For the world’s best tennis players the aim at a Grand Slam is always to get into the second week. But if they fail, though always disappointing, they have more time to rest, train with their coaches, fitness trainers and physios and prepare for the coming tournaments. Some also take the chance to take a break. Novak Djokovic, for example, was forthcoming about the value of a hiking expedition he and his wife Jelena went on after a disappointing loss at the French Open.
But this rather glamourous lifestyle is only an option for those at the top of the game. For the players outside the top 50, playing on the Tour makes a welcome change from their grind at the lower-tier events, but is far from the norm. But though all of the top 100 and a collection of qualifiers and wildcards gain direct entry to the Slams, few make it to the later rounds. Indeed, 112 players lose in the first week. But what happens next for these lower-ranked players after an early Grand Slam loss?
Get back on court
The answer is simple: they get back to playing as soon as possible, so they can earn enough prize money and ranking points to keep their dream of tennis glory alive. But with no ATP Tour events ever coinciding with a Grand Slam, that leaves the first-week losers at a Grand Slam with only one way of getting back on the court and earning again. And that is to play at Challenger-level.
The Challenger circuit, one tier below the main Tour, is a melting pot where rising stars, battle-hardened journeymen and ATP regulars looking for form compete week in, week out. They typically play in front of crowds far smaller than those found on the main Tour, a mere handful compared with the 23,000 that watched Djokovic beat del Potro on Arthur Ashe in the final at the US Open. And whilst the Serb earned $3.8 million for that win, the prize money on the Challenger Tour is far smaller.
But the participation of players who lost in the first week at a Slam contravenes the unwritten rule that a player cannot enter another tournament until the conclusion of the event they most recently completed in. It is a rule that applies to every week of the season, bar the eight weeks of Grand Slam action and the Masters 1000s in Indian Wells and Miami, which both last over the course of two weeks and, after the Majors, have the largest draws of any tournament.
Valuable ranking points
Ranking points wise, qualifying for a Grand Slam earns a player 25 points. Making it to the second round will earn them another 45 points, taking their total to 70. In contrast, making it to the semifinals at a €64,000 Challenger – the Challenger Tour’s equivalent of an ATP 250 tournament – earns a player just 28 ranking points. But the quality of the opposition in the second round at a Major is almost certain to be significantly higher than that faced in a Challenger semifinal.
The Frenchman Ugo Humbert, for example, had a very promising US Open run, which saw him qualify into the main draw and reach the second round, where he lost a close match to the former champion Stan Wawrinka. That career-best result earned him 70 ranking points. But he wasted no time in flying back to France, exchanging the bright lights of New York city for the less prestigious Cassis, a small town on France’s Mediterranean coast near Marseille and host to a €64,000 Challenger.
He continued his impressive form, beating the veterans Tobias Kamke and James Ward, both of whom were once ranked inside the top 100 but now find themselves far from that promised land, en route to the final. He was beaten there by his countryman Enzo Couacaud, but nonetheless earned himself over 100 ranking points with his work over the two weeks. As a result, he now finds himself at a career-high ranking of 104th in the world, a rise of 35 places.
Money makes a difference
But ranking points are not the only thing players are competing for. Prize money is as important and it has been increasing at the Grand Slams of late, including in the qualifying rounds. Historically, players were reluctant to travel across the world to compete in Grand Slam qualifying, as the chances of reaching the main draw were slight and the rewards minimal. However, at the 2018 US Open, every qualifier was guaranteed at least $8,000.
In contrast, in Cassis, Humbert only earned €5,400 despite reaching the final. As a result of the greater prize money on offer in Grand Slam qualifying, the quality and competitiveness have increased dramatically. That is no surprise in a sport where the vast majority of the athletes struggle to even break even at the end of the year. And for those who are able to reach the main draw, the prize money is often sufficient to extend their careers significantly.
For example, Ricardas Berankis, the top seed in Cassis, lost first-round at the US Open, but nonetheless received $54,000 for his efforts. However, he then lost in the first-round in Cassis to the eventual-champion Couacaud, who is rediscovering his best form after a difficult few years which have seen his ranking fall outside the top 500. But whilst Couacaud’s title-run in Cassis earned him a valuable rise of 234 places in the rankings, his prize money totalled only €9,200.
That’s a significant payday for a player whose career-prize money total is below $140,000. But it shows how limited the rewards are for those who don’t ply their trade on the main Tour. Berankis, hardly one of the sport’s elite, has earned nearly $2.5 million, including $310,000 this year, compared with Couacaud’s $14,000 for 2018. Part of that huge difference can be explained by the fact that Berankis competed at every Slam in 2018 though he didn’t win a match. Couacaud was present at none.
For the love of the game?
Andreas Seppi, a 34-year-old veteran ranked 51st in the world, was also in Challenger action last week. Having beaten a struggling Sam Querrey before losing to Denis Shapovalov in five in the second round at the US Open, he could have returned to Italy with 45 ranking points and $93,000 for his efforts. Instead, he opted to take a flight to Chicago and compete at the $150,000 Challenger, where he was the top seed by some distance.
Had he won the title, he would have earned an extra 125 ranking points, but he slumped to a first-round defeat at the hands of American qualifier Alexander Sarkissian, then ranked 358th in the world. Sarkissian’s victory illustrates how little can separate those at the top of the game from those struggling to make an impact on the sport. But, though they may be evenly matched on the court, off it they lead completely different lives.
Seppi, once the world #18 and three-times a champion at Tour-level, has earned over $9.6 million over the course of a career that is now approaching its end. He was playing in Chicago for his love of the sport more than out of any need to earn prize money or ranking points. But Sarkissian, who has played just five Tour-level matches in his career, found himself immediately back in action in Cary, North Carolina, despite the disappointment of losing in the second round in Chicago.
For Sarkissian and Couacaud, the sort of prize money and ranking points received by players, even for first-round defeats at a Major, remain a distant dream. For Humbert, they may yet become a regular reality, but are still far from it yet. But all too real, for all three, is the weekly grind of the Challenger Tour, where the competition is fierce and the rewards all too frequently tiny. But, though those promised lands are distant, they are not out of reach.