Small events need a chance to shine

Last week, I saw firsthand what small tournaments mean to worldwide tours and local communities when I visited the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport. Bellevue Avenue was bustling as cars filled parking spaces and fans filled cash registers, all while the ATP’s grass-court gurus took one last shot at a title before their road to the US Open became paved with asphalt.

Newport is a 250, the lowest level of ATP tournament in terms of ranking points on offer. The WTA equivalent is an International tournament -- think Bastad and Istanbul, which are taking place this week. There are 32 WTA International and 40 ATP 250 tournaments on this year’s schedules; they are the worker bees of the tours, while the Grand Slams are the CEOs.

Although Newport was gleaming as patrons savored its charms and players extolled its history, small tournaments still struggle to compete with the more prestigious events that have come to dominate the tennis landscape. While the rich get richer -- the US Open just announced further prize-money increases to keep up with the Joneses -- tournaments rungs below the majors on the economic ladder often must pay top players to simply show up.

WTA International tournaments face a decidedly uphill battle when it comes to attracting top talent. Their status alone means they offer less ranking points and prize money than Premier-level tournaments, such as Stanford, Montreal and Cincinnati. But let’s say a particular International has its eyes on a top-10 player. That tournament better hope that player hasn’t already competed in another International event in the past six months, for that’s what WTA rules currently limit top 10 players to doing.

And if an International tournament manages to land more than one top 10 player? They must pay a fine of up to $250,000, according to a report in New Zealand.

In tennis, the poor also get poorer.

It delights me to say that the WTA is considering a rule change that would eliminate this needless and onerous edict. The limitation forces tournament directors to pay even greater appearance fees to entice drawing cards, for fear that they’ll choose to play a different International event. “We’ve put in some pretty hefty offers out there,” said Heineken Open tournament director Karl Budge, who could be speaking for nearly all WTA International tournament directors.

Let’s hope that sense, rather than cents, rules the day when the WTA board meets on this issue, one that to my knowledge doesn’t affect the ATP. But the men’s tour can likewise make a change to benefit its smaller tournaments, which can do only so much to sell themselves against other 250s -- and even the bigger 500s.

If you’ve ever looked at how a players’ ATP ranking is calculated, you may have noticed that some tournaments do not count toward their total. David Ferrer, for example, has played six tournaments in the past 12 months -- and earned 290 points from them -- that do not count toward his ranking.

Players who finished the previous season in the top 30 -- called “Commitment players” in the ATP rulebook -- can only count their best six results from tournaments besides the four Grand Slams and eight Masters events toward their ranking, assuming they play all 12 of those events. Commitment players must also play four ATP 500 tournaments -- meaning there is a strong likelihood that they can count only two 250s toward their ranking point total.

Or, in other words, the same number of International tournaments WTA pros can enter every 12 months.

The ATP rankings formula isn’t as clear cut as the WTA’s International tournament restrictions, but in a way, it discourages participation in smaller events. To correct this, all tournaments players enter should count toward their ranking. If that was the case, Ferrer would actually be No. 6 instead of No. 7, in the world.

Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have played a combined seven ATP 250 tournaments in the past 12 months. Only two count toward their current ranking totals. The Big Four certainly need incentives to commit to a 250, and they certainly shouldn’t be discouraged to play them for any reason.

This may all seem a minor matter, but WTA International and ATP 250 tournaments don’t need additional obstacles to overcome in an environment where the Grand Slams can block out the sun with their towering height. There are eight ATP 250 and six WTA International tournaments in the month of July. The Olympics and World Cup are behind us; basketball and hockey playoffs are over and football hasn’t begun. The summer is tennis’ time to shine. The tours should do their best to make sure all its tournaments have the best chance to do that.