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The Structure of Women's Professional Tennis Competition

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The entry level for women's professional tennis, the ITF Women's Circuit, is organized and run by national tennis federations under ultimate governance by the ITF. In the United States, for example, the circuit is run by the USTA, which names its three levels of USTA Pro Women's Circuit events for the total prize money offered per tournament.

$10,000 Circuit Events give players coming out of junior and college tennis their first chances to earn prize money and WTA ranking points. In $10,000 events, the main draw has 32 players, and the qualifying has 64 or 128. A player earns WTA points by winning at least one round in a main draw, but she must also play at least three $10,000 tournaments for those points to be converted to a ranking. Players at this level range from no ranking to as high as 300 in the world.

Once a player has earned a sufficient ranking through success at the $10,000 level, she can qualify for $25,000 Circuit Events, where the main draws hold 32 and the qualifying 32 or 64. Above this level are $50,000/$75,000/$100,000 Circuit Events, where players in the main draws usually range between 50 and 400 in WTA rankings.

For women who gain enough ranking points to advance above the ITF Women's Circuit, the next level of competition is in International events, run by the WTA, which offer minimum prize money of $220,000 and have main draws of 32 players. The WTA guarantees each International tournament that at least one top-20 player or four top 21-50 players will compete.

One step above International tournaments are the ten WTA Premier $700 events, which offer at least $600,000 or $700,000 in prize money and place 30-56 players in the main draws. More prestigious are the five (and sometimes six!) Premier 5 events offering at least $2,000,000 to main draws of 56 players. At the highest level of competition governed by the WTA are its four Premier Mandatory events, with main draws of 60-96, for which the prize money is at least $4.5 million, and its season finale Premier Championships for the top 8 players, with prize money of $4,450,000. The WTA requires all top-10 players to play in all four Premier Mandatory events, at least four of the Premier 5, and at least two of the Premier $700. Other players also have required commitments determined by their rankings.

The highest level of women's professional tennis competition comes at the Grand Slams: the Australian Open, Roland Garros (the French Open), Wimbledon, and the US Open, all governed by the ITF. Winning a Grand Slam is the career breakthrough every professional player works toward, and even reaching the world number one ranking is rarely considered a mark of greatness if the player hasn't won a Slam. It takes two weeks of outlasting a main draw of 127 other players to win a Grand Slam; for most, the more than $1 million share of an average $20 million prize money is only a small part of the satisfaction.

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