Is Grand Slam Qualifying Worth Tanking For?

Earlier today in Hobart, Naomi Osaka lost her second-round match to Mona Barthel. Coming into the match, she was in a tricky position: If she won, she wouldn’t be able to play Australian Open qualifying. For a young player outside the top 100, a tour-level quarterfinal would be nice, but presumably Melbourne was intended to be the centerpiece of her trip to Australia.

Since she lost the match, she’ll be able to play qualifying. But what if she hadn’t? Is this a situation in which a player would benefit from losing a match?

Put another way: In a position like Osaka’s, what are the incentives? If she could choose between the International-level quarterfinal and the Slam qualifying berth, which should she pick? Or, put more crassly, should a player in this position tank?

Let’s review the scenarios. In scenario A, Osaka wins the Hobart second-rounder, reaches the quarterfinal, and has a chance to go even further. She can’t play the Australian Open in any form. In scenario B, she loses the second-rounder, enters Melbourne qualifying and has a chance to reach the main draw.

Before we go through the numbers, take a guess: Which scenario is likely to give Osaka more ranking points? What about prize money?

Scenario A is more straightforward. By reaching the quarterfinals, she earns 30 additional ranking points and US$2,590 beyond what a second-round loser makes. Beyond that, we need to calculate “expected” points and prize money, using the amounts on offer for each round and combining them with her odds of getting there.

Let’s estimate that Osaka would have about a 25% chance of winning her quarterfinal match and earning an additional 50 points and $5400. In expected terms, that’s 12.5 points and $1,350. If she progresses, we’ll give her a 25% chance of reaching the final, then in the final, a 15% chance of winning the title.

Adding up these various possibilities, from her guaranteed QF points to her 0.94% chance (25%*25%*15*) of winning the Hobart title, we see that her expected rewards in scenario A are roughly 48 ranking points and just under $4,800.

Scenario B starts in a very different place. Thanks to the recent increases in Grand Slam prize money, every player in the qualifying takes home at least US$3,150. That’s already close to Osaka’s expected financial reward from advancing in Hobart. The points are a different story, though: First-round qualifying losers only get 2 WTA ranking points.

I’ll spare you all the calculations for scenario B, but I’ve assumed that Osaka would have a 70% chance of winning qualifying round 1, a 60% chance of winning QR2, and a 50% chance of winning QR3 and qualifying. Those might be a little bit high, but if they are, consider it compensation for the possibility that she’ll reach the main draw as a lucky loser. (Also, if we knock her chances all the way down to 50%, 45%, and 40%, the conclusions are the same, even if the points and prize money in scenario B are quite a bit lower.)

Those estimated probabilities translate into an expectation of about 23 ranking points and US$11,100. Osaka isn’t guaranteed any money beyond the initial $3,150, but the rewards for qualifying are enormous, especially compared to the prize money in Hobart. A first-round main draw loser in Melbourne takes home more money than the losing finalist does in Hobart.

And, of course, if she does qualify, there’s a chance she’ll go further. Since 2000, female Slam qualifiers have reached the second round 41% of the time, the third round 9% of the time, the fourth round 1.8% of the time, and the quarterfinals 0.3% of the time. Those odds, combined with her 21% chance of reaching the main draw in the first place,  translate into an additional 7 expected ranking points and $2,600 in prize money.

All told, scenario B gives us 30 expected ranking points and US$13,600 in expected prize money.

The Slam option results in far more cash, while the International route is worth more ranking points. In the long term, those ranking points would have some financial value, possible earning Osaka entry into a few higher-level events than she would otherwise qualify for. But that value probably doesn’t overcome the nearly $9,000 gap in immediate prize money.

I hope that no player ever tanks a match at a tour-level event so they can make it in time for Slam qualifying. But if one does, we’ll at least understand the logic behind it.

A Quarter of Missing Challengers

The ATP Challenger calendar (PDF) has been released for the first quarter of 2013, and it looks mighty thin.

In the next three months, we can expect 21 challenger events, compared to 30 in Q1 2012 and 33 in Q1 2011.  (Thanks to Foot Soldiers of Tennis for raising the issue.)  For those challenger fans among us, that’s clearly bad news.  Less competitive tennis always is.  It could also hurt many up-and-coming players, which means it should concern all fans of men’s tennis.

For the last twenty years, challenger tennis has generally been on the rise, with 147 tournaments at that level last year compared to only 88 in 1992.  The number peaked in 2007 and 2008 with 173 and 175 challenger events, respectively.

Challenger tournaments per year, 1991-2013

However, while the challenger circuit has grown in size and importance, the ATP tour has shrunk.  Most of that movement occurred more than a decade ago.  The tour has remained steady with between 65 and 67 events each year since 2002.  As recently as 1994, though, there were 90 ATP events, which offered 36% more main draw places than did 2012’s 65 tournaments.

In other words, the growth of the challenger tour hasn’t substantially expanded opportunities for players outside the sport’s elite, it has simply filled the gap left by all those missing ATP events.  The number of challengers increased by 35% from 1992 to 2002, but the number of main draw places in ATP and challenger tourneys combined rose by only 6%.  Account for the reduction of tour-level qualifying events, and you probably have a net loss in point- and money-earning opportunities for tour pros.

The following five years brought the explosion of challengers noted above, but the pullback to 2012’s level of 65 ATP and 147 challenger events has reduced the field to only 7432 total main draw places, a 9.5% increase over ten years earlier.

A 10% jump over the course of a decade may be enough to keep pace with the global spread of tennis, but it won’t be if the current downward trend persists.

That’s the reason for concern.  21 first-quarter challengers represents a 30% decrease from 2012.  Drop 30% of the challenger events from the entire 2012 calendar, and you have only 103 events, the lowest number since 1996, where there were 97 challengers but a whopping 84 tour-level tournaments.

The ripple effect

So, when the size of the top-tier tennis world shrinks, who suffers?

Small as these paydays are, when the number of challenger-tour paydays drops, some fringe-level players earn fewer of them.  The relevant “fringe” here is the ranking range between 200 and 300, the guys who often make the main draw cut of a challenger when there were two or three in one week, but are relegated to a futures or (unpaid) qualifying draw when there is only one.

Less obvious is that even the top-ranked challenger-level contenders suffer.  Fewer tournaments generally means more travel–that is, greater travel expenses.  For Roger Federer, that’s just a different balance on his NetJets account.  For Diego Schwartzman, it means more weeks where he loses money playing competitive tennis, and fewer upper-level events that are feasible opportunities for him.

Needless to say, there are far more Schwartzmans than there are Federers.

And that brings us to the groups that really get hurt when the tennis calendar shrinks: Those who pay many of their own costs and those who don’t live in hotbeds of tennis.

Players who are heavily supported by the USTA might object to additional flight time, but they don’t feel the pain of travel expenses.  Someone who can easily reach the plethora of challenger events in Western Europe will find it easy to reach plenty of playing opportunities.  An up-and-comer in the the US and Australia will get just as many wild cards as he would have five or ten years ago.

But competitors from much of South America, the Balkans, and the former USSR often do not have any of those things going for them.  With every loss of a net-profitable playing opportunity, those guys are a little less likely to stick with professional tennis.  If Gregoire Burquier decided to pack it in, most tennis fans wouldn’t notice.  But what about the next Radek Stepanek, who ten years ago was within a whisker of running out of money and hanging up the racquet?

Let’s hope the decrease in challengers early in 2013 is a blip, not a trend.  It isn’t something anyone will talk about in the next big debate about prize money, but the quality of tennis and all professional levels depends on it.