It was the competition that provided Emma Raducanu with a platform to launch her remarkable 2021 season and now UK Pro League chiefs Dominic Hayes and Ben Nicholas are preparing to take the competition to a whole new level.
Raducanu’s victory in the 2020 edition of the UK Pro League paved the way for her breakthrough season that saw her reach the fourth round of Wimbledon and then create sporting history by winning the US Open, with those inspirational achievements giving a glimpse of what might be possible for every player competing in the UK Pro League.
Tennis365 spoke to Dominic and Ben about their vision for the competition moving forward and it is clear that this is an event that will could be hugely significant to the future of the game in Britain.
Give us an insight into how the UK Pro League was devised?
Ben: I read an article at the start of May 2020 in the Financial Times and there was a detailed piece on the plight of tennis players who sit outside of the top 200 in the world rankings and how badly paid they all are. We did a deal with a company called Stats Perform that gave us a fund to offer prize money to players and the task then was to create a tennis event that could provide players with a chance to play and earn money.
Has Britain had a problem providing tournaments for homegrown players ranked outside the top 200?
Dominic: There has been a challenge for British tennis that we think the UK Pro League can address. In football, the FA runs the England national team and the grassroots game. That piece in the middle, the professional league, is operated by the Premier League and the EFL. In rugby, the RFU runs the England team and grassroots and the piece in the middle is operated by Premiership Rugby. That structure is not in place in tennis.
The LTA run the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup teams, and promote the grassroots game. Major tournaments pop up in the UK for a few weeks in the summer, but for players ranked between 750 and 100 in the world, there hasn’t been a set-up for them to build a career and try and breakthrough to the top of the game.
Once we understood that this was an area where we could have a positive impact, we needed to come up with a plan and to work with the LTA to ensure our events addressed that – to give players regular playing opportunities, a coherent tournament schedule and a chance to earn decent prize money. After the success of 2020 and 2021, we have worked closely with the LTA to ensure that we enhance the season structure of new ITF tournaments that have been put in place for 2022.
With the additional tournaments announced by the LTA for 2022, where does the UK Pro League fit into the schedule?
Ben: The first thing did when we started the UK Pro League in 2020 was to get on the phone to the key people at the LTA and make sure we were within our rights to do this. We didn’t need permission, but we wanted their approval. For 2021 we moved our dates around a little at their request and we have been integrated with them since then.
Now we have a whole list of dates coming together for 2022 that we are working with the LTA on to be part of an enhanced range of tournaments that give our British players a chance to play regular competitive matches and earn prize money
Is there a chance to create new homegrown heroes in the UK Pro League?
Dominic: Absolutely. We have a strange perception in British tennis that any player who doesn’t win a Grand Slam title has somehow failed. We saw it with Tim Henman for many years. He was top four in the world time and again, won numerous ATP titles, won the Paris Masters, reached six Grand Slam semi-finals – by any measurement he had an incredible career, but because he didn’t win Wimbledon many of the sporting public don’t understand quite how good he was, which is ridiculous. What the Pro League is looking to do is highlight the quality of British players in a season-long domestic context rather than having them judged on a handful of the big events that are on free-to-air TV in the UK. What we want to do is provide a platform that creates some new stars.
If a player comes from your local town and they are winning tournaments on the TV with crowds in attendance, people will get behind that story and that’s where we believe the Pro League can thrive.
What is the long-term vision for the UK Pro League?
We aim to be here for the long-term and will continue to work with the LTA to make sure British players have a chance to play tournaments and earn money as they look to build their careers. This kind of tour was set up in Italy about ten years ago and we have seen a boom in Italian tennis and the players they have coming through the ranks on the back of that, with loads of players in the top 100 and 200. Our dream is that in five years’ time we have multiple tournaments around the UK, where fans can support players that have become household names and are climbing the world rankings. That’s the vision and there is no reason why it can’t become a reality.