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India's tennis brights rankled by ITF restructuring

ATP points, the currency of the professional tour, will no longer be awarded at the USD 15000 Future's events. Instead, players will now be awarded ITF entry points MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

A little over two years from the day, Adil Kalyanpur remembers how he won his first ATP point.

"I was 17 years old when I got my first point. I was training at the Rafael Nadal Academy in Majorca and we had a tournament on campus. I got a wildcard then and I won my first round match in three sets," Kalyanpur says.

That solitary point might have got Kalyanpur placed only at the tail end of the ATP world ranking list at tied 1865, but it was hugely significant for the 17-year-old.

"It might not seem like much but I felt very proud of that point. I felt as if, 'yes now I'm a professional tennis player'. That I was playing the same sport as a Nadal or Federer."

That ranking, as well as those of several other Indian players (only 14 Indians currently hold ATP ranks, down from 48 in December last year) has now disappeared, after the International Tennis Federation's (ITF) restructuring of international tennis last year. Among other changes, the ITF replaced the Future's tour - the lowest level of professional men's tennis - with the transition tour.

ATP points, the currency of the professional tour, will no longer be awarded at the USD 15000 Future's events. Instead, players will now be awarded ITF entry points. USD 25000 events will award ATP points only from the semifinal stage. What this meant was that on December 24, 2018, all ATP points gained by playing USD 15000 events, and with it the rankings of scores of players, were set to zero. Where rankings had gone up to the tied 1850 mark, the last ranked player on the ATP charts is now 685.

Ostensibly, this move was supposed to increase the pace at which players moved to the second rung of professional tennis - the Challenger Tour. Under the old rules, players could keep playing and performing in the Futures, and rise up to around the 300 mark without really attempting to raise the level of their game by competing in the Challengers. Additionally, junior players were meant to benefit from the new format, with five places in USD 15000 and USD 25000 tournaments reserved for players ranked in the top 100 of the ITF junior rankings.

Yet, not all players, especially those on the fringes and those at the start of their professional tennis career, are seeing the positives. The reduced ATP ranking points, reduced chances to earn a wildcard (from eight to four), and smaller qualifying draws (only four main draws with a total of two qualifiers) are likely to make it increasingly hard for players to make a mark in the Challengers.

"It (the new format) means I won't get entries into Challengers," Vijay Sundar Prasad, who has fallen out of the ATP rankings, told reporters at the Chennai Open, the year's first Challenger tournament to be held in India. "I only got a wild card to this because it is being held in Chennai. So outside India, it is going to be very tough. You either have to be inside the top 350 (ATP) or inside the top 80 (ITF). If you are not inside this slab, it will be very tough."

It's not just Sundar, but even those who hold a rank are worried.

"Under the new rules, it's very hard for me to play the Challenger circuit," says 22-year-old Niki Kaliyanda Poonacha, who currently has an ATP ranking of 613.

"My ranking won't even guarantee me a place in the qualifiers. Last year, I won a USD 25000 tournament and I was hoping I would at least start playing the qualifier rounds of the Challengers this season but for that I will have to improve my ITF ranking. But for that I need to play 25k events," says Poonacha, who currently holds an ITF rank of 316.

But with tougher entry standards for the USD 25000 events, Poonacha isn't even assured of a place there. While Poonacha is still early in his tennis career, the fact that he doesn't have a junior ranking will be held against him. "It's easier for a junior because you can use your junior ranking to get entry into tournaments," he says.

Ever since they were told about the rule changes last year, players have been trying to adapt. This hasn't always gone well.

"When we heard about the new rules, everyone just started playing more," says Kalyanpur. "I started doing the same. I wasn't really putting any time in recovering and eventually I started picking up injuries. I injured two ligaments in my ankle in a tournament and it's taken me a lot of time to recover from that."

Kalyanpur, though, feels he is in a better position than others owing to the fact that he just turned 19 a couple of weeks ago.

"It's a lot harder for the older players. There are players out there who don't have the ability to play beyond the Futures but they enjoy being a part of professional tennis. That opportunity isn't there anymore. I think a lot of them will have to drop out now."

Kalyanpur can understand why.

"In the past even if you weren't playing in the biggest tournaments, you always felt that you were in touch with the sport. When you don't have any points or a ranking you get demotivated," he says.

The reason is that,with no ATP points on offer, a lot of USD 15000 events are being scratched from the calendar. Canada has already cancelled all its Futures for 2019. India, too, has no USD 15000 or USD 25000 events scheduled this season. This in turn makes things harder for the likes of Poonacha, who will now have to spend more in order to travel to tournaments where he could earn points.

"I'm taking part in a INR 5 lakh prize money tournament (AITA Pro Tour circuit) in Chennai next week. I'm hoping to do well here so that I can put the money towards playing in a couple of USD 25000 tournaments in Qatar in a couple of months time," Poonacha explains.

Kalyanpur, though, is taking another approach. While he is holding on to the hope that the format change might be reconsidered - a change.org petition for the same has already received 9098 signatures - he is also trying to prepare himself to make the full use of any opportunity he gets.

"In December, I decided that since I wasn't having a rank, there's no point chasing that number," he says. "For the last two years, I was focused on getting my ranking up. Now I think it's better to focus on building for the future. Over the next nine months, I'm just focusing on building myself up. I'm trying to get stronger and not focus on results as much. I want to be playing tennis for the next 10 years so I just want to give myself a solid base."