Thousands of tennis tournaments take place across the world every year, at many different levels. Most of these will have common features like knockout draws, qualifying events, an entry fee and/or prize money. Any tournament requires a substantial amount of organization. Beforehand, players must be accepted on an agreed basis, placed in an appropriate slot in the draw, and given all of the information they need.
During the event, officials must be provided, and clear communication needs to continue. At higher levels, accommodation must be organized and prize money paid promptly. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has forced tournament organizers to instigate many additional protocols to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
In essence, tennis tournaments work by accepting as many of the highest-ranked players as possible, given the maximum draw size they accommodate. There may be a qualifying draw to allow lower-ranked players a chance to play. Events normally run on a knockout basis, culminating in a final. Prize money and ranking points, if applicable, are awarded according to the stage reached.
How Players Qualify for Tournaments
There are many different levels of event but, whatever the standard, it is usual for the highest-ranked or rated players to be admitted first. If there are more entrants than spaces, there will be a cut-off below which players are added to a reserve list. In more prestigious tournaments there will often be a qualifying draw, in which the highest-ranked players who were not automatically admitted to the main draw play off to earn a small number of spots specifically allocated to qualifiers.
The other common way of gaining admittance to a tournament is via a ‘wild card’ issued by the organizers. There will be a few wild card spaces in the main draw and the qualifying event to allow the organizers to admit any players they wish. These slots are intended to be filled by local players, or perhaps a former champion who no longer qualifies for direct acceptance. In the past, at the lower levels of professional tennis, some unscrupulous tournament organizers have accepted money to give players wild cards, but fortunately, this rarely occurs today.
At professional level, entries will be determined primarily by ATP or WTA world rankings. The ITF World Tennis Tour is the level at which players must work hard to gain a world ranking, but even these events are not always easy to get into without one. This is where wild cards can be a great help to up and coming players.
On the men’s side, ATP Challenger events are the next step up, whereas for the women there are higher tiers of ITF events. To get into these, a reasonable world ranking must have been earned through the lower level ITF tournaments.
Finally, when a player reaches somewhere close to the top 100 in the world, they will have a chance of playing regularly on the main ATP or WTA Tour, and will be able to enter the most prestigious and lucrative events.
We have written a full guide on how tennis players qualify for Grand Slam, and you can check it out here.
Do Players Pay to Enter Tournaments?
In general, the answer is yes: the vast majority of tournaments incur expenses such as court hire, ball purchase, and payments to officials, and players are expected to pay an entry fee to help cover these. At the amateur level, there will virtually always be a significant fee to be paid. As players move further up the ladder, prize money becomes more significant, and tournament expenses will be covered by sponsorship income or television fees.
This means that on the main ATP and WTA tours, and at the Challenger level, there is no entry fee. Instead, players are normally provided with free accommodation, and often food as well, and will receive prize money according to the stage they reach.
On the ITF World Tennis Tour, tournaments are less well funded, and prize money is only really significant if a player reaches the latter stages. In the majority of events, players will be responsible for their own accommodation costs, and they will normally be expected to pay an entry fee. This fee can be up to $40.
The Draw and Match Play
There are many different ways of structuring a tennis tournament: one or two prestigious ones like the ATP World Tour Finals operate on a round-robin basis. The majority of events will, however, be run on a knockout basis. The draw size will typically be 16, 32, 64, or 128, allowing for the numbers to be gradually reduced to a final two without awarding any byes.
Some spaces in the draw will be kept for players who win through the qualifying event, which will be structured in a similar way. The highest-ranked players will be seeded to keep them apart until later in the tournament. The matches themselves will generally be played over the best of three sets, although some events will replace the third set with a tie-break, and men’s Grand Slam events use a ‘best of five sets’ format.
The Prize Money and Ranking Points
On the main tours, prize money comes from television and sponsorship income, and can be very generous. On the ITF tour, tournaments rely more on funding from governing bodies, along with limited sponsorship. Prize money in these events is normally far from generous, and for the majority of players it will not cover their expenses.
In all cases, the prize money will be allocated by sharing out a predetermined prize fund, with larger amounts going to the most successful players. Most tournaments at all levels provide ranking points, although the basis of these can differ wildly. They are most critical at the professional level, where they determine admission to later events.
Running tennis tournaments is a complex business, and many rules must be followed to ensure fairness, especially where players’ livelihoods are at stake. Nonetheless, the basic structure is fairly consistent, allowing amateur players to play in events that resemble those played by their heroes.