While the Marseille Open 13 opened its courts since Monday, the situation of ATP 250 tournaments continues to deteriorate years after years, victims of a system that would encourage players to play Masters 1000 and ATP 500. Why? How? Tentative answer, before the first last minute withdrawals.
Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic in 2014; Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Juan Martin Del Potro in the recent past. Six great names of world tennis to put in the same bag: the one of last minute withdrawals at the Marseille Open 13, an ATP 250 tournament that started on Monday. "In ATP 250 tournaments, the average is five or six withdrawals, that's the way it is,” explains Jean-François Caujolle, its director. The Marseille event is then no exception to the rule. "When it's an average player, it doesn't matter that much. When it's headliners, it's a little more annoying." But what could explain such a series of withdrawals? The answer lies in the official regulations. To ensure their presence, there is a rule that states that highest ranked players have an obligation to participate in eight of the nine Masters 1000, Monte-Carlo being a special case, as well as four ATP 500 tournaments on eleven per season. However, nothing is said about ATP 250. Worse, each player may withdraw twice a year from an ATP 250 by playing his "personal reason" card, meaning without any justification. "A player who is depressed following a separation with his fiancée, wants to take a break, he can withdraw, even if he had agreed to come for a year... Against this, there’s nothing I can do,” says Caujolle. “It’s as if you were offered a ticket for a U2 concert and the whole band was on stage except for Bono.”
Last September, Julien Boutter, the Open de Moselle director, even had a rant denouncing "the impunity of players in ATP 250". The reason? The day before the start of the 2014 edition, he received an email from Stanislas Wawrinka. Which basically said, "I'm tired, thank you to remove me from the table, I won't be coming in Metz." Julien Boutter, reacting spontaneously, then said to be "extremely disappointed and angry," talked of a question of "respect and intellectual honesty" and even said that he was "blaming" the Swiss player. Before concluding: "Go and ask Stan if a few years ago, he didn't care about ATP 250". Today, the man seems to have swallowed his anger, he who had yet placed the file in the hands of lawyers to establish potential financial losses. "We reacted in the heat of the moment, we're not going to lay it on thick,” he says. “But, it's the same old story every year. On this edition, mainly because of injuries, we lost seven seeds. We've been criticized, saying we were doing misleading advertising. The following year, we suffered the effects on ticket sales." With four employees all year round and a 3.5 million euros budget, Julien Boutter maintains that tournaments ATP 250 "are the most complicated equation of tennis." He explains: "We are owners, it generates costs that we are not certain to compensate with sponsors, since they often prefer to focus on bigger tournaments. It is a very precise economy, fortunately we have strong local ties, we are enthusiasts, tennis lovers. What we do is almost philanthropy."
Communism, Tsonga and third estate
Therefore, what solution(s) to reinforce the forty ATP 250 tournaments on the tour? Jean-François Caujolle see it coming a mile off, and is strongly against it. "No, we cannot increase the financial guarantees for the players, it's impossible. For Djokovic and Nadal, it's a million euros for their presence. We don't have this kind of money. We can't, at a given time, pay a player like Tomas Berdych 500,000 euros. It wouldn’t make any sense. We can't go into this game." Indeed, if it is forbidden for Grand Slams and Masters 1000 to distribute commitment bonuses to certain stars, nothing prevents ATP 500 and 250 to do it. Of course, if a player withdraws before the start of the competition, this allocation would be cancelled. "This may allow us to save money, certainly, but if top players are missing, the public won't be there and sponsors neither. It's a vicious circle," says Julien Boutter. For the latter, as for his Marseille counterpart, the remedy would lie more in the "liberalization of the tour", which means adjusting the number of points given by a tournament based on allocations. "As long as no more sports value will be given to the tournaments, it will not work,” says Caujolle. “Today, all the Masters 1000 offer the same amount of points to players based on their performance. But they are not all equal and not all as lucrative. Same for ATP 500, same for ATP 250. Tsonga once told me: 'I would need to be mad to come play in Marseille, where is my interest?' I understand: to win the Open 13, he would have to beat four top 10, while in Casablanca, Quito or Zagreb, zero, for the same number of points earned..."
But what do players think then? "They aren't necessarily satisfied with the current system, according to the Marseille organizer. “What they want is more freedom, more flexibility to be able to play where they want. McEnroe said it was a ‘communist system', he was right somehow." While Julien Boutter is convinced that "ATP 250 are the DNA of the ATP, because this is what allow most of the players to live," the best players in the world "have no interest to play an ATP 250 tournament, at least on a sports point of view," he says. "Ultimately, they come to prepare and take the money, that's all." Between the short and the long term, difficult to adjust to a changing universe. "The women's tour, which has lost its main sponsor, capitalized on Asia in an almost excessive manner at the expense of the historic grounds of tennis,” says Jean-François Caujolle. “And I'm not sure the bet will be a winner. The ATP has been more respectful of the tradition." Traditional to the point of placing, years after years, ATP 250 in the position of "third estate" of the traditional tour, in the words of Caujolle. Ready, however, to make a revolution?