March 4, 2020

Challenges at the Challengers

I don't often cover the Challenger Series events, but for a couple reasons, this year's action in Indian Wells before the main tournament kicks off next week is worth an extra look.

First let's start with the action on court, because we've already seen some stellar results.

On the men's side there's a lot at stake for fourteenth seed Marcos Giron, who currently sits atop the series' leaderboard -- the Americans who earn the most points during the four tournament stretch, which included events in New Haven, Houston and Newport Beach over the last few months, get an entry to the main draw next week. The twenty-six year old is currently ranked just outside the top hundred, so may need the extra boost to make the cut. He's currently on court with Britain's Ryan Peniston, in danger of being pushed to a third set, but could seal the deal soon. And then, of course, is Frances Tiafoe, who's my long (and getting longer) shot to make a big breakthrough this year. He, thankfully, won his first match against Michael Mmoh in a convincing two sets.

But perhaps the big story this week is Jack Sock, the one-time top ten player who now sits all the way down at #768 in the world. Before this week, he'd only won a single singles match in some eighteen months, crying in relief when he beat Radu Albot in Delray. But he may have found that spark again in Indian Wells. Against top seeded Ugo Humbert, who kicked off this year with his first career title in Auckland and then made the semis in Delray, Sock was able to score a straight set win in the second round and will now face Evgeny Donskoy for a spot in the quarter. A win there could set him on pace for even more success down the road.

The ladies' draw also has some interesting bright spots. While the series' leaders didn't fare quite so well -- both Madison Brengle and CoCo Vandeweghe both lost their opening rounds -- some others are nonetheless making nice comeback runs. First there's Yanina Wickmayer, who was once ranked #12 in the world but whose career was interrupted by everything from back injury to Lyme's disease. Now outside the top 150, she surged past wildcard Claire Liu and then battled Brengle in a two and a half hour match, where she avenged a loss from last month at an ITF event in Kentucky. A couple more wins like that could mean a lot for her as she looks to mount a comeback.

But my favorite story on the women's side is none other than Vera Zvonareva, a two-time Grand Slam finalist and former world #2, she too has been plagued by injury and actually used her time off tour to get a college degree. Now ranked at #319, she's had a couple wins in 2020, but it'd been a while since any real big heads. She may have turned the tide this week though, opening with a victory over Acapulco standout Xiyu Wang in her opener and then ending a streak of eight straight losses, which extended back to 2004, to Sam Stosur in her second round. Up next for the veteran Russian is top seed Katarina Siniakova, so the task only gets harder from here. But, if you know me at all, you know how much I love rooting for this feisty underdog.

Match results aside, though, there's another issue that seems to have come back into the forefront this week, and that's the one of player pay. It's long been a hot button topic in the sport, where the handful of lucky athletes who can win Grand Slams and other big events can earn millions of dollars, while the vast (vast) majority of players are making comparatively nothing -- paying to fly not only themselves around the world and board up at hotels, but for a team of coaches and physios too, all to make just a couple thousand dollars if they lose in an early round. And they're not making the same kind of dough the Serenas and Rafas of the world are in endorsements.

Darren Cahill most recently pointed out the huge discrepancy in prize money between someone who won just two matches in Dubai and someone who won just one match more. And as pointed out by Nicole Gibbs -- who earned a paltry $1,130 in her first round loss this week -- that hits players ranked as high as #31 in the world.

Borrowing a point made by the late David Foster Wallace in one of his many glorious essays on tennis, can you imaging being better than all but thirty people in the world at your chosen profession and not being able to make a living?

Yes, I realize that, in a world where income inequality is such a far-reaching problem, pointing out its impact on people who play a "game" may miss the forest for the trees, but you have to remember that this is people's livelihoods and one they won't be able to sustain as long as us normal people can stick with our own careers.

That's one of the big benefits of these Challenger Series events: giving players at lower ranks -- and again, by lower, we're often talking about low double-digit rankings -- an opportunity to play more matches, grab more ranking points, and eventually gain entry to the bigger tournaments, as Giron hopes to do. Still it would be great if some of those sky-high prices we pay for tickets to the U.S. Open and other events -- I don't even want to mention what grounds passes for middle Saturday cost me last year! -- went to increase payouts at these events.

The idea of upping purses for all players is one shared by those ranked high and low, and if we really want to keep the best talent coming to the sport, we're going to have to get something done about this soon.

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