Futures tournaments are clearly the minor leagues of men’s professional tennis. There are no ball boys to pick and fetch errant balls, only a chair umpire and one linesman to call shots, minimal prize money that is barely enough to cover the expenses of even the tournament winner — the winner gets US$1,950, a first-round loser US$176.25 — and no towels provided by tournament organizers.
That’s right. At two Futures events in Taipei this week and last, with temperatures at times reaching into the mid-30?C and maybe 10?C hotter on court, players have had to prepare their own towels. However, that’s normal, according to Taiwan’s Lee Hsin-han, who regularly plays Futures events around Asia and is currently ranked 594th in the world in singles and 217th in doubles, and he says the tournaments in Taipei even have one redeeming perk.
“This week we have ice boxes. Some tournaments don’t even provide them,” he said.
Yet Futures events, the third tier of men’s professional tennis tournaments — below top-tier Grand Slams and ATP events and second-tier Challengers — also play an indispensable role as the lifelines of players’ dreams: They are the ladders needed to reach the top echelons of the game.
Holding them in one’s own country is especially important, which is why the two Futures tournaments in Tianmu, Taipei, have been so widely welcomed — even if they are a long way from the ATP events regularly held elsewhere in Asia.
No professional men’s event of any kind has been held in Taiwan since November 2007, and no Futures event has been held in the country in eight years, putting local players at a clear disadvantage.
“It’s great not to have to worry about anything and not have to spend money to play in a tournament. When you go to another country, you need time to get acclimated and there are all sorts of things that you have to deal with that are on your mind,” Lee says.
Last year, 12 Futures events were held in Australia, five in Thailand, eight in China, 10 in Japan, four in South Korea, and even one each in Laos and Guam, giving those players much cheaper access to ranking points, which they hope will one day translate to access to better, more lucrative, tournaments.
Without events at home, Taiwan’s men’s tennis players have to travel the world — or at least Asia — at a cost of at least US$850 a week plus airfare — in search of ranking points, at considerable risk. Young players can spend a small fortune without any guarantee of even making a main Futures draw, necessary to accumulate ranking points.
Consider the case of Hsu Hong-yuan. Hsu competed in 17 Futures events overseas — in Japan, Indonesia, China, the US and South Korea — before actually picking up a first-round win in a main draw and one ranking point in September last year. Despite spending thousands of US dollars and winning a number of matches in qualifying rounds, he was not able to put together the three qualifying wins needed to get into main draws, and qualifying round wins do not earn rankings points.
Last week in Taiwan, however, he was given a wild card into the main draw by the tournament’s organizer, the Chinese Taipei Tennis Association — one of the real perks of being at home — and won his first round match, earning a second point.
“Every time I go abroad it costs a lot of money and then there’s nothing to show for it. Playing at home is a great opportunity,” Hsu said.
Maybe Hsu is not quite good enough to crack the pro game, but 27-year-old veteran Chen Ti, the second seed in the two tournaments and a semi-finalist in last week’s event, said that without the opportunity, it would be hard to find out.
“In most Futures or Challengers around Asia, you may have three Taiwanese players in a draw. In the first Futures here we had 19 in the main draw. That means that maybe eight of them [actually 10 out of the last 16] will make the second round and get a point,” Chen said.
In Asian Futures events, two points may be enough to get into a main draw without qualifying, a big edge for players hoping to make their travels pay. However, Chen also sees another benefit to hosting a tournament.
“For many of the younger players, the top pro level is really distant, almost intimidating. But by getting the chance here to see or play much higher ranked opponents, they’ll realize how close they are and that they can hit with better players. It’s a real confidence booster,” he said.
Of course, the tournaments again exposed the lack of a top-notch tennis facility in Taipei, which will be needed if better events are to be held in Taiwan’s capital. The Tianmu hardcourts are notoriously convex and can generate crazy bounces, to the point where the winner of last week’s event Yang Tsung-hua could not help cursing them during a match.
However, Yang was not complaining this week about having a home-court advantage, which pulled him out of a jam. He failed to register for this week’s tournament after having trouble completing his registration online. In another country, he may have been forced to qualify, giving him no time to rest after his victory on Sunday. In Taiwan, though, he got a wild card from the local tennis association and the problem was solved. He will again be the top seed in this week’s event.
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