Mardy Fish tennis tourney hopes to take big step up

Professional tennis is changing its tournament structure next year, eliminating the entry-level circuit that includes a popular, long-running Vero Beach event.

But organizers of the local event – the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships – say the tournament’s future is not in jeopardy.

To the contrary, the tournament’s co-directors see the International Tennis Federation’s collaboration with the men’s ATP World Tour and women’s WTA World Tour to revamp the professional game as an opportunity to raise the stature of the event here.

“We’d love to move up to the Challenger level, if not next year, then eventually,” said Tom Fish, who is Windsor’s tennis director as well as chairman of the Vero Beach-based foundation started by his son, Mardy, a retired top-10 player.

“For that to be financially doable, though, we’d really have to sell it to the community and get sponsors to contribute more,” Fish added. “We’d need the corporate community to step up even more than it’s doing now.”

It’s an ambitious goal: The Challenger Tour is a big step up, the men’s tennis version of Triple-A baseball, just one level below the major-league World Tour.

With prize money ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 at nearly 100 sites around the world, Challenger events attract higher-ranked players – most are ranked among the top 200 in the world – with more-recognizable names, large crowds and strong corporate sponsors.

That’s a big jump from the soon-to-cease United States Tennis Association Pro Circuit, where “Futures” tournaments are the professional game’s bottom rung, a proving ground for top juniors, college players and upstart pros.

The prize money at this year’s Vero Beach tournament, which was played two weeks ago at Grand Harbor, was only $15,000 and attracted players ranked from No. 1,219 to No. 402.

So when Fish first learned of the restructuring, he admitted, “It’s pretty scary.”

His fears, though, have been calmed.

The new International Tennis Federation format replaces the USTA’s “Futures” events with a “Transition Tour,” designed to more effectively link the ITF’s Juniors circuit to the men’s and women’s world tours.

Transition Tour events will have 32-player singles draws and offer prize money of $15,000 or $25,000. The $25,000 tournaments will continue to award professional tennis rankings points, but only to finalists and semifinalists – and only for 2019.

In 2020, pro rankings points will be awarded only at Challenger-level tournament and above.

According to Randy Walker, a former USTA press officer and part-time Moorings resident who serves as the local tournament’s co-director, Vero Beach already has been offered a date on the Transition Tour’s 2019 schedule.

“They’ve invited us to be a $25,000 tournament the week of April 29th, and they’ve offered to subsidize a portion of the increase in prize money,” Walker said. “They know the history and reputation of the tournament here – it’s the longest-running $15,000 event on the circuit – and they wanted to give us the first option.”

USTA officials say the tournament, which has been played in Vero Beach since 1995, had become one of the circuit’s most successful stops – one that has been wildly popular with players, who praise the community’s strong support for the event.

“The players love coming here,” Walker said.

The game’s governing bodies, however, have decided there are too many players playing professional tennis.

A recent ITF study found: Of the 14,000-plus players who compete annually in pro tournaments, fewer than 350 men and just over 250 women financially break even, and more than half earn no prize money.

The new tournament structure, designed to ensure that prize money at pro tournaments allows more players to make a living, will reduce the number of ranked pros from 3,000 to 1,500 – 750 men and 750 women.

“Our plan now is to have a $25,000 Transition Tour event next year and then go for a Challenger,” Walker said. “We’re already lobbying for a Challenger in 2020, probably in mid-May.”

Both Fish and Walker said they believe Vero Beach, with an increased subsidy from the USTA for at least the first few years, could support a Challenger, which would require putting up $75,000 in prize money or $50,000 in prize money plus hotel rooms for the players.

Adding Vero Beach to the Challenger Tour, though, would need the approval of the ITF and ATP World Tour before a date could be assigned on the schedule.

Challengers already are played in April and May in Sarasota, Tallahassee and Savannah, Ga. Walker believes a mid-May tournament in Vero Beach would be a good fit, geographically and on the calendar.

“To do a Challenger, we’d need the hotels and probably need to take over more of the club at Grand Harbor, and that’s easier to do in May,” Walker said. “Also, having a Challenger in mid-May helps from the standpoint of getting players.

“They can come to Vero Beach to play on the clay here, then go to Orlando, get on a plane to Paris and play the French Open qualifying,” also on clay.

Fish said the Futures tournament brought about $500,000 annually into the local economy. He projected a Challenger would generate three times that amount.

In addition, Walker said all Challengers are televised online, which would provide increased exposure for Vero Beach, the Fish foundation and the tournament’s sponsors.

“A Challenger here certainly is possible,” Fish said. “This tournament has a great reputation on the Pro Circuit, and they want to keep it going here. We have a lot of ideas, and we have some time to look at things.”

Ultimately, though, money will be the deciding factor.

Vero Beach has proven itself to be a tennis town, and there’s no doubt there are plenty of folks who will enthusiastically come out to support a Challenger tournament with higher-ranked players and more familiar names.

But is the local business community ready, willing and able to step up?

We’ll see.

“People here need to know that, no matter which way we go, they’re going to see amazing tennis,” Walker said. “It’s going to be the same quality of tennis you’re seeing now or better.”

Maybe a lot better.

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