies like the ATP, the WTA, the four Grand Slams and Grand Slam board, how difficult are these negotiations?

The thing that you can take as a positive is that change can happen by consensus. We have our player panel, we have our committees, we have the ITF board, we have the ATP, the WTA, all very important stakeholders. But what that means is we get a consistent and joined-up approach. I see benefits in being able to take different opinions and different commercial pathway perspectives and being able to follow them into one. So I don’t see an issue with that. From a fan perspective, sometimes it can be frustrating to see different rules and different organisations. But the fact that it can involve different perspectives, I think it’s a good thing.

What are the plans for 2024? Any new development initiatives on the anvil?

Over the last three years, we’ve been able to materially change the amount and quality of feedback that we’ve got from players. In fact, we have Niki Kaliyanda Poonacha and Shivani Chilakalapudi from India in the players’ panel, and that’s been great in enabling us get feedback. Some of our objectives [for the future] are related to the topics that we’ve discussed — prize money, scheduling of tournaments, introduction of more hospitality which can ease the profit-loss equation. We are also looking to work on standards at each tournament, and making it better. These just remain fundamental, and we will continue to work on them in 2024 and subsequent years.

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