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The Pro Ranking Society: dissimilar to our own Society?

Results of Delray, Acapulco finals

March 05, 2012 | 12:15 PM

The Elite Few: Superstars (the .01 percent)

In tennis, the top few players are very different from the rest. In 99 cases out of 100, the top three are marked in their teens by their destiny, and are seen very early as on their way to becoming a tennis superstar: someone who win at least one of the four Majors (and be considered a large disappointment if he does not win many). Think Rafael Nadal, who by the time he was 12 years old was known far afield of his native Spain, or Andre Agassi, showing up at Bolletieri's at age 12 and never needing to pay a nickel to Nick. Think of them as a Blll Gates or Mark Zukerberg, both Harvard drop-outs whose fortunes were obvious to them before they finished playing the game of college life. In tennis, these players become legendary if their destiny is not thwarted by injury, indulgence or the inability to close out a match in major final.

The 1%: Stars

The whole top 10 have to possess a complete game with a reliable weapon or two (movement at this level is a weapon, and is as reliable as one's ability to maintain it). When they reach and remain at this level - as less than 3% do unless before age 20 they have broken into the top 100 - they will forever be viewed differently, as legitimate stars - by fans and aficionados.

The next 4%: Elite Professionals

The tennis world is passingly familiar with life for others in The Top 50, as some make an occasional headline in a Major event. The better ones make a pretty good living on the tour for about a decade. Hard core fans may have a favorite in this group when he is on his way up the ranks toward an appearance - hopefully - in the elite top 8 or 10. Think of a dashing character like Dolgopolov, who is getting close to a Top 10 appearance. He can be likened to an actor who's landed the supporting roles in big films but hasn't yet gotten the lead in a major studio production or a hit series. Perhaps he has had a lead in an Indie with a cult following. These players have coaches, and are generally reliable performers though their rankings may sometimes drop down as far as 100 while others rise up into the elite pro ranks and earn the title.

Top 100 players who have not long dwelled in the top 10 will need to continue working when they retire from the tour. A small number become employable in the larger world of tennis as elite coaches. Most of them lack the education needed to leave the tennis world behind for a career in finance or another profession, as players used to be able to do. The majority will return to their lands or to a tennis rich place where they will find tennis teaching or coaching work and, if they made the top 10, be treated like local celebs (except in the US where you're either a superstar, on your way to being a superstar, or you're not, and might as well be another wealthy man who ran for president and lost... disappointing the hopes of others comes with a stiff price).

As far as their tennis is concerned, few between 10 and 100 possess a complete game along with a reliable weapon, and those few that do are usually self-apointed head cases for not residing in the The Top 10 (think Richard Gasquet, a celebrated teenage phenom who bested Andy Murray as a junior). The rest possess a reliable weapon or two, and must become wiley competitors in order to maintain their edge over others coming up. If they last many years above 100, they have earned the right to be deemed an elite professional class. Beneath the top 100, players must be supported by whatever financial backing they can muster from family, national programs and loans.

The next 20%: The Working Middle Class

Beneath these wanna-be elite pros are about 200 journeymen and women, who try to eke out a living mainly in the invisible world of tennis' minor league events (Challengers, Futures, etc.). Jeff Sackmann has identified this as an interesting group for quantitative study with his new metrics. In the Moneyball era, Jeff's company analyzes and sells college baseball stats to Major League Clubs. His study is handicapped by the lack of available data in the non-tour level events (data is just becoming available in ATP events, where analysis is in it's infancy). After giving up the quest, almost all of these players now become everyday coaches and teaching pros, with a few of the better educated ones leaving tennis for other worlds. Each has a story of near upsets, occasional good wins, and the experience of a lifetime as a qualifier or doubles entrant in one or more of the four Major tennis events (because of the size of the main draws and qualifiers in these events, they are more accessible than smaller ATP tour events at the 1000 and 500 level).

As far as their tennis is concerned, their weapons, if they have any, are less reliable. Otherwise, they win with their wits or due to the periodic dimness or unreliability of others.

The other 75%: Blue Collar Players and the Poor

The blue collar ranks between the top 250 and 500 - beneath which official rankings are based on completely meaningless mechanisms - constantly labor to get a break and move up to the next level. Their financial support may be sporadic, forcing them to work and preventing them from competing full time. When they find the resources, they have to travel far and wide to get into qualifiers and pre-qualifiers, leading life styles comparable to that of the old traveling salesman - the one who stayed in the cheapest lodgings and ate in diners and seedy bars in the pre-McDonalds era. The image I had yesterday when I watched the pre-qualifying at Indian Wells was of habitual gamblers who can't stay away from casinos when they get some cash. They play $5 tables for a chance to win enough to play the $25 dollar tables - where he will lose all his winnings.

Below about 500, there a lot of college and amateur players along with some very promising juniors. These guys are not reporting any income from competition, if they ever will. Most are testing the competitive waters; some like it enough to stay in for a few years if they come from a wealthy family. Otherwise, they would be jobless and poor.

I hope no one is offended by my suggestion that the social strata in pro tennis resemble the strata in our current society. I have borrowed the terminology of elites at the very top of society from a new book by Charles Murray (The Bell Curve), called COMING APART. I recommend it as a comparison of American society in 1960 versus 2010. Murray is a conservative, but his politics do not enter into this work, in which he neither ascribes causes for the changes or solutions for problems readers may perceive with the present status quo (or status NO). In an election year, I find it refreshing to read something factual, based on census and other reliable data, reported dispassionately by someone who can plausibly claim not to have a political agenda.

Tomorrow I'll take in some of the first day of the women's qualifier, featuring some familiar name among the 48 playing:

- Madison Keys

- Jessica Pegula (her pre-qualie final opponent and travel companion from the east, who also received a WC into the qualifier, even though she lost the chance to win one when Madison beat her yesterday...)

- Agnes Wozniak

- Heather Watson

- Laura Robson

- C. Dellacqua

- E. Daniilidou

- Vickie Lepchenko

- Katerina Bondarenko

- Olga Govortsova

- Alice Cornet

- Andrea Rezai

- Victoria Dushevina

- S. Zhang

In DELRAY today, S. African Kevin Anderson won his second title defeating Marinko Matesovic 6-4, 7-6 (2). I was mistaken yesterday in reporting that Dudi Sela had beaten Marinko; he lost 7-6 in the 3rd (7).

In ACAPULCO, David Ferrer destroyed Fernando Velasco 6-1, 6-2, adding another hard court victory over his countryman.


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