Life in the tennis minor leagues: My return to ITF Futures after 12 years
Twelve years removed from my last low-level pro tennis match in tournaments known as the ITF’s “Futures,” I made a comeback on Saturday.
It did not start well.
“Those shorts you are wearing are illegal,” the on-court umpire told me as I tied my shoes. “You are not allowed to wear them because the manufacturer logo is too big. You have to change shorts before you play.”
I changed into a spare pair of logo-free shorts and proceeded to lose the coin flip seconds later.
Tallahassee is hosting the only ITF-approved pro tennis event in the U.S. this week. It is the last such tournament of 2015 on American soil. Futures are roughly equal to Class A minor league baseball and have a similar barnstorming feel. With a total prize money purse of $15,000, players from no fewer than 18 different countries have descended on Florida’s largest indoor facility to pursue cash and precious ranking points. Prior to the 32-player main draw portion of the tournament—where the prize money and points are available—is a qualifying tournament of 64 wannabe players competing for eight slots in the main draw.
That is where I found myself Saturday afternoon.
“Daddy, if you win this match and the whole tournament, will you get to play Roger Federer?” asked my six-year old son the day before.
“No,” I answered.
But that doesn’t stop one from dreaming.
Professional tennis is decidedly merit-based. Entry-level Futures qualifying events are open to everyone. It is where Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray started their careers. Entry priority is given to those with world and national rankings, but unranked players like me can play if open spaces remain in the qualifying draw.
I decided to play the inaugural Tallahassee Futures a month earlier. As a professor at Florida State University, the opportunity to play a local event with a built-in fan club—my wife and son—was too good to pass up. The first step was to pay $60 and obtain a personal identification number from the ITF. Known as the “IPIN,” the number tracks tournament entries and results online. The second step was to show up at the tournament site during a three hour window on Friday, sign in and say a silent prayer that fewer than 64 others also wanted to play the “qualies,” as the play-in portion is often referred.
“Write your IPIN, full name, birthdate, and sign here,” ITF tournament supervisor Jorge Nieto told me on Friday, pointing to the sheet on the clipboard.
He squinted when I wrote 1974 as my birth year and glanced up at me.
“Okay, you can pay your $40 entry fee now,” said Nieto.
Even the way players enter tournaments reveals how different pro tennis is now compared to a dozen years earlier when I played a handful of these events. Integrity issues pervade pro tennis in 2015. To secure the IPIN, I had to watch a video featuring the mea cupla of a banned match-fixer named David Savic. The short film included stern warnings from Federer and Murray. To complete the registration process, I electronically signed a statement confirming that I would comply with all the anti-corruption measures of the recently formed Tennis Integrity Unit.
The gambling issue was addressed on-site in Tallahassee too.
“During match play, no spectator or other third party may collect, disseminate, transmit, publish or release from the grounds of the Tournament any match scores or related statistical data,” read a prominent sign posted in the lobby where players congregated. “Continual use of laptops or handheld electronic devices (e.g. tablets, mobile phones) in spectator areas is also PROHIBITED. Any person who is found to have violated these conditions will be removed from the Tournament site.”
The ITF is trying to cut down on live Internet wagering where on-site spectators exploit time gaps in the transmission of data. A number of low-ranked players have been banned or suspending for match fixing in recent years. Another sign posted at the facility warned of a Facebook scam where imposters try to lure unsuspecting players into compromising positions.
I could have never fathomed such things earlier.
Neither could have Rico Gore, the only player in the qualifying draw older than me.
“I’ve never seen the gambling stuff first-hand, but know it must occur given all the warning we get,” Gore told me Saturday a half-hour after losing 6–0, 6–1 to a 21-year-old in the first round of qualies. “I once played a match in Turkey that was televised locally and had armed guards near the courts.”
At 46, Rico Gore probably has yellow ball fuzz in his blood. He is an outlier three standard deviations away from the average Futures player who is early-to-mid-twenties and testing the professional waters after solid junior or college tennis careers. A self-taught player who picked up the sport at age 24, Gore has been playing on tour since 1995.
“I strategically set my schedule every year,” he said. “In the past few years, I’ve played dozens of events in the U.S. and also travelled to Qatar, Ireland, Spain, Thailand, Morocco, Nigeria, and Hong Kong. My credit cards are sometimes maxed out, but I have been within one match of earning a world ranking.”
Earning a world ranking is a badge-of-honor-type quest for aspiring pros at the bottom rung of ITF-sanctioned tournaments. Pursuing ranking points is more important than prize money for almost all Futures-level players. The points represent a 52-week meal ticket for entry in more prestigious and lucrative tournaments above the Futures. Players who lose in the qualifying draw get nothing. Players who lose in the first round of the main draw get $156, but no ranking points. The winner of the Tallahassee tournament gets $2,160 and 27 ranking points.
Unlike Rico Gore, I have never been close to securing a world ranking.
Shortly after graduating from college, I won my first (and only) pro-level match in 1998 against a New Zealander at an event in Claremont, California. In my final tournament, a clay-court Futures in Pittsburgh in 2003, I lost 6–1, 6–1 in the first round of qualifying. It was then that I put my competitive rackets away, knowing my pursuit of a world ranking as a mediocre former Division I player was beyond unrealistic.
I played the Futures tournament this week for a different reason. I wanted my son—who has developed a gravitational pull towards the sport similar to my own—to be able to watch me play a real match before an always-stiff back and noisy shoulder put me on the injured list permanently.
Only 55 players showed up for the 64 qualifying slots, so I was in.
“I will be around if you get hurt out there and need anything,” said Julia Giampaolo, a former student in one of my graduate sports law courses and the on-site athletic trainer for the tournament, minutes before my match started.
Up 2–1 and a break of serve in the first set against Canadian Alex Krovocheiko on Saturday, I had the fleeting thought: Can I actually win this match?
I proceeded to lose five straight games and the first set 6–2. I lost the second set 6-1. I congratulated my opponent during the post-match handshake and wished him good luck.
“Thanks,” he said. “This is my first Futures tournament.”
And his first professional match win.
“I saw some chip and charge on your return of serves out there,” said tournament director Michael Edge as I walked off the court. “That is old-school.”
“I was just trying to keep the points short and save my legs,” I replied.
After a mere 75 minutes on-court, I was spent. Modern pro tennis makes old footage of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in the 1980’s look like they were playing in slow motion. High-tech strings have resulted in heavy, spin-laden shots that ricochet off the court.
My son offered his post-match analysis too.
“I got bored watching you play, so I practiced my forehand and backhand swings outside,” he told me as I was icing my surgically-repaired right knee. “I am going to win this tournament next year.”
The minimum age to play a Futures tournament is 14, so he has eight years to practice. I hope Rico Gore can give him a pre-tournament motivational speech in the year 2023.