Tennis - the Professional Circuit Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tennis - the Professional Circuit

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Many people think that top tennis players have a life of luxury. Admittedly they play all over the world and so get to travel, and they stay in beautiful hotels and get paid a lot, but they are rarely - if ever - at home (tennis has a very short 'off season' - about a month and a half) and are constantly packing and unpacking their bags. They hardly ever see friends and family and work very hard. Playing matches, practising on court and training in the gym takes up most of their time. Their money is largely based on success in tournaments, so a bad run of form costs more than pride. Many deals with clothing manufacturers are performance related - if the player plays poorly for some time, they won't get the money. Players have to train hard both in the gym and on court for several hours a day and are careful about what they eat.

On the other hand, there are many perks. Some tournaments offer presents to players, such as Wimbledon, which offers free West End theatre tickets. Others offer the top seeds use of a smart car for the duration of the event, or free meals at expensive restaurants. The ATP1 organisers allow tournaments to offer players 'appearance money' to play their event. This is not allowed in smaller events on the WTA2 Tour, but there are ways of getting around it, such as offering players hugely out-of-proportion sums to do promotion for the event. Top players are usually managed by one of the three big firms; Octagon, IMG and SFX. These firms arrange racket, clothing and sponsorship deals as well as fees for promotional activities.

Lower ranked players stay in cheap hotels, hostels or bed and breakfasts and struggle to make ends meet without sponsorship, appearance money or the big prize money which top players get. But how does professional tennis operate?

Men's Tennis

Male professionals play on what is called the ATP Tour. The ATP organise all male tournaments throughout the year and all over the world. For example, there are tournaments in Uzbekistan, Romania, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Italy, France, Australia, Qatar, the US, the UK and many other countries. There are national tournaments for lower ranked players. Different tournaments have different amounts of prize money, with top tournaments often offering prizes of more than $500,000, and sometimes several million US dollars' worth of prize money. There is a set of nine very important tournaments called the Tennis Masters Series, which take place all over the world. There is also a season ending tournament for the top eight players, plus several others who have performed well in Grand Slam events (see below). There are two sets of ATP rankings, the Champion's Race and the ATP Entry System.

Champion's Race

Every player starts the year with zero points. Their best 18 performances of the year, including Grand Slams and the nine Tennis Master Series Events, plus their other five best results, are awarded points. Should a player miss a Grand Slam or Masters Series event he then cannot earn points from that tournament that year. Whichever player has the most points at the end of the season is the world number one, ie the best male tennis player in the world. Rankings are updated each week.

ATP Entry System

A rolling 52-week system based on the players best 18 results is used to calculate seedings and whether the player gets direct entry into tournaments, without having to qualify. This system means that the players must defend the points they won in the previous year. Rankings are updated each week.

Male Players

Famous ex-players include: John McEnroe infamous for his tantrums and utterer of the immortal line 'You cannot be serious!', now a commentator and host of BBC quiz show The Chair, his great rivals, fellow American Jimmy Connors, German champion Boris Becker, Australians Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, Austrian Thomas Muster, Swedes Stefan Edberg and Bjorn Borg and many, many more. Some now play on the senior tour.

Women's Tennis

Women's tennis is run by the WTA Tour. Like the ATP Tour, they also run tournament throughout the year and all over the world, including Germany, the UK, Hawaii, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the US, Belgium, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. There are national tournaments for lower ranked players and again, different tournaments have varying amounts of prize money, with the top tournaments, which attract the best players, often offering around $550,000. Men generally get more prize money than women, although they try to justify this by saying that the men often have to play at least three sets, and sometimes five sets for a close match, while women never have to play more than three sets, which is true. They can be just as tiring for women though. Take, for example, the fabulous 2001 French Open final between Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters. Clijsters was two points away from a straight sets victory and first Grand Slam title, when Capriati came back and won the set to force a third. The final set went to 12-10, finishing in Capriati's favour. It is currently the longest third set in a women's singles final in history at the French Open - but proves that to the top players, it ain't over till it's over.

WTA Tour Rankings

Over a one-year period, both singles and doubles players earn round points for progressing through a tournament draw. These increase in value the further a player gets. In addition, they can also earn quality points (doubled in Grand Slams) for beating a more highly ranked player. There is a maximum of 100 points for beating the world number one. A player needs at least three valid tournaments to have a ranking, but only the best 18 performances count towards the ranking. To maintain her ranking, it is necessary for the player to defend the points won the previous year or play better in other tournaments to earn points of equal value. Rankings are updated each week.

Female Players

Famous ex players include Martina Navratilova, who won countless titles; Chris Evert, the American who challenged her reign as world number one; German Steffi Graf, who won many titles in the late 1980s and early '90s and is married to Andre Agassi; Suzanne Lenglen, the great French player who dominated in the 1920s; Virginia Wade, the last British Wimbledon winner (1977); Sue Barker, also British, now a successful BBC commentator and host; Helen Wills Moody, the top American; Billie Jean King, also American, the last player to win the Wimbledon triple crown (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) in 1973, now American Fed Cup captain; and Yvonne Goolagong, the talented Australian, among many others.


Doubles is the poor cousin of singles. Singles gets much more TV and media coverage and doubles is often stuck on at the end of the day's play, when all of the singles matches are over. Some top players regularly play doubles, a few play occasionally, for example, only at Grand Slams, but most don't really compete in it at all. It comes in two disciplines: men's and women's doubles, where both players on a team are the same gender, or mixed doubles, where there is one man and one woman on each team.

Arguably the most famous team of all time was the men's doubles pairing of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, known as the 'Woodies', for obvious reasons. Doubles is generally played by older players. You can stay competitive in doubles for longer than in singles - you are part of a team so it is less physically or mentally demanding than singles.

Junior Tennis

There are also top junior players. There are separate junior tournaments as well as junior events in Grand Slams. The unofficial junior World Championships is the Orange Bowl tournament. The number of tournaments juniors can play is restricted until they are 18. It is possible for a player to also hold a senior ranking if they play some senior tournaments. These would be smaller tournaments, probably either a Satellite, Futures or a Challenger3. It is more than possible to become a top senior without playing much or any junior tennis (as the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, did), while not all juniors will become seniors and many who do will struggle to establish themselves. Top juniors do not necessarily become top seniors.

Grand Slams

There are four official Grand Slam tournaments. They last for two weeks each, beginning on a Monday, with the women's singles final on the last Saturday and the men's singles final on the Sunday. In the order they take place over the season, they are:

Australian Open

Played on hard courts in Melbourne, this unfussy, fun tournament is great to watch. Played at the height of the Australian summer, but early in the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere, this tournament sometimes takes place in temperatures exceeding 100°F. Offers equal prize money for men and women.

French Open

Played on the red clay courts of Roland Garros in Paris, the event takes place in May/June. Often has long matches and red wine. Sometimes requires rain breaks as clay is slippery when wet.


The oldest and most prestigious tournament of them all, Wimbledon, played on grass courts in London, is famous the world over. It is a strict tournament in many ways. Famous for the visitors eating of strawberries and cream and drinking Pimms. Many clay court players do not bother to attend, making excuses, as they know that they will not play nearly as well on grass.

US Open

In 2002 this hard court tournament, held at Flushing Meadows, New York, had a particular poignancy. The previous year the September 11th attacks happened, and 2002 kicked off with a memorial service.

There is one other tournament, the Nasdaq -100 Open at Crandon Park, Miami, which is regarded by the players as the 'fifth Grand Slam' and so is very important. A Grand Slam is also the winning of all the Grand Slams in any one year.


Top players earn sponsorship money from companies in order to wear their logo on their tennis clothes. Players are also paid to wear a particular brand of tennis clothes and shoes, such as Nike, Yonex, Fila or Adidas, as well as to use a particular brand of racket such as Wilson, Babolat or Slazenger. Lower ranked players do not really get these opportunities as they are not high profile enough.

The International Tennis Federation

The ITF runs tennis all over the world. It also arranges international team competitions the Davis Cup (for men) and the Fed Cup (for women).


Many large events (including Grand Slams) have qualifying tournaments before they begin to allow players who are not ranked highly enough to get an automatic spot to earn a place in the draw. Should they succeed, these players are called 'qualifiers' and are a relatively easy match. Most will have been defeated after the first few rounds. Some tournaments even have 'pre-qualifying', which the players have to get through before they get even to ordinary qualifying. 'Lucky losers' are players who do not make it through qualifying but were very close. If one of the players in the draw is forced to withdraw before the start of the tournament, a 'lucky loser' will be put into the draw to make up the numbers.


'Seeds' are the highest ranked players in a tournament. It may only be the top eight, but in a Grand Slam there are commonly 32 seeds for both men and women (in singles). The idea is, they are scattered like seeds are scattered, throughout the draw, so their way through the tournament is easier and they do not play each other until later matches, thus ensuring their survival and large crowds for the tournament organisers. The 'top seed' is the highest ranked player in the tournament.

Wild Cards

A 'wild card' is awarded to players who are unable to get into the main draw of the tournament, but whom the organisers believe deserve a chance such as promising youngsters, players returning from injury or previous champions. These positions are often awarded to players from the same country as the tournament, for example, most Wimbledon wild cards are often given to British players.


The ATP and WTA Tours regularly conduct drugs tests. There are certain substances which players are not allowed to take as they are dangerous or may artificially improve performance. Should a player be found guilty, the usual punishment is a ban stripping the player of ranking points and prize money and sometimes a fine. This is still the case even if the player can prove that they did not deliberately take the supplement or drug.

Further Information

Venus Envy by L Jon Wertheim is great for those interested in the WTA Tour and players as it follows the year 2000, focusing mostly on Venus Williams but includes interesting information about other players, too.

Serious by John McEnroe is the autobiography of one of the most famous and interesting players of all time.

Uncovered by Pat Cash is the autobiography of the Australian Wimbledon winner.

For British tennis fans, there is the excellent Ace magazine, published monthly or available on subscription, which features articles, equipment tests, interviews with top players and coaching sections.

Fans can also watch tennis regularly on British Eurosport. They show lots of tournaments and all of the Grand Slams. The BBC shows British tournaments, including Queen's, Eastbourne and, of course, Wimbledon. They occasionally show matches in foreign tournaments where a British player is playing.

1The acronym ATP stands for the Association of Tennis Professionals (but is made up of only male professionals, for some reason).2The acronym WTA stands for Women's Tennis Association.3Satellites, Futures and Challengers are all small tournaments that lower ranked players play in an attempt to earn enough ranking points to get automatic entry into the main draws of larger events.

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