As first appeared in Boxscore
By Aron Solomon
The tennis world was confused and agitated over the past few days about the Tokyo WTA’s event this week, giving players something that hasn’t been seen before: something called a “performance bye.”If you’re wondering what a performance bye is, join the crowd.
The Tokyo event, which is a WTA 500 event, decided to offer a first round bye to Caroline Garcia and Maria Sakkari, who both went deep into last week’s WTA 1000 draw in Guadalajara.
Sakkari, of course, ended up winning her first WTA 1000 tournament on Saturday night in Guadalajara, before needing to fly in unenviable route from Mexico to Japan to play her next tournaments
Of course, giving players a performance bye means that other players will have to play an earlier round match. One of the affected players here is Elena Rybakina, who is ranked and seated above Sakkari in the tournament, but would have to play her match a day earlier than Sakkari.
Rybakina wasted no time on Instagram in summing up her feelings about this new concept of a performance bye:
It’s hard not to empathize with Rybakina here, especially given that on Monday morning, she chose to withdraw from the tournament.
Nevertheless, there is a much larger issue at play aside from simply who will play one extra match in Tokyo. Clearly, there is some logic and fairness to the idea that a top player making a deep run in a tournament the week before should get an extra day’s grace in her playing schedule. But, again, this is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger and insidious problem.
The root of the problem is the fact that the schedule for a professional tennis player is absolutely absurd. Even the strongest players’ union in the world will find a challenging to address the endemic problems in professional tennis, particularly on the women’s tour.
Why the women’s end of things is worse is something that I have covered here, and in many places before, which, as Rybakina pointed out this weekend, is the WTA’s own ineptitude. But that is a topic for another time, as I am sure I will cover it again and again.
The issue here is the fact that women’s professional tennis runs close to 11 months a year. The calendar is exhausting, made worse by the WTA’s failures in scheduling.
For example, for those players who played the 1000 event in Guadalajara, they now have to get to Asia in mere hours to begin the Asian swing in either Japan or China. Those top players who will end up qualifying for the WTA Finals in singles or doubles have to do the Asian swing and then pretty quickly return to Cancun, Mexico, to play the finals.
All of this with really no break time in the middle.
So, it’s understandable that tournament organizers might want to cut somebody like Maria Sakkari a one-day break by offering a performance bye. Yeah, that performance bye is like putting a kid’s Band-Aid on an international pandemic.
The only thing that’s going to work in addressing the underlying issue is finally trying to address a wholesale revamping of tennis’ professional schedule, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon
Tennis is a sport that people love to watch and, sadly, people love to gamble on. That makes it a very hot property. The fact – again going back to this – that the WTA continues to mismanage their business. They have such a great asset in the women’s game and it’s a real shame they can’t make the sport at the highest level more financially viable. But the practical end result of that is the WTA overworking their players, which is a very bad thing, and, as I have noted many times before, leads to injuries and shortened careers.
Most professional sports have seasons that last between five and seven months, which makes 11 months, in comparison, absolutely absurd. And it really is close to 11 months given the fact that the top players end the tour finals in November and January is when the Australian open swing begins.
Of course, there are other tournaments in Australia before the Australian Open in January, and the 11 month figure for the top players is just their actual competition schedule. If you follow players’ Instagrams, the top women in tennis get maybe a couple of weeks off before they have to get back to it with preseason training for Australia.
The way to fix this is fewer tournaments at the highest levels with more prize, money and, of course, to have these tournaments, spaced out a little bit more so we don’t have to introduce an issue like a made-up performance byes to allow somebody to time to get from Guadalajara to Tokyo, which is absolutely bizarre.
This won’t happen, because it requires the level of business planning, entrepreneurship, and acumen the WTA has never shown.
At the lower levels of tennis, where players even ranked in the 100s are struggling to make a living, there should be tournaments every single week. Those players can pick and choose the tournaments that are best for them to play – hopefully the easiest and most cost-effective for them to get to – and by playing a good number of tournaments throughout the year, they can cull together enough income to live comfortably on the tennis tour. That is also an illusion these days, where everybody outside of the top 100 struggles to even break even. This past week’s big tennis story on ATP player, Sumit Naga, and his struggle to break even ranked in the top 200, highlights this perfectly – and the ATP men’s tour has a ton more money on offer than the WTA women’s tour.
The thing with tennis is that when you contrast it with other professional sports you see how unsustainable the tennis business model is. If you look at a sport like the NFL with their massive revenue numbers, huge TV contracts, and reasonable season schedule that runs from September until February (at most, for the players, whose teams advance deep into the playoffs) it’s a great example of a professional sports league run competently.
But, even in 2023, tennis is a sort of sports traveling circus, with the top women on the WTA tour being the people who you get to look at for a couple of days a year in your city before they have to jump on a plane and fly to the next tournament location, which the WTA seems to revel in making as impractical and difficult as possible to get to.
So, for now, the WTA’s will continue to try to find very small Band-Aids, such as one day performance byes, rather than address the much larger issue in women’s tennis of a professional league that is extremely poorly run. We really shouldn’t fault players like Rybakina when she says the things that need to be said.
There is such a disparity in the power structure of women’s tennis that only a top 10 player can say the things that Rybakina said and essentially not get in trouble for it. You never see or hear players ranked in the lower levels of the game speaking about the realities of what it’s like to be on tour and to try to make a living in tennis – and the absurdity that comes along with the tour’s travel schedules.
But the time for change has to be now, and that change has to happen within the WTA’s organization itself in the form of a cleaning of house of the leadership team and a creative reimagining of what a year’s schedule can look like that keeps players safe and healthy on an ongoing basis.
Many of these problems often come back to the foundation of tennis not having a real players’ union. If we think about all major sports, there is a players’ union – usually an immensely strong one – there to protect the rights of players. As attorney John Lawlor observes, “Not having a formal players’ union is much more than window dressing. If tennis had a players’ union, things would have to be done differently every week. The players would advocate for their collective rights, which is exactly what players unions successfully do.”
For now, what we are left with is a WTA Tour that is infinitely more reactive than proactive – a professional sports organization struggling to keep its head above water while missed opportunity after missed opportunity continues to pile up.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.